Some story lines just never get old -- star-crossed lovers, mistaken identity, lizard men from outer space.
It’s impossible to tiptoe around the main plot device of ABC’s “V” -- those aliens may be smart and purty but they’re up to no good -- because it is, of course, a remake of the 1983 miniseries. And even if it weren’t, writers Kenneth Johnson and Scott Peters have infused the pilot with as many sly sci-fi references as CG special effects.
Which are pretty terrific, as is the pilot in general. Although fans of the first “V” may find themselves longing for Richard Herd’s Supreme Commander in his jaunty jumpsuit and funky glasses, this “V” is not only sleeker, faster and more visually gripping, it promises to be thematically more compelling.
Its opening sequence is a masterpiece of back-story compression. What appears to be a temblor startles a series of characters (and an almost flawless cast gathered from various sci-fi hits): Erica Evans (“Lost’s” Elizabeth Mitchell) is an anti-terrorism agent with the FBI and divorced mother of Tyler (Logan Huffman), a basically decent but rebellious teen. Chad Decker (Scott Wolf from “Party of Five”) is a newscaster who aspires to do more than “read the news”; Father Jack Landry (Joel Gretsch of “The 4400") is a young priest working among the homeless; and Ryan Nichols (Morris Chestnut) has just purchased the engagement ring he hopes to offer Valerie (Lourdes Benedicto).
All of their plans are put on hold, however, when the quake turns out to be the arrival of an enormous spaceship, one of a matched set now hovering over all the major cities of the world. But even as the throngs prepare for the requisite scream-flee-and-die scene of mass hysteria, the underbelly of the craft becomes a screen and the lovely Anna (“Firefly’s” Morena Baccarin) assures everyone in flawless English (and French and Egyptian) that “the Visitors” are here to offer technology in exchange for a few undisclosed but very renewable resources, and they come in peace.
Undone by relief, Anna’s Audrey Hepburn haircut and the promise that the Visitors can cure 65 of our diseases, humans, or at least New Yorkers, neglect to consider that they are a renewable resource themselves. Like the gullible little oysters in “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” they quickly embrace the “V’s,” signing up for theme-park-like tours of the ship and, of course, merchandising like crazy.
Fortunately, not everyone is convinced. Father Jack preaches caution only to be assured by his pastor that the pope is on board with the V’s. Erica worries that “terrorist chatter,” though down among many groups, shows one major spike -- one cell seems to be arming itself pretty heavily, planning an attack, she assumes, when everyone is distracted by the aliens.
A mysterious old friend is harassing Ryan to man up now that “they’re here,” but it’s Chad who gets the clue to the real nature of the V’s. Anna asks him to be her first interviewer only to insist that he not ask anything that might cast her in a bad light. Being a good-looking, ambitious newscaster in a television show, Chad, of course, agrees.
The original “V” drew obvious connections between the Visitors and the Nazis, and much has been made over the possible anti-Obama sentiment of this “V.” The instant adoration, the attractiveness and rhetorical skills of Anna, the idea that the Visitors will woo us with universal healthcare and then destroy us all seem a right-wingish take on the president’s ascendancy.
Perhaps that is the creators’ intent, but most successful science fiction contains an element of, if not outright humor, then the absurd. That the human race will be enslaved not through brainwashing or firepower but adequate healthcare is pretty hilarious in a dark and almost possible way. And Anna and her crew seem to embody more of a Wall Street deregulated/Bernie Madoff mentality -- big returns for minimum investment. And we all know how that turns out.
Just like we all know how these “we come in peace” alien invader tales turn out -- a resistance forms to slowly but surely reveal the Visitors for who and what they are. (Kids, lock up your guinea pigs!) Along the way, they find a sympathetic alien or two, which leads inevitably to interspecies breeding (lizard babies rock!) and the deconstruction of the essence of humanity.
But just because something’s a chestnut doesn’t mean it isn’t worth watching. There is a reason we tell the same story over and over again. Our collective longing for an effortless happy ending provided deus ex machina, whether by a political administration, a religious leader or a bunch of dulcet-toned aliens, is humanity’s Achilles’ heel.
As the plot of “V” progresses, no doubt we will see the subtle strangulation of democracy by fascism -- already the press has been corrupted -- and that is a story that cannot be told often enough. Especially when it comes, like the V’s, in such a fine, fun and attractive package.
When: 8 tonight
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)