Sunday, November 1, 2009

V (2009 Television Pilot)

Roger back tomorrow!

Genre: Television Sci-Fi
Premise: An alien race arrives at our planet unexpectedly. Although their intentions appear to be peaceful, they may have more in store for us than we know.
About: The original V series debuted in 1984. A reimagining has been talked about for years. Sci-Fi happy ABC finally pulled the trigger resulting in the show's debut this Tuesday. There has been some waffling all year about how the show was to be presented. At first what was going to be a complete season has turned into a four-episode mini-series. The mini-series approach is gaining favor in the TV business as it provides the best for both worlds. If the show is a failure, the station can celebrate the fact that they didn't invest much into it. If it takes off, they simply turn it into a series. However, I'm not sure how you prepare a fourth episode ending that both ends the series in a satisfying way, yet also leaves it open for another 150 episodes. -- Scott Peters has been a staple in sci-fi television for years. He's written for The Outer Limits, The Sarah Conner Chronicles, The 4400, and even The Highlander.
Writer: Scott Peters

Every week I get a handful of e-mails asking me why I don't review TV scripts. I understand where you're coming from. To be successful in this business, you must know how to jump back and forth between the two mediums. Not to mention the TV landscape is much different than it used to be. Advancements in technology have made some of the top shows indistinguishable, production-wise, from their film counterparts. Even movie stars, who used to shun the boob tube, regularly drop in for cameos and juicy parts. In short, TV has earned a lot of respect. The simple truth is I'm not as plugged into that world as I am features. I don't really know what pilots are shooting or who has the latest episode of Mad Men. I just don't follow it that closely. But, you know, if the demand is strong enough, I may make it a priority. It's up to you. Do you want to see more TV? Make yourself heard in the comments section.

The reason I picked V as my first television script was because it's about an alien invasion, and the sci-fi nerd in me just couldn't resist. I've already documented my feelings about alien invasion flicks in the past. To summarize, no alien invasion story can ever live up to the excitement the viewer feels leading up to the actual invasion. The height of these films is always what walks out of that ship because it answers the two most interesting questions: What will they look like? and What do they want? The movies never regain that level of excitement no matter how hard they try.

Yet that's exactly what V is about: Everything that happens *after* contact. The people, the politics, the relationships, the trials and tribulations of merging two different worlds. V seems almost defiant in how much it de-stresses the spectacle that is the alien's arrival. Taking a page from District 9 (which may have taken a page from V), the series wants to ponder the question, what would it really be like if aliens came to our planet?

We do spend *a little* time on earth before our alien buddies show up though, meeting a handful of characters in a few pages time. Erika is an FBI counter-terrorism agent who doubles as a single mom, trying to keep the reigns on her renegade teenage son, Tyler. Father Jack is a priest whose church is about to close down after 57 years due to low attendance. The seemingly ordinary Ryan is about to pop the question to his wife. Chad Decker is an Anderson Cooper wannabe, desperately searching for a way into the upper tier of the news world. All of these people's lives are put on hold, however, when the big ships arrive.

Although we focus on Los Angeles, 2-mile wide ships are appearing over every major city in the world. This is the first sign of trouble for the planet, and the first sign of trouble for the script itself. Clearly, this is a two-hour pilot smushed inside a one hour shell. Whether it was budget concerns or caution that dictated this choice, the lean one-hour running time gives us a completely unrealistic reaction to the aliens arriving. I mean just imagine for a second a large alien spaceship arriving over your city. Could you sum yours and everyone else's reaction in 60 seconds?

Unfortunately, that's what V is forced to do. And in one of the worst decisions of the show's early career, they decide to allocate 10 seconds of that time to two stoners arguing about the similarities between this and Independence Day. Although it's supposed to be "funny", the dated reference not only falls flat, it completely undermines every ounce of fear we have about the aliens arriving. I'm not going to lie to you. This single misstep made me lose most of my confidence in the show. If the person in charge of the series was making this big of a miscalculation less than 10 minutes into the pilot, what other dumb ideas did he have in store for us?

Unfortunately, there was more shitty writing to follow. Tyler (the teenage son) spends half the pilot arguing with his "funny" sidekick, Bryce, about how uncool they are. If the title "V" seemed too obscure, the network could've easily renamed it "Bryce and Tyler Talk About How Uncool They Are." I'm all for clearly establishing characters, but there's "we got it", followed by, "you're hitting me over the head now," followed by, "Okay, now you're just being fucking obnoxious." Peters takes the obnoxious route. This is like Screenwriting 101 stuff here.

Anyway, as you've probably seen in the promos, the bottom of the spaceship turns into a giant video screen, and a beautiful woman known as Anna, assures the people of earth that they come in peace. They're just stopping by for a little fuel and then they'll be on their way. In exchange, they'll share their knowledge with us, advancing many of our technologies in the process.

In the meantime, a clumsily executed sub-plot is dumped on us whereby Erika decides to look into a terrorist cell. Yeah because when aliens land, the FBI's going to be concerned about a couple of terrorists. That's where I'd assign my agents if I were in charge.

While Erika's off ignoring that giant ship in the sky, Anna, the alien leader, wants to hold a press conference. She hand-picks our Anderson Cooper wannabe, Chad, yet seconds before the worldwide interview, Anna makes it clear that she expects Chad to ask questions that will paint the aliens "in a positive light." Chad tries to put up a fight but Anna says the interview is cancelled unless he follows the rules. The lure of becoming an international news star ends up taking precedence over silly journalism ethics, but not without the requisite close-up of Chad looking very distraught over the decision.

Back in Erka's world, she's following badly laid out clues that lead to the phantom terrorist cell. Everything about the investigation feels fake, as if the writer knows where he wants to be, but could care less how he gets there. When we do find this "cell," it's actually a secret meeting. And whatever these people are meeting about, it has nothing to do with terrorism, at least not in the traditional sense. (***spoiler***) Let's just say this may not have been our interplanetary neighbors' first visit.

As I mentioned earlier, this is a two hour pilot crammed into sixty minutes. Whether that's a good enough excuse for all its problems, I'll reserve judgment. Actually, no. Judgment needs to be passed here. The V pilot moves too fast, imbued with an artificiality on top of a situation that's already artifiicial. Questionable humor and lazily plotted storylines don't help things. It's a big red flag when in a pilot, the only episode in a series where the production actually has plenty of time, that so many sloppy writing mistakes are made.

Although this isn't the V I was hoping for, I'm willing to hang with it for its four episode "run" to see if it gets better. But if this writing is indicative of the rest of the series, I'm not holding my breath.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Erika's sub-plot about chasing the terrorist cell never rang true. The reason given for it is that she believes the terrorist cell plans to blow up one of the ships. Erika's supposedly worried that if that happens, the aliens will consider it an attack by our entire planet. This is such sloppy logic it actually hurts my brain. Amidst the arrival of an unknown potentially devastatingly harmful alien race, you're worried about three terrorists with a stash of cherry bombs? The point is, you could tell Peters himself didn't believe in what he was writing. It was just a means to get Erika to the final scene where the big surprise reveal occurs. This is usually an error I see beginning writers make, not professionals. You need to put 100% into every single sub-plot. Don't half ass it. Of course you want to write the big fun revelation scene. But if you neglect all the legwork it takes to get there, you'll have lost your audience before the moment arrives. The audience can smell your half-assedness a mile away. It's just like anything in life. People know when you're not giving your all.