Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Flashbacks, Flashforwards and Flashes of Cleavage

Now that Dollhouse has been sent to the attic, the options for sci-fi fans who watch network television are fewer than ever. Even Fringe, the only other sci-fi show that Fox has, spent some time on the chopping block. Surprisingly, it seems that ABC is looking to fill this void. This September, one of the network's major premieres was a show called FlashForward. Now, in the thick of November sweeps, ABC has pulled out another big-budget, sci-fi project: V. It places ABC in the unlikely position of being sci-fi's last network television hope. (Cable is not looking much better.) So, should sci-fi fans place their hopes in the network best known for Dancing with the Stars and Grey's Anatomy?

Immediately, it is clear that ABC's concept of what sci-fi can be is defined with one word: Lost. (If we ignore Defying Gravity, which we certainly will.) Both FlashForward and V obviously borrow their general formulas from J.J. Abrams' popular show. For those of you who do not have electricity, Lost is about a group of people who are stranded on a remote, Pacific island after their plane mysteriously crashes. The crash occurs in the first episode and, from that point on, we watch as the passengers slowly piece together what happened to them, both through scenes on the island and through flashbacks.

Now, FlashForward is a show where, instead of flashbacks, the characters must grapple with (wait for it) flashforwards. The central mystery here is why everyone in the world saw two minutes and seventeen seconds of what could very well be their future. On paper, it is essentially Lost, but the people can shave and buy a hamburger whenever they want.

V is not quite so overtly derivative. Alien spaceships appear over a number of major cities around the world, equipped with giant LCD screens. The aliens use these screens to ensure the humans that they are "of peace. Always." Moral complexity ostensibly ensues as the ensemble of characters struggles to figure out just what the aliens intend to do. To the credit of creator, Kenneth Johnson, V leaves the plot's timeline largely un-screwed with. Yet, V still largely focuses on how the numerous characters react to the circumstances, like the other two shows and, like FlashForward, V even does this in the face of a very large-scale premise. I am not, by any means, saying that sci-fi cannot be character-driven. The problem with these two shows is that the character development seems to enable a phobia of genuine science fiction among their producers.

FlashForward actually did quite a bit with its premise over its first few episodes. The writers quickly set about exploring the endless repercussions of a global catastrophe, from the immediate chaos that results from everyone passing out for two minutes to the twisted playground games children play once school resumes. Furthermore, the numerous characters in the show are each affected by unique problems arising from their glimpses into the future. One character sees himself speaking to his dead daughter, another sees herself cheating on her husband and one even sees nothing at all. It results in some protracted melodrama, yes, but quite a bit of genuine pathos, as well.

Yet, the fact remains that the major hook in FlashForward is an epic, sci-fi mystery. It is in the execution of this aspect that the show falls on its face. I groaned the moment I learned that the lead character is an FBI agent and my reaction has proven justified. Much of the show is devoted to procedural water-treading, as the agent and his cohorts run from one contrived clue to another, struggling to understand the flashforwards. It renders the show a thinly veiled cop drama. This show's writers may be smart, but they shot themselves in the foot; FlashForward's hook is far more exciting than anything the show can offer on a weekly basis. The saving grace? The flashforwards all showed what would happen on a certain day in spring, 2010, meaning that the show has a guaranteed payoff by the end of the season. It is hard to deny that such a commitment took guts on the writers' part.

V, on the other hand, has no saving grace. By the end of the 47 minute pilot episode, there is little question that this show is DOA. It begins much like FlashForward, showing the large cast of characters being caught off guard by a shocking incident. Thing is, this show's "shocking incident" is a vaguely creepy lady on a TV screen. What V's writers wish to do with their concept (or the concept they stole from the 1980's series by the same name) is largely unclear. Sure, there are characters running around, getting agitated for various reasons, but this show has no themes to tie the rambling plot together.

It is immediately obvious that the aliens are up to no good, so the controversy among the humans as to the aliens' motives seems downright idiotic. There are a few good aliens, but it is tough to care about their subversive efforts because we have no idea what, exactly, makes the bad aliens bad, apart from their hair. Much of the first two episodes is devoted to a teenage character's attempts to bed a sexy alien girl who often fails to fully zip up her top. Finally, (did you see this coming?) the main character is an FBI agent who is struggling to uncover the true nature of the aliens by way of a series of vague clues. So much time is devoted to the trifling exploits of these flat characters that the science fiction is often limited to the occasional shot of the space ship over Manhattan.

Circumstances are neither mitigated by the often laughable dialogue, (Teenage guy's sidekick goes, "Two words: Awe-some!" when he gets hit on. An interrogation scene begins with the line, "I want answers!") nor by the hokey production design that uses stock TV apartments and FBI offices that are shot with about as much menace as an episode of Private Practice. V may not rely on the storytelling gimmicks that ABC's other two sci-fi dramas do, but it is victimized by many of the same pitfalls, and to a far greater extent. It is impressive how bland and familiar a show featuring reptile people can feel.

While ABC's narrow approach to sci-fi does not completely undermine their efforts, it is undeniable that, by the time they got around to airing V, the well had run dry. If the network wants to be science fiction's savior, it is going to have to take some chances. FlashForward may yet prove worthwhile, but V has no chance of doing so. Considering that both of the shows' ratings are sinking, however, neither may have a future. Is it too early to ask what Joss Whedon is working on next?

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