11.02.09

V Makes First Contact

ABC’s V remake has the geek world abuzz, but is that enough to keep it from joining its network sci-fi predecessors in the cancellation graveyard?

What in the world—or out of this world—was ABC thinking when they greenlit a remake of the cult 1980s alien-invasion show V? Network television, after all, has not been kind to sci-fi shows as of late. Last year’s tally of genre shows canned after two seasons or less includes Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Pushing Daisies, Reaper, and Life on Mars. And the few that were renewed, like Dollhouse and Chuck, generally had to fight fang and claw for the honor.

Alien-invasion shows, in particular, have fared poorly in recent years, with both Threshold and ABC’s Invasion lasting only one season in 2005. And the highly anticipated V has had a bumpy road. After a warm reception at Comic-Con in July, production was shut down in August for a two-week “ creative hiatus,” and a month later the network announced it would air the first four episodes as a miniseries “event” in November, with the rest of the episodes resuming after the Winter Olympics in March.

ABC’s new V follows the mold of the original, with a few timely updates. The Holocaust allegory of the 1983 miniseries has been swapped for an au courant alien take on terrorism.

The network has given it a robust pre-show campaign, putting the first nine minutes of the pilot on Hulu before the premiere and making use of the kind of viral, interactive marketing that worked so well for Lost. Nevertheless, could V be in trouble before even one episode has aired?

Whatever problems V has had are not visible in the premiere: The first episode is slickly produced and loaded with sci-fi vets, like Lost’s Elizabeth Mitchell as an FBI agent, and Morena Baccarin ( Firefly) as the enigmatic alien leader, Anna. More important, the first episode threads engaging, sympathetic characters through the explosive set-pieces, giving audiences a compelling reason to tune in next week. The hour moves along at a good clip, thanks to the heady action sequences, tart dialogue, and smilingly malevolent aliens. And the creative team, which includes Scott Peters and Jace Hall, already has experience steering a successful alien series, having helmed The 4400 on USA Network. ( Update: Shortly after this story posted, USA Today broke the news that Scott Peters has been replaced as the V chief. Whether this is a sign of more instability, or steps toward solving it, will be clear soon enough.)

Watch the Visitors’ arrival.

Video screenshot

The original V kicked off in 1983 with a two-night miniseries. In it, a race of humanoid extraterrestrials suddenly appeared in a fleet of spaceships docked over all major cities. They brought a message of peace and an offer to share their advanced technology that anyone who’s ever seen the Twilight Zone classic “To Serve Man” should have been immediately suspicious of. Still, they were soon integrated into the highest levels of government, until an enterprising journalist (Marc Singer) uncovered the alien’s true form—giant lizards—and nefarious intentions. The miniseries ended with the Visitors controlling the Earth, while the resistance prepared to fight. Based on the stellar ratings, NBC ordered a follow-up, and V: The Final Battle aired a year later, showing the humans finally driving the Visitors away.

Not for long, though, because a television series picked up where the miniseries left off, airing only five months later. Unfortunately, the series, which made liberal use of stock-footage from the miniseries in an attempt to cut costs, saw a steep decline in ratings and was canceled after only 19 episodes.

ABC’s new V follows the mold of the original, with a few timely updates. The Holocaust allegory of the miniseries has been swapped for an au courant alien take on terrorism. Mitchell plays Erica Evans, a counterterrorism agent who is shocked to find that the terrorist cells she’s been hunting may have otherworldly origins. And in a cheeky reversal, the spray-painted red V, the highly recognizable symbol of the resistance from the original, is now used by Erica’s Visitor-obsessed son (Logan Huffman) and his friends as a show of solidarity for the aliens. Scott Wolf ( Party of Five) plays journalist Chad Decker, who’s chosen to head up the Visitors’ media campaign, provided he not “ask any questions that would portray [the Visitors] negatively.”

But fans of the original series will be relieved to see that the key elements—lizards and all—have remained intact.

To give an idea of the challenges V will face to stay on the air, here’s a small sampling of how some recent big four networks' sci-fi shows have fared:

Bionic Woman
Network: NBC
Status: Canceled in 2007 after eight episodes.

After the WGA strike halted production of the freshman series in November 2007, NBC decided to drop the axe, citing low ratings and poor critical reception for the remake of the 1970s cult hit.

Chuck
Network: NBC
Status: Season 3 will air in 2010.

NBC’s sci-fi spy dramedy about a regular guy who accidentally gets a ton of government secrets downloaded into his brain got critical raves, but faced tough timeslot competition from powerhouse rivals like Dancing With the Stars and House. The show almost got axed after Season 2, but several grassroots fan campaigns, including a fundraiser for the American Heart Association, helped secure a 13-episode third-season order, which was recently expanded to 19 episodes in the wake of NBC’s cancellation of Trauma and Southland early into the 09/10 season.

Dollhouse
Network: Fox
Status: Season 2’s 13-episode order is under way, awaiting pickup on the back nine.

At the 2009 upfronts, Fox decided to bring back Joss Whedon's ( Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly) Dollhouse—about people who can be programmed to be anyone and do anything, for the right price—over its other splashy sci-fi show, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which was canceled after two seasons. The network has said it will air all 13 ordered episodes of Season 2, but with dismal ratings in the Friday night deadzone, the chances of Fox ponying up for the nine additional episodes, let alone a third season, are grim.

Eastwick
Network: ABC
Status: Season 1 is under way.

This take on the witchy John Updike novel, best remembered for its star-studded 1987 movie adaptation, has been shedding viewers since its debut. Fans have already mobilized a campaign to save the show, even tweeting their pleas for a stay of execution.

FlashForward
Network: ABC
Status: Season 1 is under way.

The ABC drama, about a worldwide blackout that causes everyone to see glimpses of what might be their future, opened to strong ratings relative to its tough timeslot (Thursdays at 8, up against ratings powerhouses Survivor, The Office, and Bones, and the similar-demo-courting Vampire Diaries), and maintained enough of an audience for ABC to pick the series up for a full season. It took a beating last week thanks to the World Series, but as long as it recovers once baseball season wraps, it has a decent shot of seeing a second season.

Fringe
Network: Fox
Status: Season 2 is under way.

After a successful first season for this trippy sci-fi procedural that plays like The X-Files on acid, Fox moved it from its cushy, post- House/ American Idol Tuesday night perch to an ultra-tough Thursday spot, where it faces stiff competition from CSI and Grey’s Anatomy. But while the show’s ratings are down drastically from the first season—episode five of Season 2 got only about half the viewers that the first season’s fifth episode got—it’s doing better than the reality pabulum Fox had in the timeslot last year, which might be the show’s saving grace.

Ghost Whisperer
Network: CBS
Status: Season 5 is under way.

This show, starring Jennifer Love Hewitt as a paranormal investigator who sees dead people, has been a quiet performer for the network, maintaining a steady 9-10 million viewers in the low-expectations timeslot of Fridays at 8.

Heroes
Network: NBC
Status: Season 4 is under way.

Ho-hum writing, more than network apathy or audience reluctance to embrace sci-fi, is likely the culprit behind this show’s sharp ratings decline. It launched in 2006 to critical praise and strong ratings, and had tons of promotional support from NBC, which launched tie-in Web series and comics to help the show gain viewership. But the muddled plot and surplus of increasingly dopey heroes led to an audience dropoff that has worsened each season. Even the recent, gratuitous girl-on-girl action, a tired but true standby meant to goose ratings, failed to deliver.

Life on Mars
Network: ABC
Status: Canceled in 2009 after one season.

The U.S. remake of the cult British show about a modern-day detective who, after a car accident, is either time-traveling back to the 1970s or laying in a modern-day hospital coma-dreaming about time travel, hemorrhaged viewers during its one season, quickly losing more than half of the 11 million viewers who tuned into the pilot.

Lost
Network: ABC
Status: The sixth and final season begins in early 2010.

Lost helped kick off the new wave of mainstream sci-fi and even, along with ABC’s other 04/05 breakout hits Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy, put serialized drama back in vogue after a long prime-time domination by procedurals and reality. The series was a ratings powerhouse for its first two seasons, but as the show’s mythology got increasingly convoluted in Season 3, and as several well-liked characters were killed off, viewers started dropping. Starting with Season 4, the show eschewed the traditional television model of 22 episodes spread out between September and May with repeats in-between, opting instead for truncated seasons airing with little interruption from January to May. The tactic, along with the announcement that the sixth season would be the last and the assurance that the writers knew where they were going with all this time-travel business, helped recover some of the viewers that Season 3 had lost, and the ratings have been holding steady ever since.

Medium
Network: NBC, CBS
Status: Season 6 is under way.

After losing some ratings steam in its fifth season, NBC canceled the Patricia Arquette-helmed drama about a research medium who helps solve crimes by conversing with the dead. CBS, which produces the show, quickly snapped it up to pair with their similar-themed Ghost Whisperer on Friday nights.

Pushing Daisies
Network: ABC
Status: Canceled in 2009 after two seasons.

Despite bowing in 2007 to critical raves and a rabid fanbase, Pushing Daisies—a morbidly sweet fairytale about a pie maker who can reanimate the dead—never gained ratings traction, in part due to the 07/08 Writer’s Guild strike, which truncated the show’s first season to only nine episodes. ABC, however, didn’t help matters when it chose to keep the show off the air for most of 2008, not airing any repeats that might have enticed new viewers. When the show resumed in fall of 2008, nine months after the last episode had aired, it had only around six million viewers, and was canceled six episodes into its second season.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Network: Fox
Status: Canceled in 2009 after two seasons.

Unlike Pushing Daisies, Terminator actually benefited from the writers’ strike. When the show, a spinoff of the movie series of the same name, launched in January 2008, most other scripted shows were out of fresh episodes, leaving a hungry audience wide open for something new to latch onto. It was hanging on until Fox moved it to Friday nights to pair it with Dollhouse in February of 2009, at which point the ratings plummeted. Fox canceled the show at the end of its second season.

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Shannon Donnelly is a video editor at The Daily Beast. Previously, she interned at Gawker and Overlook Press, edited the 2007 edition of Inside New York , and graduated from Columbia University. You can read more of her writing here.