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Is V About Obama?

We caught V last night on TV3. I’m still disappointed no high definition channel is offering it – though, judging by the special effects quality, we weren’t missing much. We’re all fairly undecided on the show, which is a fairly solid reissue of a cult classic, rather than an attempt at a redesign. Don’t expect anything as smart or insightful as Battlestar Galactica and you should be relatively pleased. I think we’ll give this at least a season pass, and then review after that. Anyway, it was hard to watch the remake without the obvious themes playing in my head. Is V a criticism of what the media have dubbed Obama-mania?


The New Republicans?

I think we may be rushing to conclusions (since this is based on forty-five minutes of footage), but I accept that the obvious parallels are present. Here’s a neat outline of the show’s basic concept:

The visitors are young, charismatic, futuristic, and have a one-worldish vision of peace. They target the young by enticing them to join an idealistic (but, in reality, sinister) youth group. A few perceptive humans warn of the dangers of hopping on the bandwagon before we know what the bandwagon is really about. The alien leader, Ana [sic], promises to use futuristic technology to heal humans. “You mean universal health care!” gapes a reporter, who, naturally, has been co-opted by the aliens. Anna soothes skeptics by declaring that accepting change can be difficult. A small band of human resistors forms. The lead character is skeptical–what proof do you have she asks, besides some scary thing “you read on the internet.” But the seemingly hysterical message from the internet is true! The charismatic new leader is masking her true identity! The death panels are real! Etc., etc.

It would seem to be an obvious metaphor right there – and not a very subtle one as science-fiction allegories go. The “universal health care” line in particular seems to take a pot shot at the President, given how much chaos his proposals have caused (I’m speaking of the less-than-courteous welcome they received at town hall meetings).

There is a whole host of obvious iconography borrowed from the right’s fear of Obama. Take the first two “victims” of the visitors in the miniseries. Banker (!) Ryan Nichols (Morris Chestnut) is walking down the street when – out of literally nowhere – a US military fighter smacks into the pavement causing a dodgy CGI fireball and some light stunt work. The scene serves absolutely no narrative purpose other than to make Nichols jump a bit, so I think we can assume that the use is symbolic. One of the primary fears about Obama from those on the opposite side of the political spectrum were the dismantling of the US military apparatus. How much more obviously could that fear be visualised than by the explosion of a fighter jet in New York?

I’ll admit that that particular image may be debatable. The show references 9/11 in its introductory text. The crashing of a plane into the centre of a metropolis is an image forever etching on American (and global consciousness). The fighter could be a ham-fisted (not to mention insensitive) attempt to cash in on that. Or it could be part of a larger deleted sequence (the show was reportedly heavily edited before airing) that was too expensive (with special effects work) to be dropped completely. We won’t know until the DVD comes out (if ever).

The second example is low-key by comparison (to be fair, the last imagery is hard to top). In the church, young Father Jack Landry pushes a wheelchair-bound church-goer out of the way of a falling crucifix, which shatters on the ground. A representation of the religious splinter that the existence of aliens would inevitably bring? Perhaps. A visual representation of the religious right-wing of the Republican party concerned at the policies of the President? At least equally as likely. Indeed, the priest is the most vocally suspicious of the new arrivals, even though the religion itself seems cool with the aliens. A representation of how ill-at-ease the increasingly powerful religious right is with Obama? Perhaps perhaps perhaps.

For me the most startling parallels are not between those who oppose the arrival of the aliens and the splintered opposition to the current leader of the free world, but the similarities between the aliens’ campaign of integration and the strategy of the Obama campaign. In the original miniseries, the aliens sought to reign in the scientists, fearing the knowledge that they may give humanity. We’re far too early in to rule out the current series exploring the same logic, but the only image of knowledge and temptation we see on display here is an apple (itself a religious metaphor). No, these aliens are focused on the media. Controlling it and taming it.

At the original press conference, reporters asking legitimate questions are told to treat the Visitors with “a little respect”, similar to how many more conservative pundits felt when they ever broached controversial topics concerning Obama and his campaign. It was shrugged off as being tactless or insensitive. Of course, the aliens go far further than the Obama camp did in clearly stating that no questions that would paint them in “an unfavourable light” would be asked. I don’t think anyone suggested that Obama or his advisers made similar demands (though no doubt right-wing talk show hosts would allege that the media were so smitten that the request didn’t need to be articulated, but that’s a discussion for other bloggers).

The aliens reach out at us through our children and through new media. Erica (Elizabeth Mitchell) discovers that her son has been spreading the “good word” through new media (they use the euphemism “spreading hope”) – internet virals, videos and memes. Of course, the Obama campaign never went out of their way to graffiti private property, but somehow I doubt a web-based campaign would be sinister enough on its own to justify suspicion. The kids are lured by beautiful women involved in the campaign (much as Obama’s campaign had its star power), and their parents don’t understand. Of course, this whole observation ignores that, while Obama did have stronger influence with younger voters, he did also have stronger support among middle class voters as a whole.

Being honest, I don’t think that the show reflects the Obama campaign. I think it reflects the Obama campaign as seen through the eyes of a very concerned opposition. The two aren’t the same thing. And the opposition viewed the Obama campaign the same way which anyone views anything that’s popular which they disagree with: dangerous. I don’t intend to invoke Godwin’s Law, but there are huge similarities between the Visitors and the Nazis, for example. From their youth wing (which included the current Pope, so there’s your religious link) to the grey jumpsuits to the complete control of the media to the obviously violent means of dealing with those who would object (Obama never sent any armed goons to disrupt Republican town hall meetings, for example).

Some commentators agree with my logic, stating that the use of Nazi imagery in the modern age would seem trite and overly simplistic – and the series is right to adopt the same message using the imagery of our time:

The 1980s incarnation of V drew from Nazi imagery with things like the “Hitler youth,” because viewers would recognize it as creepy and evil, even if most of us are only familiar with the broad strokes. The 2009 incarnation is drawing from life since 9/11 for the same reasons.

The FBI is chasing terrorists. There are armed soldiers in city centers. People are frantic, even desperate, for change, and a charismatic leader who says the right words can quickly capture the attention of the world. Religion seems to be playing a bigger role in public discussions than a decade ago. These things are all part of our shared experience in the last eight years. The writers of V are using these shared experiences to help us accept the idea that the world would welcome friendly alien visitors. No more, and no less. Using Nazi imagery now would seem out of step, while most of us feel a bit of familiarity with what we see in V. Even those who miss the more subtle references should find nothing here that doesn’t feel “right,” even when it’s wrong. Everybody should appreciate the reference to “universal health care.” While National Guard troops directing pedestrians in U.S. cities would have seemed odd 25 years ago, it should surprise none of us today.

The series carries over the core themes of the original: unquestioning devotion is inherently dangerous. I don’t think that it would have been possible to update the series for the present day without making media (old and new) the target of alien assault. They have to be charismatic and engaging for the show’s basic premise to work. Obama is a charismatic and engaging world leader who courts the media better than any other. I don’t think that there was anyway that it would be possible to produce a show about a ‘non-hostile takeover’ without invoking various impressions of the President. He is different as the visitors are different – he represents a new approach to government and is not a stale, old figure like so many who ran for the great office.

I think that the series picked up on that theme, but I don’t think it allowed it to shape the show anymore than in the most superficial of ways. The “universal healthcare” proposed by the Visitors is actually an element from the original miniseries, it is just re-labeled here. I really don’t think that the Obama angle is that big a deal.

Though you might make the case that it means good things for the show in the medium-term:

Want to piss off the left? Everybody watch every single episode of the new ABC mini-series “V.” Drive the ratings through the roof. Make the show the hottest cultural happening since Seinfeld. Copy the hairstyles. Ape the fashion. Start bidding up the action dolls on Ebay.

I think this storm-in-a-teacup may secure the show’s audience prospects for at least half-a-season, at least until it dies down. ABC, the station behind the revival – and apparently big supporters of Obama -, apparently don’t see this upside. There are rumours that they’ve attempted to put the man behind the early episodes “on the bench”, so to speak, and that we might see a tonal shift later in the season:

Apparently the network who gave Obama an infomercial and refuses to release the Path to 9/11 DVD decided to replace the show runner Scott Peters before the pilot even aired. In fact, ABC hosted a big visit by press people last Monday, but Peters was notably absent. Exec producer Steve Pearlman spoke with the reporters.

Peters has been demoted to exec producer, a largely honorary title and has been replaced by former The Shield and Chuck alum Scott Rosenbaum.

Was this a case of ABC purging a political dissident from the show to make it more politically subservient? ABC has been very pro-Obama. And while the president’s name is never mentioned once in the show, there’s little doubt what they’re getting at.

On the other hand, some insiders dispute the claim that Scott Peters is a secret Republican or that he was removed for political reasons:

The script was not written as a roman a clef or allegory for the Obama administration. The script was written by Mr. Peters during the Bush administration and started before Mr. Obama clinched the nomination. The author, Mr. Peters, is not some evil sleeper right-winger/Obama hater. Mr. Peters, besides being a talented writer and director is a gay man, legally married in California, and a  liberal supporter of the President who worked for and donated money to the his campaign. If he’s a mole for some right-wing conspiracy he may be the most committed spy ever.

Mr. Peters’ replacement as showrunner by Scott Rosenbaum isn’t due to some political move at ABC. From reports I’ve received from informed sources, Peters is well-liked by the network. The show’s being produced at Warner Brothers and there appears to be some friction between the network’s vision for the show and Warner Brother’s.

I do love it when a movie or television show sparks such dynamic discussion. It’s a sign that the piece in question has struck a nerve. I remember the suggestion that The Dark Knight stands as an exploration of the Bush era whereas Star Trek heralds the Obama era, for example.

Here I think we’re all thinking just a little too narrow – as the inevitable War on Terror discussions do on Battlestar Galactica. V is (and was) about the dangerous nature of unwavering faith in authority in the face of everything. It explores what happens when we stop questioning what we are presented with.

I think the fact that people are getting so riled up about the show suggests that maybe Obama’s supporters are growing a little bit insecure. Much like the President turned his argument with Fox News from a molehill into a mountain, perhaps the reasonable thing to do here would be to laugh off the parallels and observe that Obama supporters aren’t issued spraypaint to spread a big “O” all over town, or that he doesn’t send crack commando squads out to disrupt underground conservative meetings. It’s the kinda thing that you should be able to laugh off, because it is ridiculous. It’s a television show. But maybe the latest election results are feeding into that insecurity.

Instead, we’ve seen a huge engagement with the idea and the debate. As if these parallels and similarities are something which merit discussion. I don’t really think they are. I think the show uses all these aspects of storytelling devices in a way to tell a bigger story. That we see it reflected in the current administration arguably says more about us than it does about the show.

Finally, as a piece of trivia, did you notice that in the “not everyone welcomes the aliens” montage that they included footage from the Love Ulster riots? It’s nice to know that Celtic fans are among those skeptical of our newfound friends.

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