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TV Marks Obama Anniversary with Documentaries, Aliens

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ABCIt’s Election Day in America. One election day ago, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, and TV is marking the anniversary with two earnest documentaries—and an alien invasion.

I exaggerate, but only a little. ABC’s V, which debuts tonight, may not be intended as an Obama allegory, but it has enough parallels with the issues, concerns and paranoid fantasies of today’s politics that they were either included to pique interest, or created accidentally by the typing of a million monkeys who had never seen cable news.

First the earnest documentaries. Showtime’s Poliwood, directed by Barry Levinson, which aired last night, possibly deserves credit for passionately trying to make the thankless argument that Hollywood celebrities do so have the right to inject themselves into politics. The film, which largely tracked celebrity efforts in the 2008 election, had a reasonable enough premise: that celebs interested in politics are no more or less automatically vapid than plenty of others who get to stick their oars in (donors, other politicians, many pundits), but ultimately a film defending the fairly privileged from the oppressive experience of people saying snarky things about them has to be exceptional to be compelling, and Poliwood wasn’t.

HBO’s By the People: The Election of Barack Obama, airing tonight, is better made and more engrossing, mainly because it had extensive access to an actual political campaign. Filmmakers Amy Rice and Alicia Sams started shooting film in 2006 with an Illinois Senator who had made a popular speech at a convention. As it progresses into the primaries, the filmmakers got a probably unmatched amount of time with Obama’s family—particularly daughters Sasha and Malia, who have since been in the press only sparingly—and with his campaign operation, which provides the film’s real meat and emotional impact. Spending late nights with exhausted volunteers who gave themselves to the campaign—and watching them as they gradually discover they actually have a chance to win—the film puts a human face on an often-maligned job.

I watched By the People at a screening over the summer, and while I was impressed with the access and sometimes moved, I was also—and I say this as somebody who voted for Obama—a little unnerved by the general feeling of self-congratulation in the film. (The title is one hint.) As the film moves into the general election, the candidate and the mechanics of his campaign move into the distance (a result, probably, of the access drying up in the national stage of the campaign), and the film starts to take a hagiographic tone, as if honoring its viewers one last time for electing Obama President.

In one sense I get it: the movie was made in the spirit of Nov. 5, 2008, the generalized, post=election good feeling and best wishes for the Obamas, plus happiness that—politics aside—a country with a history of race troubles had elected an African American president. But you can’t really put “politics aside” when discussing the election of a President. And seeing the film this summer—after the realities of governing a country full of contention had settled in—the film already seemed anachronistic.

Which brings us to V. ABC’s miniseries / maybe-an-actual-series (it airs four episodes in the fall, then returns in winter) is a remake of the NBC mini from the 1980s, about a race of lizard-like aliens who arrive on Earth preaching friendship, their real faces, and intentions, masked. The original was an allegory of Nazi Germany and the rise of Hitler, but one that was pretty hard to take seriously that way; I suspect most fans remember it more for the alien unmaskings and the creepy human-alien baby and we’re probably all better off for that.

The new V, like the original, is first and foremost a big sci-fi entertainment, and as that it’s promising, though not great out of the box. Like ABCs FlashForward, it’s a kind of attempt at making Lost’s lightning strike twice; like FlashForward, it’s a conspiracy story starting with a Day When Everything Changes.

In this case, the aliens, led by hot lizard lady Morena Baccarin (Firefly), appear over Earth’s cities, Independence Day style (the show makes note of the similarity), saying they’re using Earth as a refueling stop: they need to borrow a cup of abundant minerals, and they’ll be on their way, leaving some nifty technology as a thank-you gift. Humanity immediately cheers, because evidently this V takes place on an alternate Earth where no one has ever seen an alien-invasion movie. It’s the old To Serve Man ploy again, and the question becomes whether humanity will figure out what the aliens are up to or be seduced by their good looks and goodies.

Unlike FlashForward, V benefits from some stronger performances (like Elizabeth Mitchell in the de rigeur FBI-agent role, and Scott Wolf, reprising his empathetic-weasel type from The Nine, playing a TV journalist the aliens recruit as a useful idiot). It also has flashes of humor and an emotional grounding that FlashForward could have used at the start. Even if you never saw the original, you’ll probably guess the twists ABC asked me not to reveal before they occur, but the show’s intriguing enough that I’ll at least commit to the first four episodes before the break.

It’s with the parallels to contemporary politics that things start to get interesting, and/or weird. The aliens are attractive and seductive: OK, we’ve seen that plenty of times before. They inspire worldwide acclaim on little evidence, while only a few characters wonder if everyone else is being taken in by their charisma; overtones of the McCain Celebrity ad, but you could apply that to a lot of situations. There’s an aspect about disguised aliens living among us: well, that’s been a staple of many series since 9/11, notably Battlestar Galactica.

Then there’s the talk of the aliens bringing humanity “hope.” OK, starting to sound a little more specific. They consolidate their appeal by reaching out to the youth. The alien leader tells humanity: “Embracing change is never easy. But the reward for doing so can be far greater than everything you can imagine.” The reward: among other technologies, the aliens begin setting up clinics to offer miracle cures, for free. Remarks Wolf’s journalist: “You’re talking about universal health care!”

In summary: attractive newcomers + adulation + hidden identity + hope & change + manipulation of the media + brainwashing your kids + universal health care = the destruction of humanity by alien fascists. I checked the production notes to make sure Glenn Beck was not credited as the screenwriter, and that the aliens are not secretly from Kenya.

I’m not sure if V intends these parallels to be a running theme of the series, or if they were just played up in the pilot to get attention from writeups like this one. (Also, some of them may ring familiar because certain of Obama’s critics have been throwing around the same kind of fascism comparisons that were in the original V.) Either way—again, speaking as an Obama voter—I have a hard time getting particularly worked up over the B-movie politics of V. They’re not always entirely coherent, either. More than once V makes a point which is delivered thus by one of the lead characters, a Catholic priest: “Gratitude can morph into worship. Or worse: devotion.” Um, isn’t worship of aliens actually worse than devotion? Especially to a priest?

Like the ticking-bomb ultraviolence of 24, the paranoia of V is probably, more than anything, a convention of the genre: in this case, the aliens-among-us thriller. And if I’m going to get wild-ass conspiracies in the form of entertainment, better I get them from a primetime show about hot aliens than from cable news.