Taking things as read, V, and the consumption of popular culture

V poster I don't think that V, the science fiction series on ABC, is going make it.  Here's why.

Popular culture demands of us that we take treat many things "as read."  We see the protagonist climbing out of bed in the morning.  We cut to a scene that shows him beginning his day at work.  We take as read all the events in between, showering, dressing, eating breakfast and the drive to work.  We accept that he did these things.  We understand that they are not germane to the story at hand.  We are happy to have them elided from the show, to take them as read.

It's amazing how good we are at taking things as read.  Even unambitious shows hurl us around with scant exposition and very few sign posts.  Suddenly, our protagonist is in a large office building.  That's ok.  This is probably where he works, we think.  We "stayed tuned."  If this turns out to be someone else's place of work, we are quite happy to adjust. 

We are happy to supply assumptions, and we are amiable about it.  We don't think, "office building?  Wonder if it's in Rio?"  No, if the show has been set in LA, we are happy to assume that this building is in LA.  We are just that cooperative.  (Or philosophically undemanding.) 

Viewers are active, even when they are not fans.  They are active even when they are not especially literate in matters of media.  That's what it is to belong to our culture.  We are highly skilled at taking things as read (TTAR). 

But TTAR can be dangerous.  Once we have accepted the editing it performs on the story, what's to stop us from editing too.  We see a scene taking shape, two people arguing, perhaps, what's to stop us from saying, "Got it.  Argument.  Let's just take this as read and move on." 

A virulent form of TTAR can consume the entire show.  We need only see the characters and the opening scene to think, "Very well.  Good guys.  Bad Guys.  Conflict.  Resolution.  Theme music.  Fade to TTAR." 

Indeed the more formed a show is by genre, the more likely we are to respond by issuing a summary TTAR order.  Because if we know the genre, and the show is genre bound, we can say quite precisely what's going to happen.  Take a show like Law and Order, this is so very predetermined that it's a wonder that anyone bothers to watch it anymore.  (But of course we do.  A mystery for another time.)

I have watched two espisodes of V.  This is a show with lots going for it, including several great performances, but it does feel a little predictable, a little confined.  Some way into the second espisode, I could hear myself thinking: "Good guys.   Bad guys.  From outer space.  Conflict.  Resolution. …"  God, even the criticism begs for abbreviation.  This "visitation" genre is now well known.  Visitors with terrible powers of control… The plucky band of humans who resist…  How many times have we seen this played out?  And where can they go with it?  It doesn't feel like there are many options here.  This genre might be relatively new but it's beginning to feel like its already hollowed out.  V feels like a show straight out of the TTAR pits of formulaic television. 

I could be wrong, and I hope I am.  But I don't believe V will flourish.

8 thoughts on “Taking things as read, V, and the consumption of popular culture

  1. Rick Liebling

    I think TTAR is another name for Seinfeld’s ‘yada yada yada.’

    V is not only formulaic, but it’s a formula many of us saw 20 years ago when the original V aired. Tough to be surprised when you know how the story plays out already. Now, that being said, you *can* do a reboot instead of a remake. The new Battlestar Galactica flipped a lot of the conventions of the original. In order to survice, V may need to throw in some twists. Is it already too late?

  2. peter spear

    couldn’t agree more with you assessment of V, though I remain a bit unclear about TTAR. what it seems to me is that TTAR means that the places between the expected narrative points are where the value lies. V fails miserably on this count and does nothing but check the boxes that we would expect them to.

    and i’m a bit hurt by it. V was a generationally definitive moment, as far as i can tell – starring mark singer (the brother of lori singer of footloose and former beastmaster and new cultural relic) and freddy krueger as the first lizard exposed.

    It also seemed like the early days of the epic mini-series. the other telling us of the the “day after.” it was all catastrophic, apocalyptic TV. there is neither epic in this new V, nor a real exploration of the convention. disappointed.

  3. peter spear

    i will say though that there are casting agents who must be tuning into the significance of the burgeoning sci-fi genre and hiring appropriately.

    in the first episode of V we meet the leader of the Visitors, played by Morena Baccarin (sp?) and are treated to the initial exposure of the reptile skin beneath one of the protagonists human flesh – alan tudyk. both of Firefly fame.

    they tried too much in that first episode, but it does feel like they tried to pay off the genre loyals…..which reminds me of your post about the IBM-leprachaun. typecast has a whole new meaning…..

  4. srp

    I’ve only seen the first episode so far (TiVoed the rest) and it is a bit formulaic. But, a great virtue, it is fast-paced. Compare to the agonizing soap-opera that is Flash Forward and the TTAR in V is like a refreshing palate-cleanser.

    BTW, the original V had one of the greatest viral marketing gimmicks I’ve ever seen. Down in the Kendall Square T station in Cambridge was a poster with a red-jumpsuited guy wearing those funky goggles holding a small, smiling child in his arms. The poster said “The Alien Visitors–Our Friends.” That was it, nothing saying it was about a TV show at all. The creepy thing was up for months before they ran the first TV promos for the upcoming miniseries.

  5. Jason Laughlin

    Is there something about this show that makes it all feel a little too pristine? God love him, but Scott Wolf? And the guy playing the priest…? All of this – the shiny looking actors, the formulaic story based on a previous formulaic story (sheesh) – serves up the TTAR mode I went into. I suppose this is a lesson that when you want people to pay attention, you may want to challenge their conventions a bit.

    Oh, and when will someone create “The Wire” of sci-fi. I want it now!

  6. Patrick Pearce

    Sci-fi auds have become quite comfortable with non-linear chronologies, multidimensional characters, shifting personality traits, conflict dynamics and so on. With shows like Lost and Heroes, the genre itself has expanded in wild new ways, bringing in broader audiences and making hardcore sci-fi fans perhaps less exclusive in their expertise. But with both the hardcore and the newer fans, the expectation is that any new take on the genre has to transcend it in a very fresh way or risk irrelevancy. I would expect V to start to play up romantic plot lines big time, but they may not have the writing and acting quality to sustain it. I’ve only seen the trailer, so hard to say, but could they be going after Fox viewers?

  7. srp

    The “twist” this time is the idea that the Visitors have been hiding among us for a long time, which is kind of a throwback to the old 1950s invasion flicks as well as the new Battlestar Galactica. It would be great if the remake could come up with a better rationale for the invasion than the original series, which had the ridiculous idea that the aliens were here to eat us.

    It would be nice if somebody would greenlight a show with a premise like Larry Niven’s Protector novel, which featured a logical, stunning, and original redefinition of humanity’s relationship to aliens. Most of the alien stuff we get is bad allegory for religion or ideological politics.

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