Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.
Before the term “binge-watching” became a thing, watching TV on your computer was possible, and cable channels dominated the ratings due to the fragmentation of audiences; the Big Three networks—CBS, NBC, and ABC—relied on event series to blow their competitors out of the water. One such event idea was the miniseries. Longer than your standard two-hour film but not long enough to be a whole regular series, the miniseries typically ran for two to five nights (usually during sweeps week) within the same week. It was a huge commitment for a station to dedicate a whole week to one show: If it caught on, you dominated the ratings. If it didn’t, the other two networks lapped you. Among these Big Three miniseries were Roots, North and South, The Thornbirds, Shogun, and the series I’m going to write about today, V: The Original Miniseries.
Broadcast over two nights in 1983 on NBC, V follows two characters as they uncover the real reasons for aliens’ visit to Earth. Video cameraman Mike Donovan, played by a very physical Marc Singer (Beastmaster), and wonderfully-conflicted scientist-turned-reluctant-resistance-leader Julie Parrish, played by Faye Grant, take charge of figuring out the conspiracy. Of course, it only looks like a conspiracy to the people involved: as viewers, we recognize right away that the Visitors have sinister intentions—they look and act like fascists from the outset. Plus, their uniforms and insignias have a decided swastika bent.
Based on the novel It Can’t Happen Here, the American fascists in the miniseries version are made more marketable to viewing audiences as aliens. This added sci-fi angle also allowed the designers to come up with some great moments for next-day water cooler fodder (or playground fodder if you had parents cool enough to let you watch this subjectively “adult” fare).
The cast is large and varied. The presence of several character actors helps bring home the film’s themes. (Even though it was broadcast on TV, it’s shot in a widescreen format in case it received a theatrical release overseas—it definitely counts as film-like). One of the actors—who was just getting his start at the time but would become a cult icon the next year—was an incredibly young Robert Englund, who plays a naïve Visitor. Based on the popularity of his character, Englund’s role grew considerably in the sequel, V: The Final Battle, and in the subsequent TV series. Another great standout whose role also got bigger was Jane Badler, who plays one of the leaders of the Visitors. She even received this poster push:
When originally broadcast in two parts, the first garnered 40% of television viewers in the United States, an impossible feat today with our fragmented audiences. Even in 1983, this was a major coup. The miniseries’ popularity made a sequel inevitable. For my money, V: The Final Battle (1984), was an even bigger event with even more moments that precipitated “did you see that” discussions the next day. Think of how people talk about Game of Thrones on Monday mornings. Then amplify that. And, in the 1980s, of course, we didn’t worry about the Internet or spoilers: everyone saw everything at the same time.
The TV series only lasted the ’84-’85 season, and it was marred by a lower budget and no firm direction. Its great premise of making LA an open city (similar to Paris during WWII) failed to translate into good drama. It’s definitely skip-able viewing unless you are a completist. It does feature Michael Ironside in half the episodes, which is about its only saving grace. There was also a re-imagining in 2009 that lasted two seasons, but due to low ratings, the cliffhanger on which that series ended will probably never be resolved.
Before the advent of microseasons (8-10 episodes), the miniseries allowed a script to breathe and explore the ramifications of events on multiple people. Even though Singer and Grant lead the V: The Original Miniseries cast, the many subplots allow them to share the spotlight, giving the miniseries the feel of an ensemble production. These subplots range from a Holocaust survivor who has seen this happen before and a family divided on whether to support the visitors or not to collaborators and the Underground Railroad. The plot delivers the message that fascism can take hold easily: those who fail to speak up and act when someone else’s rights disappear will soon find themselves in the same position. With the state of the world today, this message is as important as ever: regardless of our differences, we really do need to look out for each other.
This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently unavailable via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.
If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.