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V Is Back Tonight. But Why?

When ABC's reboot of the eighties alien-invasion drama V first arrived last November, it scored strong reviews and a huge premiere-night audience of more than 14 million viewers. Within two weeks, however, about 40 percent of the audience had fled. After an ill-advised four-month hiatus, V returned in March to even smaller ratings (around 7 million viewers); by the time May's season-one finale aired, the tune-in was down to less than 6 million, with some early admirers of the show in the media — including Vulture's Adam Sternbergh — giving up altogether. But despite the viewer exodus, reports of behind-the-scenes creative chaos and a long history of sci-fi shows not working on the broadcast networks, tonight, after another six months off the air that made many assume it was gone forever, V is getting yet another chance to invade your living room and win your heart. To quote the philosopher D'Andre Cole, what up with that?

To be fair, the ratings verdict on V isn't as clear-cut as it might seem. While there's no denying the show clearly turned off millions of viewers looking for a new Lost to get sucked into, V has shown signs of having a core group of fans willing to give it time to find itself. Ratings for the May finale were up noticeably from the episodes that preceded it; what's more, as ABC research chief Charles Kennedy told Variety last summer, V had a disproportionately large number of online and DVR viewers during its first season. "The amount of extra viewing for 'V' on DVR and online was pretty impressive, and made us think there was something there," he told the trade.

Maybe. But it's just as likely V is still around because of factors out of its control. After all, networks rarely make decisions about shows' fates in a vacuum; a lot of what went on with the rest of ABC's schedule contributed to the decision to give V another shot. Specifically, another high-profile sci-fi series the network tried last season — FlashForward — flopped even harder than V and was a much greater disappointment to then-ABC chief Steve McPherson since it was produced in-house (Warner Bros. TV is behind V). While it might seem logical to have canceled both V and FlashForward, "Sometimes you don't want to admit everything didn't work," one network wag says. "You're always trying to create the illusion that you had a successful year, even when you didn't." ABC is also no doubt trying to find another "event" series to fill the gap left by Lost, even though our insider thinks that's folly. "These great shows are all unique. You just can't go out and find the next one," he says.

The final factor contributing to V's unlikely staying power: Network execs (along with more than a few producers) strongly believe in the theory that any show can be made better with the right creative "fixes." Remember how Heroes kept coming back year after year, even though it was clear to most folks the show had jumped off a really tall skyscraper after its season-one finale? It survived because NBC was confident that show-runner Tim Kring would listen to its feedback and change gears quickly enough to get viewers back on board. Fox has demonstrated similar patience with Lie to Me and Human Target, betting that creative tweaks plus more time will ultimately bring viewers to both shows (so far, it hasn't worked).

So what are the odds that V will manage to return for a third season? Early reviews are decidedly mixed. While Variety's Brian Lowry says the newest episodes show "a marked improvement," HitFix's Alan Sepinwall seems less convinced: "This one’s not working, and it doesn’t matter how many fresh coats of paint or new show-runners they try to slap onto it." And while V had Lost as a lead-in last spring, this winter's run, it will have to settle for the low-rated No Ordinary Family. But that's also the good news for V: Sandwiched between middling first-year performers Family and Detroit 1-8-7, the bar has been set very low. If V can manage to do just a little better than the shows around it, a third season is not entirely out of the question.

Photo: Marcel Williams – © 2010 ABC, Inc.