By Ken Tucker
October 28, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: David Gray/ABC

A shrewd take on both sci-fi and the media, V is an excellently acted what-if-aliens- landed show, a savvy updating of the 1983 cult miniseries. The premise is irresistible: What if the aliens looked hot and promised friendship and advanced technology, but were secretly planning to exterminate everyone on Earth? That would put the planet in a bit of a pickle, wouldn’t it? I mean, yes, extermination = bad, but hot, disease-curing aliens?you might take your chances, right?

Lost‘s Elizabeth Mitchell — fast becoming TV’s go-to gal for strong, brainy women of action — stars as Erica, an FBI agent who’s suspicious about the motives of Anna (Morena Baccarin), the leggy leader of the ”V’s,” or ”Visitors.” She and her fed partner Dale (Joss Whedon repertory player Alan Tudyk) notice that there’s a spike in terrorist activity coinciding with the arrival of the aliens, and try to connect the dots.

Meanwhile, TV journalist Chad Decker, played with perfect plasticity by Scott Wolf, does his best to ignore the dots. Granted an exclusive interview with Anna, he caves in to her demand that he not ask questions ”that would paint us in a negative light.” Ambitious and easily flattered, Chad is willing to bend his ethics. He’s a compromised hero, a canny concept from the V producers, who include Scott Peters (creator of The 4400) and Jeffrey Bell (who’s written for The X-Files, Angel, and Alias). Chad’s character plays into our cynical notions of what TV will do to exploit a good news event, but he also represents our own ambivalence. After all, if a soothing-voiced creature came to us promising universal health care and her last name wasn’t Obama, don’t you think the majority of Americans would say, ”Hell, yeah!”?

The makers of V combine human drama (Erica’s son is recruited by the Visitors even as his mom starts a resistance movement against them) with elements of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (cool-icky visual: Cut a V deep enough and you get reptile skin beneath the flesh coating). Add the timely themes of terrorism and inability to trust your neighbor, and V works as both escapism and a critique of society.

Here’s my worry, though: How many viewers will take on another serialized otherworldly drama? If someone is hooked on FlashForward, Lost, and one or two cultier items (Dollhouse or Stargate Universe, say), is he/she going to invest in V as well? Add to that ABC’s potentially irritating rollout of this series — on the air for four weeks, then scheduled to be pulled until March 2010 — and I worry a bit for the future of V.

About the show itself, however, I don’t worry at all. As an adventure series bristling with ideas, it’s V+. Or as we grade ’em on Earth: B+

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