If you haven’t seen ABC’s V yet, I’ll spoil it for you: the Vs symbolize President Obama. Countless articles have spelled it out: io9, Chicago Tribune, BreitBart, and Entertainment Weekly, among many others, have already foregrounded the debate.
It’s very obvious. In the first episode, we learn that the Visitors bring hope and promise change; they’re all attractive; they have a sleekly designed spaceship (and probably a nice website too); they’ve got young people excited about the movement; they are of peace in a world racked by war; they come at time when we need them most; they’re a global phenomenon; the press is in their pocket; they are God-like and pose a serious threat to Christianity; most obvious of all, they want to bring “universal healthcare” and “clean sustainable energy.” This should all sound painfully obvious, unless you slept through 2008. What’s the problem, then? Well, underneath it all, the Vs are reptiles who want to eat and destroy us!
There’s just one wrinkle in this theory: V is a series based on a NBC miniseries of the same name written and released during the presidency of conservative icon Ronald Reagan!
If we see V as an anti-Obama series now, what was it back then?
I went to LexisNexis to see how TV critics read the show when it came out in 1983. The result:
The Vs were fascists.
In fact, there seem to be little debate about it. As clear as V reads as anti-Obama to us now, V (1983) read as anti-fascist back then.
“It is also an allegory about fascist takeover–a pulp-comic “1984.” The aliens are metaphors for Nazis. Their leader is a virtual Hitler,” Tom Shales wrote in The Washington Post. “Just so that no one with half a brain could possibly miss the point, the film includes such exchanges as one between an elderly Jewish man named Abraham Bernstein (Leonard Cimino) and his wife. ‘It will pass,’ she says of the alien unpleasantness. ‘That’s what I said, in 1938 back in Berlin,’ he says.”
Arthur Unger at The Christian Science Monitor wrote: “They turn out to be lizardlike creatures who plan to destroy the earth after gaining control step by step, in the Nazi manner. Scientists become the persecuted Jews of this weird totalitarian regime, and resistance among earthlings grows until it becomes a widespread liberation movement.”
The New York Times didn’t mince words: “The visitors from space, of course, are symbolic Nazis,” wrote John Corry.
There are several reasons for this easy reading:
1) Persecution: Times: “They make scapegoats of scientists (the Jews); they form youth groups (the Hitlerjugend); they refer to ”our leader” (the Fuehrer). Some scientists confess to crimes they did not commit.”
2) Resistance: Monitor: “…resistance among earthlings grows until it becomes a widespread liberation movement.” (Read: the French, among other countries).
3) The creator (Kenneth Johnson) said so: ”I began looking for a way to tell the story, building off the roots of neofascism as I saw it in the country today. But NBC was not sure that we would be able to convince American TV audiences that a home-grown police state could come to exist, so I thought of an occupying army like the Russians or the Chinese. But I couldn’t convince myself that they would have the power to sustain a prolonged occupation of the United States,” he told the Monitor.
4) The TV series itself said so: Reported the Times: “‘To the heroism of the resistance fighters – past, present and future – this work is respectfully dedicated,’ the prologue says.”
What fascinates me is how virtually the same show reads completely differently given its social context. The “youth group” motif in the 1980s, as America tired of a waning battle with communism, read as Nazi youth groups. Today, given the activism of young people in the Obama campaign, we see it as liberal Democratic. In the 1980s, the leader is the Führer; today it is Barack Obama. The vastly different readings mean we should always be mindful that critiques of representation are nuanced and situated, as I have repeatedly said on this blog.
The difference of opinion from 1983 to 2009 makes sense. The Vs in the 1980s wore red and black and looked harsh and foreboding; they looked suspect from the beginning. They looked like the SS — or at least the SS cast in a music video by Devo. ABC updated their look to something resembling the Apple aesthetic: clean, minimalist, monochrome and white. Today it’s become a convention of television drama to mask the villainy of the villains (24, Lost, etc.). This aesthetic warrants itself well to comparisons with Obama, who also was a accused of having an Apple aesthetic and being a pretty face.
What fun! ABC deserves credit for successfully remixing an eighties text for the new millennium (and the post-Bush moment). This is hard to do, as evidenced by the mediocre release of The Watchmen this year, which felt leaden by its indebtedness to Cold War rhetoric, Reaganism and anti-Nixonism.
Will V turn people against Obama? How ridiculous! But what V may do is give viewers who were already primed to be suspicious of Obama — from the right and left — and way to think through their concerns. Some will walk away feeling their suspicions confirmed; others will find renewed hope that Obama is not a secret reptilian fascist out to destroy what’s good and American. Most people will probably miss the connection all together. And that’s fine too. It’s just television.