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‘V’ Continues ABC’s Red-Letter Year

When you're on a roll, even your more dubious plans have a way of panning out.

There's no doubt that, creatively, ABC is playing network TV's hottest hand. It has launched fall's best new sitcoms in "The Middle," ''Modern Family" and "Cougar Town," and its most intriguing drama in "FlashForward." And now it can add to that list of achievements the season's most entertaining new hour, straightforward division: "V."

Think about how easily this idea could have gone south. Apply too little creative thought, and this souped-up updating of NBC's much-loved 1983 miniseries could easily have become the same cheesy, tacky rehash mess that NBC made of Knight Rider. Overthink the project, and you risk bleeding all the fun out of it and creating an overly dark lump like Bionic Woman.

Tonight, writer Scott Peters, whose "The 4400" was one of TV's best recent alien-invasion dramas, hits all the right chords. He adds just enough modern media twists and political/sleeper-cell parallels to contemporize the story without drowning it in paranoia. The clothes and hair have changed, no doubt for the better, but the essentials are all in place - including, we can only hope, the visitors' legendary fondness for hamsters.

What he and ABC have landed on is a show in which the effects are good but not dominant, the characters are strong, and the story is (as it was) crystal clear. Space visitors have landed, and it's up to a few hardy souls to save a gullible world.

Indeed, where "FlashForward" thrives on ambiguity and complexity, "V'' offers the simpler pleasures of a good guy/bad guy adventure, and skilled actors head up both extremes. On "our" side, you have Joel Gretsch (who proved his sci-fi worth on "4400") as a questioning priest and "Lost's" Elizabeth Mitchell as a smart counterterrorism agent. On "their" side, you have Anna, the V leader played by Morena Baccarin, whose beauty and charisma are as alluring here as they were in "Firefly."

Wisely, Peters has also trapped some of his best characters in the middle: Scott Wolf as an ambitious anchor, Logan Huffman as Mitchell's V-enchanted teenage son, and Morris Chestnut, who is on to the visitors' biggest secret.

Anyone who has ever seen an invading-alien movie knows the visitors are up to no good, as the show acknowledges in a witty exchange that both celebrates and mocks "Independence Day"-type conventions. But there's still power to be found in those conventions - in our longing for alien contact, our fear over what it might mean, and the joy we seem to take in reinventing ourselves as scrappy underdogs.

As with those Americans looking up at Anna's lovely face on that hovering spaceship HDTV, it would be unwise to be too easily seduced. "V'' opens incredibly well. But so did the original miniseries, only to peter out as an open-ended show. Embrace the show, but keep your eyes open.

And your hamsters under guard.

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