ABC (Sun., Feb. 15, 9 p.m. ET)
Before wrestling with Amerika, The Controversy, let’s look at Amerika, The Show, a fable that asks what life in these United States would be like in 1997, a decade after the Soviets take us over.
If ABC showed any courage in making Amerika, it was in letting the world—the U.S.S.R the U.S. left and right, the U.N. and Chrysler—use up all the hype, reserving none for the opening of the show itself. This thing starts sloooow. If people don’t watch all 14½ hours, it won’t be because of politics but simply because the first hour is so hard to slog through. But after watching six and a half hours (the rest wasn’t ready for advance viewing) I have to say that my eyelids did rise from the dead. I am curious to see more—thanks mostly to Amerika’s cast.
Sam Neill as the KGB man running our heartland gives his role intelligence and depth; he is Amerika’s best defense against charges of mindless Red-bashing. Kris Kristofferson is well cast as a politician of conscience who opposes the Soviets and spends six years in a Texas gulag. Kristofferson takes forever to utter so much as a single syllable—without his brooding, Amerika could have been only 10 hours long—but he brings dignity to the show. Robert Urich is just as well cast as a quisling bureaucrat who tries to make life easier by collaborating. Cindy Pickett as Urich’s wife and Christine Lahti as Kristofferson’s sister do fine jobs as women torn between safety and revolution. And Mariel Hemingway as Neiil’s lover gives a good impersonation of the oblivious, apolitical American. The acting’s damned good. The writing and direction—both from Donald (Divorce Wars) Wrye—give you reason to be engrossed. There’s a lot of talent here.
But the question is: Are those talents—and 14½ hours on our airwaves—put to proper use? Motive counts. Until I see and review the entire mini, I can’t know what, if anything, Amerika wants to say. If Amerika whips up controversy only for controversy’s—and ratings’—sake, that’s amoral. If Amerika merely wants to propagandize against Communism, it loses all subtlety when it has an army of killer commies from central casting drive tanks over mothers and children. That is the most manipulative, hysterical and violent scene I’ve ever seen on TV, one clearly designed to make you scream: “Nuke Moscow!”
But ABC would have you see higher motives in Amerika. Kristofferson in his oratory and director Wrye—in an interview conducted, edited and released by ABC—argue that they only want us to think about democracy (read: “Ask not what your country can do for you…”). Wrye says his show really asks “whether we as Americans have the capacity to sustain a democracy.” He says Amerika “is not anti-Soviet.” Then, with daring naiveté, he adds that it “has virtually no foreign policy implications at all.” He compares himself with George (1984) Orwell and Aldous (Brave New World) Huxley and says he invented this takeover as a “fanciful environment.” V used alien lizards. Wrye used the Soviets.
But unlike Orwell’s Big Brother or V’s lizards, the Soviets are not fanciful; they are real, and so are fears of them. Yet there’s nothing real about Amerika’s plot. Amerika says that by this year, our democracy had become so weak it could implode and simply surrender to Soviet rule. But in his first six and a half hours, Wrye gives us no specific diagnosis of democracy’s alleged ills, and thus no credibility to that premise. Nor does he bother to explain how—or whether—the Soviets could ever take us over. In fact, he doesn’t make the Soviets act very Soviet at all. They are generic conquerors. Gimmicks. The implication is that anybody could take over and still make Wrye’s points (whatever they may prove to be). It could just as easily be our friends the Japanese buying our businesses and then our government. Or the Arabs using their oil money. And if not the Arabs, why not their Mideast enemies, the Israelis? So rephrase Amerika’s plot that way: What would life be like if the Israelis took over? You have a miniseries Hitler would have made in 1933.
So that’s what’s wrong: Amerika uses the Soviets as convenient bogeymen and does so at a time when tensions between our nations are taut, at a time when we can destroy each other. No matter how good the acting, writing or direction may be and no matter how compelling Amerika’s story may become in its seven nights, it still manufactures and then exploits fear and world tension. Whether that is done to make philosophical points, political points or ratings points, it is still irresponsible.