American fears of Soviet conquest usually take the form of the nuclear nightmare. But the makers of Amerika, the epic ABC miniseries which premières on Feb. 15, have based their drama on a premise that neatly overlooks the issue of nuclear arms. Without significant military opposition, the Soviet Union has overrun a demoralized American nation. As the story unfolds —in 1996 —the United States has been under Kremlin control for a decade.
And what a grey country it has become. Drab housewives line up for a rare shipment of fresh tomatoes. Grumbling restaurant patrons dine on tasteless soyburgers. Under Soviet rule, even the weather seems in a permanent sulk. And a small town’s Lincoln Day parade becomes an occasion for gloom—under red banners pairing portraits of Lincoln and Lenin. Last week, even before its première, Amerika was already one of the most controversial programs in the history of television.
The $55-million, 15-hour series has become a target of attacks from both ends of the political spectrum. Charging that it fosters a Cold War mentality, liberal and left-wing groups have mounted public protests against the series. Conservatives have complained that it portrays the Communist invaders too sympathetically. And international ire over Amerika—much of which was filmed in Ontario—has come from both the Soviet Union and the United Nations.
The Soviet objections to Amerika date back to 1985. Before filming began, Soviet officials hinted that ABC’s news bureau in Moscow could suffer repercussions if the program went ahead. Now that it has been shot, the Soviets have expressed an interest in telecasting it to their own citizens—as an example of capitalist brainwashing. Meanwhile, United Nations officials threatened to take legal action against ABC: the script portrays the UN as a complicit partner in the takeover, and occupying troops are shown with UN insignia on their helmets. Last month the UN sent a protest letter to ABC saying, “We are concerned that the portrayal of UN peacekeeping
forces as brutal oppressors.. .will undermine public support for one of the most valuable aspects of the UN’s work.”
The backlash has extended beyond rhetoric. Chrysler Corp., one of the program’s major sponsors, last month withdrew 36 half-minute commercials worth a total of $8 million from the series. A Chrysler company statement
said, “Amerika’s subject matter and its portrayal are so intense and emotional” that its corporate patriotic ad campaign—which revolves around the slogan “Pride is back—Born in America”— would be “inappropriate.”
The comic opera of controversy surrounding Amerika may well be more captivating than the show itself. The first four hours of the mini-series, available last week for advance viewing, are as sluggish as a state funeral in Red Square. The story centres on the Milfords, a Nebraska farm family whose vast land holdings have been whittled down to a few acres under Soviet rule.
As the series begins, political dissident Devin Milford (Kris Kri stoffer son) is released after six years of imprisonment in an American gulag. Once an impassioned and eloquent congressman, Devin no longer seems to be playing with a full deck. For the first few hours of Amerika, the craggy Kristofferson silently shuffles through most of his
scenes like a man at war with a crippling hangover. Still, the mere sight of his Lincolnesque features is enough to stir a crowd into flouting Soviet authority with a spontaneous rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner.
While Devin evokes memories of a lost democracy, other characters wrangle with issues of loyalty and betrayal.
Soviet KGB Col. Andrei Denisov (Sam Neill) is torn between his official duties and his vicarious fascination with American values. His lover, Christina (Mariel Hemingway), has trouble reconciling their romance with her acting jobs in underground theatre. The earnest but misguided Peter Bradford (Robert Urich) works as an administrator in the Soviets’ puppet government. A paragon of liberal naïveté, Bradford has one of Amerika’s most memorable lines, “Look, this is not my favorite time in history either, but we can pull together and make the best of it.”
Most of the program’s humor seems strictly unintentional. Despite amorous subplots, the drama is turgid with serious intent. Curiosity may initially lure a large audience to Amerika—but its nostalgic search for liberty’s lost horizon soon leaves the viewer stranded in a small-screen Siberia.
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