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HOWARD ROSENBERG

'Amerikan' Way: Hype, Not Truth

January 12, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG

ABC should be followed by a truth squad whenever it purports to give the lowdown about its controversial miniseries, "Amerika."

For hype purposes, ABC is dribbling out short previews of "Amerika," and on Friday it showed the first four hours (all that were available) to a gathering of the nation's TV critics here.

The rest of America won't see "Amerika" until Feb. 15. So there's time for the fuss to fester over this 14 1/2-hour marathon depicting a 1997 United States withering under Kremlin rule and being bullied by United Nations-type occupation troops.

ABC has been accused of creating "Amerika" to appease conservatives favoring a harder line toward the Soviet Union.

Hence, ABC's siege mentality.

You'll have to decide yourself, though, why ABC is compelled to be disingenuous in some of its public comments about "Amerika."

On Friday, the double talk really hit the fan.

"I don't believe the Soviet Union is castigated in this film," "Amerika" producer/director/writer Donald Wrye told the TV critics.

That Wrye could make such a statement was remarkable. That he could make it with a straight face was truly wondrous.

Come again? The story's setting is an America conquered and ruthlessly run by the Soviets and their U.N.-like puppets (they even blow up the Capitol), and Wrye doesn't believe this is castigation? It's a puff piece?

"Amerika" uses the Soviet Union merely as "a totalitarian system overlaid on a Democratic system," Wrye said. "The Soviet Union is an abstraction, and not really relevant in terms of direct conflict."

Some abstraction. Moscow's hands-on operative in Amerika is a KGB officer and its leading adviser there a Soviet general, and the Kremlin plans to Balkanize the United States as a sort of East Europe clone.

To buy the story's far-fetched premise, you have to believe that the Kremlin sees military occupation of America as a realistic foreign policy option in this nuclear age and that Americans would succumb weakly.

Hence, the Soviet Union is irrelevant to the conquered United States the way Wrye is irrelevant to "Amerika."

Appearing with five "Amerika" cast members, Wrye denied that the miniseries "has anything to do with the geopolitical relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union."

Huh? Geopolitical, schmitical. What gobblespeak!

Wrye was denying a non-existant charge. Of course, "Amerika" has nothing to do with geopolitics--the politics of a nation as shaped by such geographical features as size, position and frontiers.

Soviet conquest, not geography, has shaped Wrye's America of 1997.

The real U.N. has charged that it is smeared by "Amerika." The occupying forces have "U.N." as part of their name, wear U.N.-type helmet liners and have a flag bearing a U.N.-like emblem. Their brutal leader is East German. Moreover, U.N. spokesmen have complained about references to rape in "Amerika."

When Wrye was asked about that Friday, he did what he and ABC have increasingly done when challenged about elements of "Amerika." He became a comedian.

"No, there's no raping in the picture," he replied. "No, unfortunately, there's no Nazi porn. There's no rape."

After the laughter from the critics subsided, Wrye continued.

"There's no kinky sex. The editors . . . are all searching through the dailies (each day's work) looking for (kinky sex). No one's found any yet. That's unfortunate." Ho ho ho.

A questioner persisted. "These scenes in the original script . . . Were there ever any scenes of rape in the script?"

"Never," Wrye replied.

Technically, Wrye was correct. But he surely grasped the spirit of the question--that even rape references could have an impact on the real U.N.'s image--and chose to sidestep it.

Rape scenes? No. But on page 170 of a Dec. 3, 1985, revised "Amerika" script, there is this emotional speech by Alethea Milford, sister of hero Devin Milford, describing being sexually assaulted by occupation soldiers.

"They took me out and raped me. There were four of them: very international group. An Angolan, two South Americans--Chile and Honduras, I think--and a Vietnamese."

It's uncertain whether this speech remains in the miniseries, for it appears at a point in the script beyond the four-hour segment shown to critics Friday.

In any event, why do the makers of "Amerika" prefer verbally pirouetting to talking straight? After all, ABC has every right to air "Amerika" and the cast every right to appear in it.

Yes, it has a point of view. Yes, it may please more rightists than leftists. Yes, it may strengthen U.S. hawks. Yes, it may anger the Kremlin. (So what?)

But no, ABC should not bow to demands of "Amerika" critics for air time to hash over the story's implications.

I mean, why stop with "Amerika?" We might as well have panel discussions after every TV drama that makes a strong statement about a controversial topic.

If fairness is the issue, why aren't "Amerika" critics also lobbying for time to air views opposing "My Dissident Mom," Wednesday's CBS drama for kids that clobbers America's nuclear munitions industry? Shouldn't arms buildup advocates get a crack at rebuttal, too?

Then, too, HBO aired a made-for-TV drama Sunday that depicted late FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover as a jerk. Don't Hooverphiles deserve a shot on TV, too?

And on and on it would go.

What TV dramatists need is more freedom of expression, not less. And less is what they'd get if a network felt obliged to "balance" each potentially controversial drama with a panel discussion. If that were mandatory, TV's bosses would reject every strong script and the medium would become even meeker than it is now.

So on with "Amerika," for better or worse. But here's one vote for more truth in packaging.

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