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HOWARD ROSENBERG

1987: The Year That Red Was Visible in Two Distinct Shades

December 30, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG

The Russians were coming. The Russians were coming.

The 1986-87 TV year more or less began as it ended--with a Soviet invasion of the United States. "Amerika" was the starter, Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev the topper.

Who could have predicted that such events would coexist on TV in the same year, that an enormously publicized and controversial drama projecting a largely rigid perspective on East-West relations would somehow find its counterpoint in the feelgood atmosphere of the Ronald Reagan/Gorbachev summit?

Flashback.

Feb. 15 was the premiere date for "Amerika," ABC's 14 1/2-hour miniseries that depicted a Soviet-directed United Nations occupation of the U.S. a decade into the future. But the attack on "Amerika"--as a Red-ripping, glasnost -goring right-wing polemic that would surely solidify American public opinion against the Kremlin and heat up the nuclear arms race--had begun months earlier.

"Amerika" did have a Cold War point of view. You could imagine John Foster Dulles springing to his feet and applauding.

It was a U.S. supposedly without spine or fighting spirit that Soviet-led forces easily conquered and dominated in "Amerika." Although some Soviet leaders were portrayed as relatively humane, the occupation was so ruthless that the nation buckled from hunger and despair, Congress ended up being slaughtered and the Capitol torched.

A political message there?

Some skeptics believed ABC had become a surrogate for archconservatives, that "Amerika" was more propaganda than drama, that it was intended as a warning of what could befall a real America should we become too complacent about the Soviets. In other words, too much friendship could be lethal. This was no time to think about nuclear disarmament. Warriors of the world, unite!

Consequently, the weight and intensity of the advance protests were unprecedented for a network TV program, and they made lively copy. The U.N. bitterly complained of being maligned. Media watchdogs and special-interest groups demanded script revisions and even equal time. There were whispers of possible sponsor boycotts. Some hip-shooting critics (including yours truly) were openly suspicious of "Amerika," mostly sight unseen. And TV mogul Ted Turner, an outspoken advocate of closer relations with the Soviets, aired anti-"Amerika" counter-programming on his cable superstation WTBS. Drastic action was required to counter this $41-million mushroom cloud that ABC was sending up.

Yet fears about "Amerika" turned out to be unwarranted.

Afterward, there were no more calls for nuking the Soviets than before. Nor did America's anti-disarmament crowd perceptively grow or believers in glasnost appear to diminish.

If "Amerika" proved anything, it was that the political reach and influence of a TV miniseries can be overrated, depending on whatever else is happening in the world, and that viewers are able to separate fact from speculation. Either that, or the positive images of Soviets in "Amerika" outweighed the bad.

It's human nature to seek scapegoats and easy answers. Hence, we often attribute too much influence to media spectacles, especially when TV is the stage, while ignoring the larger political and social environment. "Amerika" arrived not in a vacuum, but at a time when positive contact between the United States and the Soviet Union was growing along with optimism about Gorbachev and glasnost . Only a week before, for example, the syndicated "Donahue" series had aired five relatively soft-focused programs from the Soviet Union.

February's Soviet occupation of the U.S. in "Amerika" quite obviously had far less impact on public opinion than succeeding months of U.S./Kremlin relations and the Dec. 7 occupation of Washington by Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev.

The latter two won more friends for the Kremlin than the ABC series made enemies, judging by the post-summit polls. When it came to wooing the media and other elements of American society, in fact, the Communist Party general secretary proved a greater communicator even than the White House's Great Communicator. Gorbachev oozed charm and savvy while shrewdly rolling up more photo opportunities than the Soviets have had five-year plans.

He was accompanied by his own image-softening symbol, the outwardly Westernized and materialistic, fashion-plated Raisa. Seeing "the Mr. and Mrs." together on TV made "Amerika" a faded memory, a blurred piece of shrill, outrageous fiction that seemingly bore no resemblance to reality or to the Soviet agenda of the present.

What, this nice couple think of conquest?

So instead of a hotter climate, "Amerika" was ultimately followed by a cool-down and at least a preliminary agreement by President Reagan and Gorbachev to reduce nuclear tensions by reducing weapons.

In the view of some conservatives, ironically, the very conciliatory U.S. that "Amerika" seemed to warn against broadly resembled the one that the Gorbachevs left behind when they returned to Moscow.

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