Monday, 2 April 2012


A few nights ago, suffering an odd coincidence of jetlag, worry, and Channel 4 On Demand, I watched episodes of two TV series back to back. The first came from the third season of The Good Wife, Alicia's law firm brings suit against the government for torturing an American Moslem doctor whom they have accused of being a terrorist. The second was the first episode of Homeland, in which a Marine held and tortured for eight years by Al Qaeda, is rescued and returns home, where CIA agent Clare Danes suspects he has been turned.

It was like watching conflicting decades from my past battling it out for the control of small screen reality. The Fifties against, I'm not sure: the Sixties perhaps, or the Eighties. Depending on how you interpret The Good Wife.

I said the Sixties because,at times, Good Wife seems to be trying to be The Defenders for a new century (and I do not mean the Jim Belushi series, but the Reginald Rose-created EG Marshall and Robert Reed one back in the early Sixties). That show was filled with the promise of The New Frontier, a certain American liberalism which no one had yet turned into a dirty word (though sponsors still balked at some of the topics. Today they simply fund right-wing think tanks instead). More often, The Good Wife reminds me of LA Law (or indeed, ER, on which Julianna Marguiles made her name back in the days when the features on her face were still capable of movement): its heart is in the right place but with far more interest in glitzy melodrama and an optimism based on Reagan-era fantasy—which I would argue was the prevailing mode in America for two decades. In fact you might even argue that the election of Barack Obama was a last gasp of such a fantasy. Obama himself could be the considered the apotheosis of what I'd call the Sorkin Syndrome: the appearance of a left-wing agenda which when push comes to shove always winds up endorsing the American status quo, our good intentions, and the triumphs of our democracy—usually with the cast of West Wing loosening their ties, rolling up their sleeves, and drinking domestic beer from the bottle. Mitt Romney couldn't do it better.

And in fact, as if to prove my point about the halvah-like crumbling of The Good Wife's intentions, no sooner do they outline the repressive nature behind the democracy Americans have surrendered in the name of 'security', they move to an episode in which a drone operator's killing of civilians targeted by her missile turns out to be an old-fashioned good old honest error, not something endemic to the wars we send our noble soldiers to fight on behalf of powerfully vested interests. And the 'will she-won't she' nature of Alicia's personal life returns to the fray as an inevitable side-effect of the show's most interesting feature: it's matter-of-fact attitude toward Cook County politics, whose corruption never lessens its faith in democracy in action.

Speaking of noble soldiers, Homeland is a reversion to the paranoia of the early 1950s, when the McCarthyite world-view was made into drama (I Led Three Lives, Invasion Of The Body Snatches), and which reached its apotheosis in The Manchurian Candidate, which turned us into the victims of the all-powerful mentalists of North Korea. Funny how things don't change. The key thing about Homeland is that it is a remake of an Israeli series, and the world-view is one in which the powerful are actually the victims. Al Queda, like the North Koreans, are actually all powerful, infiltrating our society, ready to destroy it, or considerable portions thereof, at a moment's notice. If you think my first reaction was overly paranoid, the show itself made this clear in the close of a later episode, when Danes' psychotic CIA agent Carrie (interesting Stephen King/Brian dePalma resonance there) Mathison is visiting her sister's family so she can cop more medication to keep her functioning, explains to her niece how she literally will protect her from the nasty terrorists so she can sleep at night. The message is you have everything to fear, including fear itself (corollary: stay inside and boost our ratings by watching more TV, which will exacerbate your fear, which infinitum).

There was a reaction to this in the 1970s--sparked by the infamous Russian roulette scenes of The Deer Hunter, which led to the 'veterans betrayed' films, the Rambo franchise, but more tellingly less well-known movies like Rolling Thunder, where the returning vet is not just denied heroism, but actually robbed of it. Homeland, as we will see, plays with those tropes, but the veteran's heroism is never questioned on the outside, just the inside.

Speaking of infiltration, I find it more dangerous that Damien Lewis, a Brit who's already a veteran of DDay and World War II in Band Of Brothers, plays the returning Marine Sgt. Nick Brody, and another Brit, David Harewood (think a less intense Idris Elba with Mr. Spock ears) plays the ambitious deputy director of the CIA. Of course The Good Wife features Archie Panjabi as the sexually ambiguous investigator Kalinda, and Alan Cumming as Eli Gold, whom nobody seems to have noticed is English. This is something HUAC ought to be recalled to investigate, though I can't really complain if Archie's on our screens more as a result.

More interestingly in Homeland, Mandy Patinkin plays the CIA's top Mid-East analyst in a very Jewish way, as if to emphasise the close parallels of world view (though as I write this, there are serious smoke clouds being thrown up around his characters, and I refuse to cheat and look ahead to find out how they resolve. Even more interestingly, Brody's wife is played by Morena Baccarin, a Brazilian-born childhood friend of Danes. America really is the melting pot of opportunity! The returning soldier/wife's afffair with best friend when she thought he was dead subplot is Homeland's attempt at soap opera interest, but it never crackles—except when Brody and Carrie get it on in the back seat of a car—it's like a 50s teenager movie too!

Meanwhile, the domestic front is addressed in the person of a wholesome American woman, radicalised by a childhood in the Mid East with her oil-company employed father, who lures an otherwise assimiliated professor of Arab descent over to the dark side. America is a very dangerous place, even if you ignore the kind of American-on-American violence that is the staple of network TV. And (digression here) speaking of violence, how about the violence perpetrated against the audience when a network television 'hour' is a programme of barely 40 minutes long.

But in the end, the focus is on Danes, and she does disturbed as well as any actress around. Her ability to externalise internal torment is a masterpiece of control. Carrie's psychosis is a specific reaction to the 911 attacks—she feels she should have stopped them, and saved America, she feels compelled to try to stop the next round. It has, literally, driven her crazy, and driven her into a permanent state of battle against the shadowy enemy that, it is never suggested, may be exaggerated by her own disease. The assumption is that America, like Carrie, is walking a tightrope from which they could topple at any time. Perhaps Showtime should have called it 'My So-Called War'.

1 comment :

Bruce ma Goose said...

Homeland was by the makers of 24 and written in Israel so I feared the worst. My jaw too clenched at a couple of moments, noticeably at Carrie saying she was working so her neice could sleep at night. But in time that comes across more as the delusional utterance of a drug dependent psychiatric patient than a 4th wall breaking social commentary. Or at least the possibility of that emerges.

Having stuck with it, although patently absurd, it has been entertaining and a bit more even handed in its treatment of US authorities than I'd anticipated. If nothing else it challenged my own preconceptions and prejudices about US television and Israeli society.

Also started The Bridge (BBC 4) but although promising, I'm not sure it can survive a truly absurd first episode! Still, there is always season 2 of Borgen later in the year which will hopefully come under your steely glare.