Monday, February 11, 2013
A ROOTING INTEREST...
The show runners of contemporary TV production know the key to a good show is a good story. Within that story they want to generate conflict and character development and they need you, the audience, to take a rooting interest in what happens to these characters and their lives and decisions. This is true in comedy or drama.
Recently, I encountered two programs which have turned this rooting interest on its head and ask the viewer to go against type as to who they root for and who they sympathize or identify with. One, The Americans, (the C is a hammer and sickle on the show), asks us if not to root, at least sympathize with two Soviet KGB agents sent to infiltrate and spy on this country. The other, Continuum, asks us to root for a cop whose goal is to protect a future America controlled by corporations who have suspended, if not eliminated, the Bill of Rights.
You may be asking yourself why I'm writing about TV shows? I love TV and grew up on it and it is great entertainment and it is a window on current cultural patterns and sentiments amongst society. However, I'm writing about these two particular programs because I find their premise intriguing and disturbing at the same time.
"The Americans" is a limited episode program on FX. I believe it will run for about 6-8 weeks. Its main characters were sent to this country in the 20's to take on the role of a typical, American, suburban couple with children who run a travel agency as a front for their espionage. It is an "arranged" marriage and one of the questions raised is whether they have grown to love each other or whether it is still a utilitarian relationship. Reagan has been elected and is talking about massive military buildups, a 600 ship navy and funding research for an anti ballistic missile system. The Soviets are freaked and press these two agents into riskier and more dangerous assignments gathering information. Their new neighbor is an FBI counterintelligence agent tasked to find Soviet undercover agents.
If the intention of the creators was to create sympathy and empathy for the spies working to harm this nation, they have succeeded. In an interesting juxtaposition, the husband has gone native and loves living in America. "...the food's good, we have air-conditioning and the electricity always works." He also is concerned about their two children's fate. They do not know about their parent's real identities. His wife is the more doctrinaire and committed Soviet, willing to die and lose her family for mother Russia.
The FBI agent, and American law enforcement, do not generate the same rooting interest. They are the predators. In their search for spies, they breach laws and violate civil liberties and, ironically, operate in the way the KGB would in the Soviet Union. It's fascinating.
Do we want them to get caught? As they follow their orders, we have the advantage of knowing the Soviet Union falls apart in a few years and their efforts are fruitless. Should they lose their lives and their children and their marriage when we know they won't win? How comfortable are we with an FBI and government which trashes the Constitution to catch them knowing these practices continue to this day? Who do you root for?
The other program is on the SciFi channel. Continuum opens in the year 2072 to a world where government has collapsed. Unable to provide enough stability and peace, they have been replaced by corporations who run the world based on a corporate code which has supplanted the Constitution and civil liberties. Basic human rights have been outlawed. It is illegal to criticize the government. There is no freedom of association, due process, or protection against unreasonable search and seizure. All of this is justified by the corporations as necessary to maintain order and benefit the people.
The police of the future use huge computer systems to spy on the people. There is no privacy. The cops have chips inserted into their brains to become cyborgs attached to the computer system. They fight "terrorists" who want a return to basic freedoms the country once enjoyed. As the government defends oppression, the terrorists embrace violence as a way to achieve their goals. They blow up a building killing thousands and are sentenced to death. However, they are able to time travel back to 2012 and intend to try to change the future. A cop gets sucked up with them and now she is fighting to prevent them from succeeding.
Once again, who do we root for? The cop, the hero, wants to return herself and us to a future controlled by corporations...(maybe we are already there)...where the Bill of Rights is a memory. She longs for a nation in which speech and thought are controlled and monitored all in the good name of order and peace. The "terrorists" want a world of rights and protections which is messier and dysfunctional, but represents freedom to them. They are willing to be violent and kill innocent people to achieve their aims.
So who is the hero or villain? Is the cop worth rooting for? Can we find ourselves sympathizing with the terrorists? The creators of the show clearly intend the cop to be the hero. She cries as she thinks about her children and all she wants to do is return home. The "terrorists" are portrayed as psychotic, sociopaths, ex-military, willing to kill anyone who gets in their way. It is clear how the show runners want us to feel.
I find myself rooting for the "bad guys". I want them to succeed. I don't want an Orwellian future where oppression is justified as providing order and stability and where dissent and disagreement are criminal offenses. We should root for the cop, who if successful, guarantees a future in which corporate values carry the day?
The Americans is interesting because we know the spies fail ultimately and we see they are in love and we think about their children and the FBI acts like the KGB. Continuum is disturbing. It reeks of propaganda and an agenda. It seems perfectly suited for a nation where corporations wield more and more power and influence over our lives. It argues for a world dominated by Exxon and Apple rather than one under the auspices of a Constitution which protects the minority from the majority.
For better or worse, Continuum offends me far more than the Americans. Creating sympathetic spies doesn't grate on me anywhere near as much as arguing for a world controlled by the largest corporations using a sophisticated computer system to spy and violate privacy, and eliminate basic rights in order to maintain control.
The Americans is intended to be a short-lived series. I hope Continuum is as well.