Disposable TV: The State of Televised Patriotism, From ‘Washington’s Spies’ to ‘Hollywood Hillbillies’Antony Platt/AMC
There must be a new presidential election cycle starting, because the sharp pain in the back of my skull has started acting up and my vision has gotten blurry. These are strange days, indeed — full of hyperbole, partisan rancor, wanton innuendo, and so much pomp and circumstance that it makes the Super Bowl look like the time I buried my pet hamster, Gerardo, in my neighbor’s vegetable garden. For the next two years, politicians on both the left and the right will strain themselves to remind us that America is the greatest country in the world and, goshdarnit, shouldn’t we start acting like it again?
The massive success of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper seemed to signal that the metaphorical back-patting of presidential politics was coming back into vogue in the popular culture. It was once again OK to root without reservation for a soldier who killed for a cause he believed in. It wasn’t nihilistic or morally confused, like so many war films of the last 15 years. Success like that begets a trend, so two little-seen drama series — Turn: Washington’s Spies and American Odyssey — have been retrofitted to more prominently feature their connections to the good ol’ stars and stripes.
If you’re not familiar with Turn: Washington’s Spies, it might be because it used to just be called Turn. Or to be more accurate, TurИ, because everything is just so much cooler when it’s backward — hats; chairs, when sat in by hip, young teachers; the stuffed-crust pizza; the Beatles song “Revolution 9”; and the letter N. Adding “Washington’s Spies” to the name of the show not only more closely connects the show to the book it was based on, it also cues the potential viewer into the inherent American-ness of the endeavor — unless you mistake “Washington” for the state in the Pacific Northwest or Kermit Washington, the basketball player who famously punched Rudy Tomjanovich.
Turn is actually a turgid romp through a Colonial Williamsburg version of the American Revolution that details the adventures of the real-life Culper Ring — covert agents that were essential to the 13 colonies triumphing over the British Empire. It stars Jamie Bell, who plays the Thing in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot, as Abe Woodhull, a New York farmer torn between his commitment to his friends in the rebellion and his duty to his loyalist family. Please stop me if you can’t handle the excitement of this premise and need to be hosed off and scrubbed down like a fever-addled elephant at the circus!
An earnest effort is made to sex up the story and add a bit of Game of Thrones intrigue to one of history’s greatest underdog stories. Bell is a competent lead; Ian Kahn plays George Washington as a man overwhelmed by his place in this epic drama and wears his burden on his face at all times; and I admit to being amused by Torchwood alum Burn Gorman playing Hugh Grant playing Major Richard Hewlett. Major Hewlett is one of the only remotely sympathetic English characters on the whole show, owing mostly to his propensity to stammer awkwardly. The unintentional comedy of it all was one of the only things keeping me from giving up on the show, selling my television in exchange for Bed Bath & Beyond coupons, and moving to Nova Scotia.
Turn is the kind of show in which a character enjoying a glass of wine says to an underling, “I’d like a report with my port.” That’s the varietal of pun that would get you accused of literary treason and sent to a firing squad where I come from. I would be thrilled to hear that this bit of dialogue was some kind of clever anti-comedy employed to show how obnoxious the villainous English soldiers are.1 I’d be even more excited to discover that Turn was actually the result of some Argo-style fake film production scheme to sneak Edward Snowden, a briefcase full of Nazi gold, and the stolen instructions for how to build a cold fusion reactor into America under cover of powdered wig. At least I’d understand why this show still exists.
The ratings for Turn: Washington’s Spies remain abysmal early in its second season despite the addition of a colon to the title, presumably because it persists in being so very dull. Hour 2 of the season premiere ends with a shocking act of violence2 that doesn’t even register after the 70th candlelit scene of people mumbling about freedom. The highlight of the episode is, I kid you not, Abe taking notes on the exact placement of cannons around New York harbor. I get that this was important information during the war and I’m fortunate that people like Abe Woodhull risked their lives to build this country, but the odds of making that compelling TV when I can see a guy’s skull get crushed on HBO are slim. Turn is the television equivalent of those placeholder photos you get in picture frames. It’s a handsomely shot picture of a couple having a picnic or embracing at a college graduation, but it has no meaning. It’s an imitation of a real memory, just like Turn is an imitation of a real prestige drama.
I will give Turn a bit of credit for being patriotic without simultaneously being patronizing. The founding of the United States is portrayed as a noble, if complicated, struggle against tyranny. It knows what sort of show it wants to be, even if that show isn’t one I ever want to watch again. NBC’s American Odyssey, on the other hand, wants to be both a flag-waving appreciation of the pluck and toughness of the individual soldier and an indictment of the system that soldier represents. It tells the tale of a U.S. Army operation gone wrong and the uncovering of a plot by a multinational corporation to fund terrorist activity in the Middle East. Our righteous protagonist, Sergeant Odelle Ballard, carrying the proof of this conspiracy, escapes a Blackwater-esque private military that’s trying to seal the information leak. They kill her team, but she escapes. In order to save face and protect the lie, her death is faked, but she remains on the run. Her goal is to get back to America with the proof that can bring down the wealthy bad guys. Back home, she’s been turned into a folk hero by liberal activists who swear the government is lying about her death.
Like Turn, American Odyssey went through an identity crisis and a name change recently. It was originally just called Odyssey, as it was developed as an updated retelling of Homer’s Odyssey. Some bright, shining diamond at NBC must have seen the grosses for American Sniper and surmised that far more people would tune in if they had assurances that the lead character was, you know, American. Riding the patriotism gravy train sounds great in theory, but in practice it makes no sense for a show with the central conceit that the American government has been infiltrated by those who do not have its best interest in mind. A G8 protestor named Harrison intercepts Odelle’s distress signal and makes it his personal mission to expose the truth. Peter Facinelli plays an ex–U.S. Attorney who’s transitioned to the private sector and gets wrapped up in the mess this show calls a plot. These are not the heroes the American Sniper crowd want to see. These are the kinds of characters Chris Kyle would throw into a plate-glass window like a modern-day Dalton from Road House.
I’d accept this shell-game mentality toward marketing if the writing wasn’t so groan-inducing. An Arab character compares a local tribal conflict to America’s “blue and red states,” because we’re not all that different, you see! Later, an American teenager skips school to see a public appearance by a candidate for prime minister of Greece and almost faints like she just saw One Direction give a free concert in a mall food court completely in the nude. In an attempt to break into a hacker’s computer to seize important proof that Odelle is still alive, G8 protestor Harrison cycles through password guesses like “G8PROTEST,” “BIGTOBACCO,” and “WHISTLEBLOWER.” These guesses are generated by choosing words helpfully underlined on newspaper clippings nailed to a bulletin board. Harrison doesn’t guess the correct password, though if he did, I probably would have set fire to my living room and joined the priesthood. The fact that this character would be stupid enough to think that a hacker would underline the password to his super-secret computer for easy access renders him a truly shabby hero. I should not want to climb into my flat screen to strangle one of the leads of a broadcast TV program.3
You might find this hard to believe, but my computer password is not “DUDEWHOCOULDSTANDTOLOSEAFEWPOUNDS,” “SARCASTICWRITER,” “MRWEINERPANTS,” “KOBEBRYANTBLACKMAMBAFORLIFE,” or “KITTYLOVER420.” I’d at least replace the S’s with dollar signs before I called it a day. American Odyssey, like Turn, is guaranteed to be canceled in the next few weeks (or days). It regurgitates every trope of popular fiction utilized in espionage and military stories since the start of the War on Terror: a vaguely exotic soundtrack, shadowy conspiracies, weary operatives hashing out the future of the world in stuffy boardrooms, and copious amounts of sand. Look, I don’t like sand! It’s coarse, and rough, and irritating … and it gets everywhere!
Amid all the patriotic fervor and chitchat about American ideals, it’s worth remembering what it is we’re fighting for. Naturally, I mean our right to exploit our snaggletoothed, southern-fried brethren in moronic reality shows. I watched three episodes of the newest season of Reelz’s Hollywood Hillbillies to reacquaint myself with our fascination with mocking the lower classes. Filling the gaping void left by the slow, horrifying disintegration of the Honey Boo Boo franchise, Hollywood Hillbillies introduces the nation to the family of Michael, the “Gingers Do Have Souls” kid from YouTube, and follows them to Los Angeles, where Michael hopes to make it big as a rapper. That mission appears to be going terribly, if the below music video is any indication:
Like Honey Boo Boo, the star of the show is not the precocious kid, it’s the family matriarch — in this case, Michael’s grandmother, who he calls “Mema.” Much of the “comedy” on this show is derived from missing teeth, the weight of the characters, their general hatred of life in L.A., and their confusion at the outside world. “I think a Korean spa is going to have a lot of Koreans there doing Korean things and I don’t know what they are. So I guess I’m gonna have to get Korean with ’em,” Mema says. She gets a deep tissue rubdown, which she does not care for at all. I couldn’t help but think of the circus elephant from my earlier simile as I watched this.
In a certain way, Hollywood Hillbillies is the most American show on TV, a spiritual sequel to Turn. All the fighting, toil, and bloodshed led to this. Hollywood Hillbillies invites you to take part in the fantasy life of a lower-middle-class family plucked out of obscurity by the celebrity machine and given a platform they’re not ready for. The original “Gingers Do Have Souls” video blew up because, like William Hung, the “Chocolate Rain” kid, and countless others, the general public was looking for someone to laugh at. Whether these people are in on the joke is immaterial, because the punch line is that they get to be famous, even if it’s just for a moment. “We are American. Look at us. I might as well have a flag tattooed on my ass,” Mema says in the season premiere. They’re loud, boorish, ignorant, and generally closed-minded about that which they don’t understand. I don’t think this is what Abe Woodhull had in mind when he was looking for those cannons.