The killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Libya last month, and the protests that swept the region afterwards, were an illustration of the profound difficulties the Middle East faces in the phase of its history that followed the Arab Spring. The television shows that started airing last week were in development long before those tragic events, and couldn’t have anticipated them, but in a sense, that makes them more forward-looking. A profound sense of anxiety about America’s foreign policy in the Middle East is showing up on both network and cable television this fall, on issues ranging from America’s relationship with Israel and Iran, to the quality of decision-making in the chain of command, to our ability to project power to prevent genocide.
Showtime’s Homeland returned this season with its characters operating in an environment where Israel had bombed Iran’s nuclear sites in an effort to prevent that nation from successfully developing an atomic weapon. It’s a somewhat more realistic scenario than one in which an American prisoner of war returned to the United States and became close enough to the Vice President of the United States to have a serious shot at assassinating him, and a storyline that could give Carrie Mathison and Saul Berenson work to do even if Nicholas Brody were to be removed as the series’ primary antagonist. A strike on Iran may be a nightmare possibility, but it’s one that emerges from the region’s history and the public imagination rather than the fevered brains occupying a writers’ room.
It’s also a device that, unlike the drone strike that provided a background for the action of the first season of the show, portrays the United States as more drawn into a conflict than instigating it. We learn about the strike from a news report that doesn’t discuss whether the United States supported it, or whether it’s caused tensions between the United States and Israel. Future episodes suggest at least some Americans support the attack, or at least want to intervene to clean up the messy aftermath of it. But through the three episodes I’ve seen, the strike provides an atmosphere of tension more than an actual driver of plot for Homeland’s second season. The theme of American complicity and blowback have receded, and I miss the narrative propulsion and moral engagement of the drone strikes debate from the first season.
Homeland’s creators Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon told me when I spoke to them in August that the other frame narrative they’d considered for their show’s second season involved Pakistan’s growing instability and nuclear weapons. Their decision to go in another direction means they aren’t overlapping with Last Resort, about the crew of a nuclear submarine who become enemies of the state when they question orders to launch a nuclear weapon at Pakistan. That chain of events is a less literal thought experiment than Israel’s strikes in Homeland, given that nuclear disaster in Pakistan is more likely to result from weapons insecurity or the instigation of a war between India and Pakistan than offensive action by the United States. The show, through its first two episodes, doesn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on why whatever conspiratorial cabal gave those orders would want to strike Pakistan. But it’s intriguing for a television show to even explore the possibility that the United States government would make decisions that aren’t in the best interests of the mental health and high moral standards of its troops. The strike on Pakistan, and the governmental attempt to kill the sailors who questioned the order, are a much more dramatic, less grinding illustration of that principal than our ongoing engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. I suppose it’s more telegenic to tell a story about a group of sailors trying to form a more perfect union on a tropical island than to explore the experiences of soldiers who have lost limbs or experienced combat injuries, though one would think Doonesbury provided a compelling counter-example to that presumption. But there’s still something compelling about condensing that gap between soldiers’ needs and their government’s ability or willingness to fulfill them into a grand tragedy rather than a miserable attrition. Last Resort may not get enough episodes to explore its ideas fully, but the ones it’s presenting — including a resurgence of Cold War dynamics in this week’s episode — are intriguing, and I wish they were gaining more traction on ABC.
Even a show like Scandal, which has an approach to policy as insubstantial and fizzy as an egg cream, is in on the act. “Are you moving on East Sudan?” Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young), the pregnant wife of President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) asked him in the midst of trying to get him to make decisions about what color to paint their baby’s nursery. “The aircraft carriers have been on standby for two weeks. What’s the delay, Fitz? Move them off the East Sudan coast. Show some power. Make Kinyazi realize you mean business.” The plot line, an echo of the debate over how President Obama should have intervened in the Arab Spring, mostly exists as a way to illustrate the differences between Mellie, who Fitz stays married to for political reasons, and political fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), with whom Fitz had a campaign-trail affair, and who retains the keys to his heart. Mellie is a manipulative shrew, the kind of person who would used the televised revelation of the gender of their baby to push Fitz into a war. “I am just so glad in light of this wonderful news with a baby boy about ot be born into our family that my amazing husband and his administration believe in doing whatever is necessary in East Sudan to protect those mothers and their beautiful children,” she gushes in the least plausible segue between subjects in history. “I’m so sorry. My hormones.” Olivia, by contrast, is thinking of what Fitz wants, and what’s best for him politically. “If he invades, he’s going to get his ass kicked by the Democrats,” she tells Cyrus, the president’s chief of staff.
But even if it’s fluff, never to return to Scandal, the episode hit on real anxieties about dictators who commit dreadful human rights abuses. “They’re beheading kids,” Cyrus tells Olivia, speaking up for humanitarian concerns against Olivia’s approach, which prioritizes political optics over any legitimate policy concern. Mellie may be an impossible human being, but her enthusiasm seems real. If a Shonda Rhimes show is taking up American anxiety about the nation’s ability to influence dictators who commit gross violations of human rights, the belief that the storyline will resonate is an interesting barometric reading on what the showrunners and writers believe is on their viewers’ minds, even if the show doesn’t really have time or the inclination to sort through the issues and to reach a conclusion.
We’re not far enough into any of these seasons to know if there’s a collective sense in Hollywood that America is deeply imperiled at home and abroad, or if they’ll end up arguing that American ingenuity and courage will triumph over any circumstances. But whatever they decide, fall television is decidedly ill at ease about America’s position in the world, whether its characters are shoring up the homeland or seeking refuge in a world gone mad.