The politics of Important TV: Why "The Terror" and "Our Boys" won't get the "Chernobyl" treatment

Don't judge the runaway success of "Chernobyl" as an indicator that audiences will watch AMC's and HBO's new shows

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published August 14, 2019 3:00PM (EDT)

George Takei in "The Terror: Infamy" (Ed Araquel/AMC)
George Takei in "The Terror: Infamy" (Ed Araquel/AMC)

“The Terror: Infamy” opens with a possessed woman jerkily walking down a pier, the bones in her neck and ankles cracking with each agonizing step. She is obviously not in control of her own body, a suspicion confirmed when she gruesomely kills herself. Her death spurs rumors of a supernatural menace terrorizing Terminal Island, the Japanese-American fishing community where she lived. But this is mainly among the elders, people who still hold on to memories of another land.

Nevertheless, an ill omen can never be taken lightly. Afterward, Asako Nakayama (Naoko Mori) prudently displays a sacred talisman known as an ofuda in her family’s modest home for protection. This, she tells her fisherman husband Henry (Shingo Usami), will keep their family safe.

But the year is 1941 and by that point, Henry has tangled with a different malevolence. A white businessman to whom Henry sells his catch threatens him and his family, taking out problems of his own making on Henry and his son Chester (Derek Mio). The man knows the Nakayamas and other Japanese immigrants can easily be implicated as spies and ruined.

The ofuda, Henry tells Asako, “may protect us from spirits. But not from human evil.”

“Our Boys,” HBO’s latest 10-episode limited series, is set more 73 years after the events of "Infamy" and in Israel, an entirely different part of the world. You’d be hard pressed to find a grittier example of human evil’s virulence on television  at the moment — save for on “Chernobyl,” HBO's other recently-aired must-see sensation.

But “Our Boys” has more historic recency than its mid-'80s Soviet-era disaster drama, dropping the viewer inside the turbulent hours after three Jewish teenagers go missing in Jerusalem. Their bodies are eventually found, and their murders attributed to extremists from the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Two days later a Palestinian teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, goes missing from outside of his home, and his burned corpse is discovered in a wooded area on the outskirts of the city. From the moment police discover the boy's remains the viewer is made to notice how differently these tragedies are treated.

The missing Jewish boys inspire mass public prayers followed by violent demonstrations calling for vengeance; officials from the internal terror division of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency, treat their murders as an act of terrorism. But when Mohammed’s body is found the first order from the top is to dispel any notion that the perpetrators are Jewish — not to comfort the family or even confirm their child's death, but to absolve the ruling majority.

“Jews don't do something like this,” one of case’s superior officers declares with certainty, echoed by his subordinates, save for one agent (played by filmmaker Shlomi Elkabetz) who has spent too much time tracking Jewish extremists to countenance that lie.

Analyses of horror films generally don’t spend much time examining the disbelief and insufficient reaction that precedes the terrible panic. The calm prologue to chaos is a given, a space during which audiences might rest in the false confidence of knowing they’d be smarter and do things differently than the poor suckers onscreen.

Of course, those protagonists don’t have the benefit of reading the title or the premise of the story in which they’re dwelling. They don’t have the audience's benefit of distance and perspective on what's about to happen.

“The Terror: Infamy” joins the prime time schedule as we're stuck in our own state of disbelief, as the modern-day internment of migrant families plays out in states around the country.

The events upon which “Our Boys” is based can be found online, leaving it up to you to discover whether the initial instincts of those in charge of Mohammed’s case are correct. But you may perhaps recognize how similar in tone this assured absolution of the ruling majority is to our own politicians' and conservative pundits' reactions to recent acts of white nationalist terrorism.

To "Our Boys" creators Hagai Levi, Joseph Cedar and Tawfik Abu-Wael, the nationality of the murderers is less important than the anguish that Mohammed’s fretful parents and his family endure as they press the police for answers and justice.

They are the auxiliary victims of the human evil that claimed their son and brother, a malice committed in the name of the intangible and unprovable, twisted zealotry. There is no protection against such hate. In 2014 these acts of hate tore apart Gaza for 50 days. A kindred strain ended innocent lives in El Paso, Texas earlier this month, and may have fueled similar deadly attacks in Ohio and California.

“The Terror: Infamy” and “Our Boys” launched this week and air in the same weeknight timeslot — Mondays at 9 p.m. on AMC and HBO, respectively. And they exist in an expanding continuum of current series that operate as parables for the real-world nightmares we're living through today.

“Chernobyl” became a grim must-see sensation for very similar reasons, and given its popularity one could surmise the TV audience is primed and ripe to embrace “Infamy” and “Our Boys.” What this supposition fails to take into account is the fungibility of the “Chernobyl” story and the ease with which its narrative themes could be interpreted to suit any political view.

"Infamy" and "Our Boys" tell very specific stories about racism and prejudice, addressing chapters of our history or a history close enough to our own that we've chosen not to face for generations. "Chernobyl," in contrast, is a spectator's tale that was only real to other people.  The show's creator Craig Mazin was born in Brooklyn; its central stars are British (Jared Harris and Emily Watson) and Swedish (Stellan Skarsgård) and speaking in English accents as opposed to using a Russian affectation.  Intentionally or not, this grants the audience several layers of distance from the horrible truth of reality at the story's core. It also gives the viewer the opportunity to decide for herself what she wants it to mean.

From the liberal side of the divide, the story of “Chernobyl” warns against blind trust in inept leaders who are more concerned about retaining power than protecting their own people, and hooks into the thirst for our very real concerns about Russian attacks on our democracy to be validated. The right's various takes include the view of the series as an indictment of socialism and therefore, the inevitable doom that awaits our country if it falls into the hands of Democrats.

Even one-time Donald Trump crony Anthony Scaramucci invoked the specter of “Chernobyl” — the series and the 1986 nuclear disaster that it portrays — in a recent Axios interview when describing the potential impact a second term of Trump might have on the country. "We are now in the early episodes ... where the reactor is melting down and the apparatchiks are trying to figure out whether to cover it up or start the clean-up process,” the Mooch opined.

And chronologically and geographically "Chernobyl" invites the American viewer to buy into a certain false comfort in knowing a blatant cover-up of that magnitude would never happen in the good old U.S. of A. Probably.

In this way it shares some of the same artificial emotional remove one might adopt while watching “The Handmaid’s Tale” or “The Man in the High Castle,” two horrifying visions of alternate histories, from the land of “what if?” that some people still firmly believe can never come to pass in the here and now.

“Our Boys” and “The Terror: Infamy” offer no such comfort; both also happened, one relatively recently and the other on U.S. soil. Both mirror present headlines about systemic prejudice, bigotry and the tragedies upon tragedies that result when a government prioritizes racial and political dominance over the safety of marginalized communities in their midst.

Each does so very differently, of course, and the resulting in variable degrees of effectiveness.

“Our Boys,” an HBO-Keshet Studios co-production, is a true crime-style drama that centralizes the soul-deep ache of Mohammed’s family intentionally, the hope being that viewers primed to take the viewpoint of the Jewish side of the resulting conflict will merge with the Abu Khdeir family as they grieve a lost son.

Its aim is to unite the audience around the universal weight of loss while drawing them in to a procedural mystery as law enforcement hunts the perpetrators of such a vicious, senseless sin. All of these murders ignited a military conflict in Gaza that killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, most of them civilians, and 72 Israelis, most of them soldiers. There is no looking away from that truth.

Whereas “The Terror: Infamy” inadvertently serves up a distraction by way of inserting an otherworldly adversary into a history-based tale about bigotry, an antagonist that is real and can never be completely banished. Here it takes the form of Executive Order 9066, issued in February of 1942 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and leading to the rounding up and detention of 120,000 immigrants and American citizens of Japanese heritage on the presumption that any of them could be enemy spies — even infants and children.

“Infamy” is the second installment in AMC’s Ridley Scott-produced anthology series, which launched in 2018 with a fictional depiction of an earlier historic event, that of Sir John Franklin's lost Arctic expedition in 1845.

That season’s frights were created purely for entertainment’s sake. But “Infamy” was conceived by Alexander Woo and Max Borenstein to draw parallels between the American government’s internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and the current mass detention of migrants at the southern border. Within the cast are survivors of this outrage, including George Takei, who portrays a community elder and serves an a consultant on the series. (Takei and his family were incarcerated in Arkansas for three years in the ‘40s.)

“Infamy” is largely told through the perspective of Mio’s Chester who, like many of his contemporaries, takes for granted his claim to the American dream. World War II reminds him of his otherness, as does a turn of events in his relationship with his Mexican-American girlfriend Luz (Cristina Rodlo), leading up to Chester and his family’s banishment from their Los Angeles community and forced internment at a camp in Oregon during the early ‘40s.

The drama touches upon a number of issues related to questions of American identity and false tests of loyalty that the incarcerated families are made to face, particularly the younger members.

But the potential dramatic heft of “Infamy” examining the toll internment takes on these Americans who were unjustly detained is diminished somewhat by the series’ supernatural secondary plot: a spirit named Yuko (Kiki Sukezane) who is bent on hunting the Japanese men and women in the camp and seems keenly drawn to Chester.

Part of Yuko’s role may be to prove that certain evils follow us from place to place, nation to nation, unable to be contained by any physical boundaries.

But if the allegorical parallels between this mysterious monster and the larger story of Japanese internment were as obvious as the creative links “Chernobyl” makes between the Soviet government’s lethal lies and the radioactive death sailing on the wind, the supernatural element of “Infamy” may have augmented its critiques. Instead, puzzling over the ghostly beauty Yuko is an off-ramp to anyone who doesn’t want to dwell on the ugliness of what happened to tens of thousands of our own people.

Despite its shortcomings “The Terror: Infamy” still has value as both a pedagogic and artistic work, in that this is a series featuring Asian actors recounting a chapter in American history that tends to be glossed over in our history education, if it is taught at all. It’s also a multilingual series featuring an episode presented mostly in Japanese with English subtitles, an atypical sight on television.

“Our Boys” is entirely presented in Hebrew and Arabic, which is still considered risky to an audience thought to be averse to reading English subtitles. But as with "Infamy, " this perceived barrier dissolves under the potency of the cast’s performance and stellar cinematography.

From the safety of historic fiction barely removed from fact and the present, “Our Boys” offers us a look at what could happen if the evil that’s on our doorstep is allowed to advance, to take hold, to take over. Neither it nor “The Terror: Infamy” offer total escapism. They are warnings from pasts that have transpired that ask whether we want to live these stories again — and whether we're willing to take a long, hard look at what terrible events lurk on the horizon.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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