Controversial 14-hour `Amerika' starts Sunday

Amerika ABC, Sunday and Monday, 9-11 p.m.; Tuesday, 8:30-11 p.m.; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday (Feb. 22), 9-11 p.m. Stars: Kris Kristofferson, Robert Urich, Sam Neill, Ford Rainey, Wendy Hughes, Christine Lahti, Mariel Hemingway, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Cindy Pickett. Executive producer-writer-director: Donald Wrye. The most controversial miniseries in television history - after protests from political groups on the left, center, and right - is finally making its appearance on ABC, where audiences will be able to judge its political point of view for themselves. Perhaps even more important, they will be able to judge it as a week's entertainment.

``Amerika'' is not as bad as anticipated or as vital as some had hoped. Certainly it is not worth devoting a week of your evenings to. But it is definitely worth looking at for an hour or two, just to see what all the shouting is about.

Top ABC executives, while putting on a serious face meant to indicate their responsible attitude in recognizing the gravity of, and perhaps even some validity in, the controversy, are privately happy about the unprecedented promotional ``noise'' in the media, which they hope will make for record-breaking audiences. They have already agreed to run a ``legend'' each night, making clear that the story is fiction. And the day after the series ends, Ted Koppel will play host for ``Viewpoint,'' which will present a discussion of such matters as ``fiction, fact, and tailored truth.'' There may even be last-minute discussion additions during the week - especially if ratings lag.

I have previewed eight of the 14 hours of ``Amerika.'' (At this writing, the last six- and-a-half hours are still being edited by a crew of more than 30 desperate editors.)

I am mainly tired. Not so much tired of this ``maxi'' miniseries itself, because it is a well-photographed, skillfully acted, if slow-moving political soap opera. But I am tired of being considered merely a pawn of the television network and advertising agencies.

What right do they have to ask me - and you - to re-order our lives for a week in order to conform to a series manufactured mainly for their own profit? If an acclaimed world masterpiece had been acquired and the creative artists who worked on it insisted that 14 hours were essential to tell the story properly, perhaps we might consider the idea valid.

But ``Amerika,'' good or bad, is obviously a skillful piece of commercial television, stretched to offer the greatest possible profit to those who present it to an all-too-docile public.

I review it because that is my job. But otherwise I would choose to watch only an hour or two - and then go on with my life. In the future, it is to be hoped that viewers, if they choose to watch such a series at all, will record it on their VCRs and play it back at convenient hours. A series of this length will drive network TV viewers to VCR alternatives.

``Amerika'' has been criticized unfairly for some of its content. After all, it is only a variation on the recent two ``V'' miniseries on NBC, in which the world was taken over and reorganized by extraterrestrials. There have been similar science-fiction tales throughout recent literary history.

The major difference with ``Amerika'' is that the extraterrestrials are Russians, and they usurp the power of the UN peacekeeping force to maintain their power. It is a bit far-fetched - but it is fiction.

The fear on the part of some critics that the series could implant a permanent distrust of the USSR and the UN in the minds of impressionable viewers is a valid one. But we live in a free society, and I fear the taste and judgment of TV programmers will be influenced only by ratings numbers.

So, rather than rail against ``Amerika'' and thus help create exactly the kind of publicity that could encourage people to watch, mightn't it be better to urge TV producers to create believable positive images in future miniseries? And hasn't much of that already been done? Certainly anti-war programs like ``Winds of War,'' ``Holocaust,'' ``Playing for Time,'' and even the long-running ``M*A*S*H*'' have offered alternative points of view.

But back to the series itself. It takes almost four hours to set up the premise and introduce most of the characters.

It seems that in 1988, 10 years before the action starts, the USSR, with the aid of usurped UN Special Services Units and much internal dissension, took over the US, divided it into regional states, and sent objectors to gulaglike reorientation camps throughout the country, where they loll about, drink, complain, take drugs, and wait for a folk hero to emerge. When one does, it is the character played by Kris Kristofferson, a former dissenter who ran for president and lost, before the Sedition Act of 1988 was passed.

There are collaborators (mostly female) and puppet rulers, political and romantic love affairs, and shifting and reshifting personal loyalties - all very confusing. But viewers are distracted from the confusion every now and then by a series of gorgeously photographed massacres, mass movements, and protests - all of which tend to keep us from remembering that we don't exactly recall what happened the night before - who was sleeping with whom, which woman was married to, or used to be the lover of, which man. There are good Russians and bad Russians.

Perhaps it is not underlined boldly enough that much of the Marxist philosophy taught to school children is interesting Utopian theory that has already been proven unworkable in the real world.

``Amerika'' will remind you of a World War II French Resistance movie, cross-pollinated with a daytime soap opera. There are the confessional elements of ``The Sorrow and the Pity'' and some horrors reminiscent of the Nazi holocaust and ``The Diary of Anne Frank'' or ``Shoah.'' There are scenes of gulaglike repression, borrowed from books, newsreels, and personal reminiscences. All of this, on the whole, is photographed with sensitivity - sometimes a ponderousness that makes one yearn for action.

The major weakness in the hours I have seen, however, lies in the utter lack of detail about day-to-day life. We know people stood in line for tomatoes - but not much more. How does life go on?

In a sexy scene in a political cabaret, Mariel Hemingway (as Miss New Amerika) sings symbolically, ``Don't cry for me if I am just a whore. Cry for yourself.'' The scene is supposed to be meaningful, but the series never makes clear how her underground listeners prostitute themselves every day.

``Now there are no safe places,'' says one secret dissenter (although I wish he'd remain a bit more discreet in his hiding place). ``In a funny way,'' he continues, ``it's become one world.'' That, I suppose, is the theme of the series. The takeover has made Americans all one world of dissenters.

Meantime, back in the electronic world of ``Amerika,'' the beautiful, folk hero Kristofferson is being reunited with his two sons, one of whom betrays him. Oh yes, the plots go on and on. What comes next?

Both you and I will have to wait until the 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, and 14th hours to tell.

Are we really willing to watch and wait so long?

A paperback novel version of ``Amerika'' is due in the bookstores soon, and I promise to give a summary next week for people who choose to read a good short novel instead - say, ``War and Peace.''

Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic.

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