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

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

“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.

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