The Big Picture
The American Embassy was conceived as an Ally McBeal clone, but refigured after September 11 as a show more focused on the titular institution. At least, that’s the lore. I imagine that, in addition to the network and the creators wanting to be more socially and politically aware, the growing popularity of other institutionally based series was also a factor.
Ally McBeal is now old and tired compared to new shows that are ostensibly about the “big picture,” NBC’s The West Wing, Fox’s Boston Public, and CBS’ The Agency or First Monday, for examples. These programs provide some degree of flirting and cute banter to sweeten their civics lessons and public policy commentaries. Really, though, these are relationship shows—about non-traditional family-like units full of attractive people who sometimes lust after one another—that intersperse the interpersonal with jabs at politicians and current events.
Likewise, The American Embassy, no matter the PR concerning its political environment or interests, is essentially about relationships. Set at the U.S. Consulate in London, it focuses on the emotional travails of Emma Brody (Alija Bareikis), a 28-year-old woman who has left her cheating dog of a fiancé back in the States to take a job at said Consulate. (The ex-fiancé is expected to show up in the second episode). Our first sightings of Emma involve a slow-motion dream sequence, a make-out session with a guy she doesn’t yet know in an airplane lavatory, then her own voice-over telling us that her “temptation, humiliation, and self-doubt” are evidence of her “personal loathing.”
Such insecurities sound familiar. Cross Murphy Brown with Felicity, and you get Emma (in fact, Bareikis physically resembles a soft-focus Candace Bergen). Emma is opinionated but, like Felicity (Keri Russell), doesn’t speak out much, except in those voice-overs. Also like Felicity, Emma’s greatest asset seems to be her good heart; as the first episode reminds us repeatedly, Emma is a “good girl.” She is perpetually forthright and honest in her diplomatic problem-solving, rather than “shrewd” or “clever” (although I don’t understand why these need to be exclusive characteristics). For example, Emma solves the case of a missing 12-year-old American girl, Liv (Hallee Hirsh), run away because she’s tired of being a pawn in her parents’ divorce, by looking into her own heart to remember what it was like to be a female adolescent, and so, intuiting where the girl is hiding.
At one point, Emma’s big boss Janet Westerman (Helen Carey), the Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy, explains that Emma is one of “the best and the brightest,” chosen from a pool of zillions of candidates, and is expected to be fabulous or lose her job. Her more immediate and male boss, Elque “Q” Polk (Jonathan Adams), the Consul General, is far less understanding and mostly just barks at her (and everyone else on the staff).
As usual on Fox, gender divisions are primary and messy. While Emma is provided with lust interests (so far, all guys), who might lead to the Holy Grail of True Love, the one man she really connects with is her drag queen neighbor Gary (Michael Cerveris), who lends her a designer cocktail dress. They bond over complaints about Emma’s libidinous Latina roommate Marisa (Tia Texada), who makes too much noise during sex. Marissa isn’t the only racial stereotype: Davenia McFadden plays Carmen Jones, Emma’s tough-talking, black, you-go-girl co-worker.
Emma’s white-guy would-be lovers are stereotypes as well, including the swaggering CIA agent Doug Roach (David Cubitt), who has important documents chained to his wrist, and the suave British royal (Jonathan Cake), who lives in a palace. Add to this mix the adorably goldilocksed Liv, with whom Emma most closely and earnestly identifies, and it’s actually a shock that David Kelley isn’t in charge of this project. That’s not a compliment.
Instead, the series boasts the talents of producer-director Andy Tennant. He has lots of Hollywood experience, with directorial high points like Anna and the King (1999) starring Jodie Foster, the Drew Barrymore princess movie Ever After (1998), and the ABC TV movie The Amy Fisher Story (1993), also starring Barrymore. Tennant clearly knows how to appeal to a female audience.
On top of this, the series is sponsored by Ortho Tri-Cyclen birth control pills, Cheer laundry detergent, Maybelline, Kenmore home appliances, and Subaru family wagons—not exactly a move to bridge gender barriers. While we’re watching a woman function as a mid-level government employee, who has her job largely because her boyfriend cheated on her, we’re also being advised how to drive carefully in the snow and do laundry.
Granted, the end of the pilot episode did make a wider appeal: it closed with a terrorist bombing at the Embassy, resulting in the loss of many lives. We don’t know who is responsible or why it happened, but it is clearly traumatic, on personal and international levels. While a show that even touches on U.S. foreign policy and institutional structures probably can’t ignore these events, the inclusion of the bombing looks more like exploitation than the big picture.