With last night's premiere of Fox TV's new series The American Embassy, State Department image-meisters have scored a victory of sorts: Instead of being predictably portrayed by Hollywood as incompetent and haughty, Fox's junior diplomats are, well, horny. Shortly after takeoff for her new assignment as a vice consul in London, perky protagonist Emma Brody starts muckling with a CIA hunk in the airplane bathroom. Upon arrival, she's assigned to share an apartment with another female American diplomat who yowls like a cat in flagrante delicto with one of the Marine embassy guards. Meanwhile, Emma must fend off the advances of a smooth Brit while coping with a cute American psychology Ph.D. who tries to persuade the embassy to pay his way home by getting buck naked in the embassy lobby. And so on. If diplomatic life had in fact been so hormonally charged, I might have stayed longer in the foreign service.
State Department veterans will find plenty of other goofisms in the opening episode: Consider Emma's narrated injunction that "romance between embassy personnel is completely forbidden," which will come as news to the many "tandem couples" serving as foreign service officers. Or the scene in which she invites a child at the center of a custody dispute to stay in her apartment (a recipe for a lawsuit in real life). Or the time when she and an apparent British Embassy employee blithely discuss the State Department cover of one CIA officer in the embassy lobby. Or the fact that most of her fellow officers look like buff refugees from a Banana Republic catalog, instead of the lumpy Lands'-Enders (God bless 'em) who make up the vast majority of State Department personnel.
But let's not quibble over details about the U.S. State Department's bureaucratic culture, which is more suited to a PBS documentary than a Fox series. No, the real genius of this show (so far, at least) is that, in true American fashion, it manages to turn stories about America's dealings with the world into another American exercise in relentless self-absorption. Think Ally McBeal—the show whose time slot The American Embassy temporarily occupies—only set in London. As far as we know, Emma joins the foreign service not out of patriotism or a desire to see the world but to escape a cheating fiance and a domineering mother. (Note to other henpecked broken-hearted would-be diplomats seeking a quick getaway: In real life, more than two years can pass between taking the foreign service exam and reaching your first overseas post.) And when she gets to London, we're treated to a lot of soul-searching about whether she's "running to something or from something." Never mind the complexities of living and working in a different culture. The two British characters the show offers up are beyond cliché: 1) a slick British noble complete with gilded palace; and 2) a zany British transvestite. London itself is a picture-perfect postcard, with Big Ben, pigeons in parks, and bobbies patrolling the streets. All that's missing is a cameo appearance by the queen.
The episode ends with a bang—in this case, a car bomb going off in front of the embassy. Apparently, this incident is supposed to remind us that it's a big bad world out there. It did succeed in moving one New York Times media critic to write that "the show beautifully captures how instantly [Emma's] private anxiety becomes global, a sensation that feels intensely familiar these days." But presented without any real context (outside of some muttering about a terrorism conference that the embassy is hosting), the bombing seems like a surreal tack-on that turns the embassy's workers into clueless victims—a feeling amplified by the show's closing dedication to all the victims of 9/11.
The fact is, foreign service personnel don't need 9/11 to remind them that a lot of people around the world don't like Americans. Twelve American and 44 foreign service national personnel died in the August 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania—a deadly recent example of the kind of threat that American diplomats face daily. Still, who knows, maybe the overwrought and oversexed characters in The American Embassy will give an added boost to foreign service recruitment, which is currently undergoing a post-9/11 surge. After all, in many respects, Emma Brody is a likable antidote to Hollywood's old diplomatic stereotypes—arrogant intellectuals like Harrison Carter MacWhite, the ambassador played by Marlon Brando in The Ugly American, or the craven minor officials portrayed in later works from Midnight Express to Missing. But for those obsessed with the question of "why do they hate us?" the overpowering self-absorption that emanates from The American Embassy provides at least part of the answer.
James S. Gibney is executive editor at Foreign Policy magazine and a former foreign service officer.
To the 500-plus Slate readers who entered "The Book Club" contest: We're reading as fast as we can. Results soon, we promise, and thanks for being patient.Still © 2002 Fox Broadcasting.