*Not surprising since its creator, Roy Huggins, was also responsible for The Fugitive.
In last night’s episode, the second of the series, Bryan finds himself in West Berlin, where he runs into Eileen, a former flame who tells Bryan she’s being pursued by intelligence services of four nations. (I’m sure that kind of thing has happened to most of us at least once.) Subsequently Bryan is approached by Mike Allen, an American spymaster who asks Bryan to use his lifelong friendship with Eileen to obtain critical information from her, information which could spell the difference between life and death for many people on both sides of the Iron Curtain.* The episode is completely of its time, and that’s what I found not only interesting – but challenging.
*There’s a lot more to the story than that, of course, but for the purpose of our discussion that should suffice.
In order to see why, we need to back up for a moment and put this episode in context. “The Girl Next Door is a Spy” was aired on September 20, 1965, only four years after the construction of the Berlin Wall, three years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s the height of the Cold War, which is always one step away from turning very, very hot. Schoolchildren practice “Duck and Cover,” and the edge in the global political climate is palpable. And so when Allen asks Bryan to use his friendship with Eileen to get that information, he does so with the appeal that “your country needs you.”
We’re made uncomfortable by Allen’s request, because Eileen has confided to Bryan that he is the only person she can trust. Their bond goes back to childhood, and how many of us would risk such a bond, even for something as noble as love of country? It is only after Allen shows Bryan an operation to smuggle East German refugees to the West, one that would be endangered without Eileen’s cooperation, that Bryan overcomes his hesitation and agrees to help.
|Ben Gazzara (left) and Macdonald Carey|
As I say, this is an instant, contemporary reaction – and as soon as I had it, I immediately asked myself if it was the reaction we were supposed to be having? Or was the viewer of today losing the meaning of the story by viewing it outside of the context in which it was made? It was a distracting thought, wondering if an American spy was supposed to be upright and virtuous or suspicious and menacing, or perhaps I was just reading too much into what wasn't actually a spy drama but was really a love story.
I’ve long argued that one of the biggest mistakes we make as a society is to judge the past by the standards of the present. Whether in morality, ethics, technology or appearance, we must keep the original context in perspective to understand what an event truly means. To judge the events of yesterday by the standards of today is not only foolish, it’s inaccurate as well.
I’ll give you an example as it pertains to television: it’s easy to watch certain shows today, shows from the 50s and 60s, and blanch at certain insensitivities – the way women or racial minorities are treated, for example. It offends our contemporary sensibilities. And yet this kind of behavior was, at the very least, common at the time the show was made. Such shows are not a retroactive commentary, as Mad Men might be, but an account of how things were at a given time, or at least how they were seen.
So, returning to “The Girl Next Door is a Spy,” one is tempted to wonder just what Roy Huggins had in mind,* and how the viewer of the day was expected to watch it. Remember, in 1965 things are just starting to get bad; a majority of American college students actually support the Vietnam War, LBJ’s civil rights reforms and War on Poverty express a certain confidence, an optimistic view on the power of government, and both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. are still alive. The news media repeatedly refer to “we” and “us” when discussing American involvement in world affairs.
*Huggins also wrote this episode, under the the pen name John Thomas James.
|Eileen (Diana Hyland) about to spill the beans|
*You can’t ignore the casting of Macdonald Carey as Mike Allen, either. Carey, who’s just started his long-running role as Dr. Tom Horton in Days of Our Lives, played the “good guy” in most of his roles. Would this casting have been seen as indicative that we aren’t to question Allen’s trustworthiness, or would we have been supposed to wonder if Carey was being cast against type?
Or would there have, even then, been a suspicion of the government, a suspicion that we didn’t really represent freedom, justice and the American way? Certainly by the end of the decade those thoughts would have been present in the minds of the viewers, if not those of television producers.* But in 1965? Would it have ever even entered the mind of the average viewer to suspect the motives of an American intelligence agent, or of America itself?
*The focus of Mission: Impossible, for example, gradually changed from covert intervention in the affairs of other nations (in the name of America’s best interests, of course) to domestic operations against organized crime and other undesirable elements, when the former became more problematic.
And in doing so, it calls into question our own way of watching classic television. How am I supposed to watch this? Am I reading too much into it? Is my suspicion of Mike Allen blinding me to some larger point that Huggins is going for? Am I distorting the story by viewing it through 2013 rather than 1965 eyes? How would Huggins have assumed viewers would have seen it?
In the end, it’s impossible to divorce yourself from the present enough to view the past as it actually was, which is why particularly topical shows have trouble beyond the context of their own times. No matter what we try, we’re always going to filter what we see through the lens of contemporary mores.
We know that, and attempt to compensate for it, usually subconsciously, which is why a situation like this, in which we do notice it, becomes so interesting. For an episode like this presents us with a view of the past that, for better or worse, we can see but, because of the passage of time, we’ll never be able to completely understand. We're left to ask ourselves: is that what we believed, back then? Did we ever believe it?