Coming from America
by ETHAN PETERSON
creator Oliver Goldstick
creator Olen Steinhauer
It is time for America to begin explaining Europe to itself. The island nation of England has been properly sedated and isolated. David Cameron has resigned and the next leader of Britain will begin preaching austerity in time. This means America has the European Union all to itself, and now it can begin making the proper, condescending form of media that conveys what it is like for disparate peoples and places to be grouped together purely for economic reasons.
In this vein is the wretched new Amazon series, The Collection. Richard Coyle (Coupling) plays Paul Sabine, a fashion executive who steals all his ideas from his profligate gay brother Claude (Tom Riley). France commissions Sabine’s company to develop a new style (?) after the Second World War. Paul is married to an American woman named Helen (Mamie Gummer), who admires him because of, not in spite of, his flaws.
It is not overly clear whether the Sabines are French or English or some disturbed amalgamation of the two. Much of the excitement comes from Paul Sabine’s willingness to do various disgusting things to get ahead in the world of fashion. Showrunner Oliver Goldstick (Ugly Betty) seems to think this turns him into a Don Draper-esque bad boy, but it actually identifies him as a terrible human being.
Although it seems definite that Amazon spent a great deal of money on The Collection, the fashion industry in the 1940s wasn’t exactly blowing anyone away. Tons of costume dramas come from more exciting aesthetic eras. British audiences get a steady diet of this genre on a weekly basis; you would honestly be forgiven for thinking there wasn’t a present moment in England at all. Even though The Collection is ostensibly set in Paris, certainly no one speaks French and most people have British accents.
For some reason Goldstick focuses a great deal of the story on an American photographer named of all things Billy (Max Deacon). He is naturally a misogynist, but he is that rare breed you see – he pities women, and considers himself a cro magnon with a heart of gold. He tells a French girl that she needs to smile more and goes around taking terrible photographs of the Seine for like ten minutes. Understand that not a single moment of this dreadful production is meant to be tongue-in-cheek.
Even more painful is the forthcoming debut of Epix’ new series about a CIA operative played by Richard Armitrage (Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit trilogy) operating in Germany, Berlin Station. Oh boy is this a dreadful mess. Armitrage plays Daniel Miller, whose shaky accent is accounted for by the explanation that he grew up as an Army brat in Berlin.
The worst plot device ever opens Berlin Station, a flash forward where Daniel is shot. A short time earlier, Daniel spends most of the show following around an attractive woman who he seems destined to eventually meet, clutching a USB drive as in the worst John Le Carré novels. She is the contact for a Julian Assange-type character named Thomas Shaw.
Since this story could not possibly hold less of our interest, the focus in Berlin Station is more on the other officers working abroad. Their lives are given Grey’s Anatomy style complications – one (Rhys Ifans) is fucking his informant, another (Richard Jenkins) his secretary. Only the token woman (Michelle Forbes) is given very little of interest to do, which probably means she is a mole of some kind.
Berlin and Paris, in these imaginings, look nothing like foreign places. They have been completely Americanized to our expectations of them. (The Collection could be a live-action version of Ratatouille.) The real thrill of drama in a foreign setting should not be to show how the entire world is not that much different than our own country.
This is a more difficult task than it seems at first glance, since it requires an intimate knowledge of France and Germany that most lack. Even the brilliant and authentic Deutschland 83 by Anna and Joerg Winger, which was focused on East Germany’s conflict with the West, had the most perplexing American soundtrack. It was meant to convey the entrance of certain global ideas to the country, but there are only so many David Bowie songs one can tolerate being deployed over montage sequences of characters sobbing in empty rooms.
In order for this sort of thing to be accepted by American audiences, it has to be divested of all intrinsic difference, making the end result — in the case of The Collection and Berlin Station — this inescapably bland combination of both and neither. In its own disturbed way, this is the deranged lesson America has for Europe. Melting your differences away ultimately makes things so much less entertaining.
Ethan Peterson is the senior contributor to This Recording.