The Day After, Nicholas Meyer’s film about the aftermath of a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union, is the greatest moment in the history of television. It’s not only that it provoked Ronald Reagan to rethink his views on the use of tactical nuclear weapons. It’s not only that conservatives tried, and failed, to have it suppressed. It’s not only that 100 million people tuned in. It remains the highest-rated TV movie. The Day After is the greatest moment in the history of television because it subverts the very idea of television. For a brief two hours back in 1983, a film managed to break through the web of illusion and propaganda that television uses to keep us brainwashed and compliant.
The Lawrence, Kansas of The Day After is not the United States. Rather, it’s the idealized image of the United States that we had been watching on television for so long it had become more real than reality, a wooden TV drama that we had seen so many times it barely registered in our minds. Dr. Russell Oakes, Jason Robards, is a stock character, the intelligent, good-natured TV dad who anchored TV movies and mini-series all through the 1960s and 1970s. Farmer Jim Dahlberg, played by John Cullum, is his red-state counterpart, a cranky patriarch who can’t quite deal with how his college-aged daughter is going to grow up and leave the nest. Denise Dahlberg is sullen and rebellious, but still a virgin. Eve Dahlberg is a WASP matriarch, such a perfect domestic goddess she continues to do her household chores even after Minuteman missiles erupt through the Midwestern landscape on their way to Moscow. Airman First Class Billy McCoy is the token African American. Dr. Sam Hachiya is the token Asian. Steve Guttenberg as Stephen Klein is the kind of earnest, college-aged young man TV writers can create in their sleep. Danny Dahlberg, the little boy who’s blinded by the nuclear flash, provides the requisite tug on the heart strings.
None of them would work in a film, or on stage. But as Mark Crispin Miller explained in his book Boxed In, television flattens drama. There’s no cinematic grandeur or Shakespearean blood and thunder in a TV show. Even well-written TV shows like Madmen or Breaking Bad get flattened out over time. Walter White was an interesting villain for the first few seasons, but the longer the show went on, the more the writers teased the ending for every dollar of revenue they could get, the less individual he became. By the last episode, when he went down in a blaze of glory against a gang of Neo-Nazis, we just wanted the series to be over. There is no shortage of apocalypse on television. The AMC zombie drama The Walking Dead, at least on a superficial level, is basically The Day After with better written characters and more gunshots. The difference is that The Walking Dead is predictable. The apocalypse has already happened, but it’s not really the apocalypse. It was a sleight of hand, a change in scenery passed off as the end of the world. As long as The Walking Dead gets ratings, the world of The Walking Dead will go on. There will be more zombies, more men and women with guns, more plot twists, and more debate on the Internet.
As we watch The Day After, we get to see its imaginary world die in real time. We’re not talking about the kind of “edgy, daring” TV deaths we see in Game of Thrones, the kind that occasionally kills off a “beloved” character but lets the series go on. We’re talking everybody. That we can turn the television off after the credits roll and go back to our “real” lives hardly matters. The illusion has been shattered. People in whom we invested our emotions, if only because they were so generic that we had to insert ourselves into the blank space, are gone. They watched their world come to an end on TV even as we watched their world come to an end on TV. They listened to it on radio. They observed the coming apocalypse, even as they tried to ignore it. This can happen, we realize. Humans have created the instruments of their extinction. All it takes is one paranoid fool in the White House or the Kremlin, and we as a species are no more. In other words, back in 1983, the illusion that TV creates, a world with no poverty, no anxiety, no real death, was shattered. Nicholas Meyer had subverted the medium. He had showed us the man behind the curtain.
TV, if ever so briefly, had released us from its spell.