Even with the patchiest knowledge of Chinese history, you’ll probably recognise Tank Man - the lone figure, plastic shopping bag in each hand, pictured facing off against a line of Chinese army tanks during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, where an estimated 10,000 people were killed.
Who was Tank Man? What made him do something so reckless? Is he still alive? The shot might be a defining moment of 20th-century history but even 30 years later much about it remains a mystery.
This is the jumping-off point for Chimerica. Originally an excellent 2013 Olivier-winning play of the same name by Lucy Kirkwood — who has adapted her script for television — this updated version of the drama is set during the build-up to the 2016 Clinton-Trump Presidential election. Our protagonist is Lee (Alessandro Nivola), a respected photojournalist for the fictional New York Courier, whose photograph of Tank Man kick-started his career.
We watch as Lee and reporter col-league Mel (played with jaded perfection by Transparent’s Cherry Jones) are barred from a Trump rally, where supporters wear “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required” T-shirts.
But though Trump might be a “f***** joke” he’s also good for traffic, so Lee and Mel’s editor packs them off to Beijing to film locals talking on camera about the would-be president, because “the new editor has got the bit between her teeth about online content” (in 2016? Surely not). On the plane they meet Tessa (Sophie Okonedo) a consultant for a US credit card firm who Lee dazzles so much with his Tank Man fame that they join the mile-high club in the loo. More importantly, Lee reconnects with old fixer friend Zhang Lin (Terry Chen), who drops a bombshell by telling Lee he believes he knows who Tank Man is.
Unfortunately, when Lee gets back to New York, a front-page picture he took in Syria is rumbled by a Vice journalist. Lee spliced two shots together to make it look more dramatic. In other words — fake news. What on earth could save his ruined career? You’ve guessed it: discovering the identity of Tank Man.
There are interesting dichotomies explored in Chimerica — age v youth, print journalism v the Wild West of the internet, the gulf between the world’s two biggest superpowers (China and America = Chimerica, but you already got that, didn’t you?)
However, while Kirkwood’s witty dialogue keeps the pace whipping along, the drama is not without its clichés. I’m not sure why newspaper journalists on TV spend their whole time running down corridors after their editors, and the old “he’ll never win” dramatic irony around Trump is laid on a little thick at times. Another gripe — the fabulous Okonedo is woefully underused in episode one, where her character Tessa has all the depth of a birdbath.
There’s a promising story about Lee’s friend Zhang, who lost his wife Liuli (played in flashbacks by Harry Potter star Katie Leung) in Tiananmen Square, which deserves more air time, though it’s going to be interesting to see how effectively it weaves together with the New York storyline.
The set for Kirkwood’s original play featured a two-storey cube that rotated to symbolise the switching of the action between continents, a simple but effective way to draw the story together and give different perspectives equal weight. It’s not yet clear if the TV version is capable of being quite so cohesive, but it’s worth sticking with to find out.