Television is running out of tactics. With tropes like the nagging wife and goofy husband pairing or the fun-loving gang of friends falling flat on viewers who expect more, showrunners are forced to look for another common thread to string together their shows with. It appears that they’ve found one in the form of reimagining history. And it’s working: Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle,” which looks at a world in which, after World War II, the Axis powers emerged victorious, was recently renewed for its fourth season. This plot device asks: You know that thing that happened a while ago that seems like a pretty big deal? Well, what if that thing … didn’t happen?
Now, a new Polish-language thriller from Netflix, “1983,” is hoping to find success in its alternate reality. It takes place in an alternate world where terrorists attacked Poland in 1983, suppressing the Solidarity movement and subsequently Poland’s liberation from the Soviet Union. In this realm, the Iron Curtain never fell, and Poland has sustained a rather peaceful existence until a new resistance movement begins to materialize in 2003.
The main storyline follows Anatol Janow (Robert Wieckiewicz, “Blinded by the Lights”) a steely detective well past his heyday as a high-profile investigator and Kajeton Skowron (Maciej Musial, “Rodzinka.pl”), a naive young lawyer. The pair are each investigating a mystery of their own, but they are brought together to uncover the conspiracy that hast kept Poland under dystopian reign for so long.
Dystopian markers are prevalent throughout every scene of “1983.” The aesthetic is gray and dreary; the characters appear weathered and anxious. Everything from the title of the show to the dialogue is a heavy-handed reference to George Orwell’s foundational novel “1984.” Poland’s government is known as “The Party,” which is split into various “ministries.” There are even multiple too-obvious-to-miss shots of the book just in case you really weren’t picking up what the show was putting down.
Despite the dystopian backstory, “1983” thrives more as a mystery than an alternative reality story. Change up a couple details and this true-crime show may as well take place in New York City with Mariska Hargitay leading the investigation. It is a gripping detective story, and that is what makes it worth watching. The idea of Poland under Soviet control is second thought, playing into a lazy and reckless trope that forges an image of totalitarianism for entertainment as dictatorships rage on in the real world.
There is no joy in imagining what life would be like if the bad guys won. Whether it’s “1983” or “The Man in the High Castle,” the answer is pretty clear to that what-if scenario. If the bad guys won, life would be — and stay with me here — pretty damn bad. Why imagine a society still ruled by the Nazis when there are real-life Nazis in a world where the good guys did win? Why thrust a free nation into a falsified dystopian state when there are countries living that as their true reality? “1983” is an interesting detective story within a tired context, falling victim to the privilege of being able to imagine “what if.”