Critic's Notebook: How TV Dramas Put a Human Face on Deportation Headlines

Russell Tovey Max Baldry Years Years Orange New Black Laura Gomez - Publicity - H 2019
Matt Squire/HBO; Courtesy of NETFLIX

On shows like 'Years and Years' and 'Orange Is the New Black,' storylines about characters facing deportation and detainment are making the political powerfully personal.

The news has given us glimpses of immigrant children sleeping on the floor at detention centers. We have seen video of Vice President Mike Pence observing men who entered the country illegally, crammed behind a chain-link fence. But those are mere snippets, shaped by limited access. 

Now television dramas are taking us where news and documentary cameras can’t. Two of the most stirring and dynamic current series, Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black and HBO’s Years and Years, pull us into the daily lives of people we care about, held in deportation centers and threatened with expulsion. The news can be intellectually powerful, but restricted access to the incarcerated means those reports register as either abstract or partial. Even the most harrowing accounts leave the rest of the story to our imaginations, or to our neglect. Drama can fill in those gaps, asking us to invest in the fates of beloved characters, engaging us in their maddening, long-term struggles against a system in which they are largely powerless. These fictional experiences can be even more potent and visceral than journalism.  

The first wave of Trumpism ratcheted up warnings about the influx of immigrants. Today, more and more series are catching up with the recent threats of expulsion. NBC's comedy Superstore ended its fourth season with one of its most likable characters, Mateo, being driven off by ICE, and will continue his story next season. The rebooted Party of Five, coming to Freeform, has changed the premise of the 1990s version, in which the family's parents died in a car crash; now they have been deported back to Mexico.

As it ended, Orange Is the New Black wrapped up many themes, but its deportation stories are the most eye-opening.  In the previous season’s finale, Blanca (Laura Gomez) walked out of Litchfield prison, expecting to be free, only to be shuttled off by ICE. This season finds her threatened with being returned to the Dominican Republic, her green card revoked because she pleaded guilty to having started the Litchfield riot. 

Blanca, who has become increasingly sympathetic over the course of the series, is detained in a center run by PolyCon, the company that also manages the prison and considers immigrant centers an exciting “new market.” (A majority of ICE detainees are in centers run by for-profit companies, according to the National Immigrant Justice Center, an immigrants’ rights group, and other sources.) Blanca experiences exactly what we’ve read and heard about: rows of bunk beds are crowded in one open space; the detainees have to pay for phone calls and lawyers; the kiosk selling phone cards in the PolyCon center is broken; the guards are belligerent and corrupt. The situation is one of institutionalized inhumanity. 

Maritza (Diane Guerrero) is at the same center, and insists she is a U.S. citizen mistakenly rounded up by ICE. “Don’t hope,” Blanca tells the ever-optimistic Maritza. “It looks like a prison, it smells like a prison, but it’s not a prison. It’s worse.”  Blanca is right. Maritza learns she was actually born in Colombia and, although she has no memory of that country, is put on a plane and sent there. 

Other touches of harsh realism are everywhere. Blanca meets Carla (Karina Arroyave), an undocumented widow who is not allowed to phone, much less see, her small U.S.-born children, taken into foster care. The series is unsparing in its refusal to offer wish-fulfillment happy endings. But like all strong dramas, Orange Is the New Black doesn’t send its characters in a straight line toward a hellish fate. It gains emotional power by allowing us to share the ups and downs of Blanca, Maritza and Carla, as their stories come to include legal appeals, calls on smuggled-in cellphones and glimmers of hope.

Similarly, Years and Years asks us to invest in an intimate way with a single family. The British series, brilliantly written by Russell T. Davies, begins in the present and moves ahead 15 years, following four grown siblings into a future that is deliberately frightening in its predictions, none beyond our worst imaginings. It is a world of nuclear war, computer chips implanted in brains, a melting North Pole, a global financial crisis and a second Trump term (as well as a Pence presidency after that). 

One of the most engaging characters is Daniel (Russell Tovey), who works for the Manchester city department in charge of housing detainees, in a camp so overcrowded that people are sheltered in shipping containers. In the camp, Daniel falls in love with Viktor (Maxim Baldry), an asylum seeker from Ukraine who was tortured in prison because he is gay. 

Over several episodes, Viktor moves in with Daniel and becomes part of the family, but is deported. He illegally returns to Britain, and is expelled again, whisked onto a plane to Spain on 12-hours notice. The story then plunges us into all the rage, hope and fear that Daniel and Viktor experience together in Spain when a repressive government takes over. As they desperately attempt to cross to Britain in a small, overcrowded boat, a dynamic series of jump cuts takes us through a storm at sea, then leads to the tranquil aftermath on a beach. Some survivors are being cared for and dead bodies from the wreckage are strewn on the sand — the kind of image we have seen in news photos, but rarely experienced with such immediacy and emotional impact. Knowing the characters involved makes us feel the pain and injustice of their situation that much more acutely. 

In the background all the while is Vivienne Rook, a conservative entrepreneur turned politician and eventually prime minister, played by Emma Thompson with a perfect balance of populist fervor on the surface and malice underneath. Rook is intentionally Trumpian in too many ways to count. At a press conference, she counters rumors that her campaign was financed by Russia by blaming the “fake news media,” and responds to questions about her income taxes by calling the reporter an “enemy of the people.” She doesn’t understand how tariffs work. 

Rook is on the board of the profitable company running many of the detention centers, which become de facto death camps. As prime minister, she acknowledges that some of her political opponents resist the term concentration camp, but she justifies its use. “The word concentration simply means concentration of anything,” she says.

The episode was written well before the term became a real-life flashpoint. In June, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez excoriated the Trump administration by calling the detention centers at the U.S. borders “concentration camps.” The Years and Years episode was shown in the U.K. a week before she made that comment, and in the U.S. a month after. The frisson between the chilling television conversation and the one in reality reveals how fiercely and astutely dramas are capturing actual events.  

Orange Is the New Black and Years and Years approach politics from different angles. Years and Years has an ominous, epic sweep. As the episodes move into the future, news reports chronicle global changes: martial law in Italy, a financial meltdown in Greece, the United States becoming such a pariah that the UN is moved to another country. Orange Is the New Black is more focused on institutions, from the inequities of the justice system to the treatment of prisoners and immigrants in confinement. But both series arrive at the same place. By demonstrating the impact of political decisions on individual lives, they turn headlines into illuminating, hard-to-ignore personal experiences for us as viewers. 

The power of fiction is also at the core of The Infiltrators, a documentary-fiction hybrid that won an audience award at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Nonfiction scenes include immigrants who describe how they willfully got themselves detained so they could work from inside the centers for the release of others. But for much of the film, actors play those real-life activists in detention, creating a drama full of urgency. No wonder Blumhouse Television is turning the film into a purely fictional series, part of the galvanizing new wave of television bringing the deportation crisis into all our homes.