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NBC’s ‘American Odyssey’ Pits Occupy vs. Citizens United

NBC’s new show American Odyssey is a retelling of Homer’s classic tale and also, according to its creators, an illustration of the dangers of Citizens United to American democracy.

The show focuses on Sgt. Odelle Ballard, a woman soldier working with special forces in North Africa. Odelle’s team stumbles upon evidence that a major U.S. corporation has been funding terrorism and are promptly attacked by a blackwater-type private security firm working for the company. Odelle survives thanks to a Muslim boy named Aslam who becomes her guide and protector in her odyssey to return to the United States.

Meanwhile, on the homefront, an Occupy-themed activist learns of a text message Odelle sent just before her escape. He and his group thus become part of the struggle against the corporation and the U.S. military which claims Odelle is dead.

In an interview with the Daily Beast, the show’s creators, Adam Armus and Nora Kay Foster, made clear that the anti-corporate themes were no accident. “It’s about Citizens United,” Foster tells the Beast, adding “Corporations are more powerful now than a nation-state, and people are really onto the fact that our democracy has been hijacked by corporate interests, and our votes are not really counting anymore because our candidates are all who has the most money.”

Co-creator Armus echoed that idea of a lost democracy, telling the Daily Beast, “Ever since Citizens United and corporations became people, a lot of people felt they didn’t have a say anymore. This is about three people who could’ve been from anywhere coming together and fighting back.”

Citizens United is a 2010 Supreme Court decision which removed limits on political expenditures by nonprofit groups. Specifically, the case overturned part of the McCain-Feingold Act which had prevented the conservative group Citizens United from airing a film critical of candidate Hillary Clinton.

The Daily Beast article correctly notes that the first crusader against Citizens United was none other than President Obama. After the Supreme Court released its decision in January 2010, the president made a point of criticizing the Justices during his State of the Union speech a few days later. The president then led a year-long public campaign for a proposed law, the Disclose Act, to overturn the Court’s decision.

The Disclose Act failed to get through Congress; however, one individual who was clearly impressed with the president’s reasoning was an IRS employee named Lois Lerner. Lerner ran the branch of the IRS which handled 501 organizations. As Lerner would later admit, her organization unfairly targeted conservative groups applying for exempt status.

In addition to the progressive tropes adopted by the show, the creators also say they wanted to feature some heroic Muslim characters. Armus tells the Beast, “We do think that Americans have a black-and-white opinion about people in the Muslim world, and we’re trying to open their eyes a little bit and say, ‘Look, there are good and bad guys in the Muslim world just like they’re good and bad guys in the non-Muslim world.’”

Prior to their work on American Odyssey, both Armus and Foster were working writing episodes of The Following at Fox. (Note: This author was not a fan of The Following‘s writing staff.) The duo are perhaps best known as producers/writers for NBC’s Heroes which premiered back in 2006. Heroes will be returning to NBC this summer.

American Odyssey is scheduled to wrap up Odelle’s effort to defeat the machinations of corporate America and return home in 13 episodes. If NBC renews the show for a second season, it will begin again with a new story, similar to how FX network’s American Horror Story tells a new story each season.

American Odyssey airs at 10pm Sunday nights on NBC.

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