It's 1997. Toward the end of The '80s, the Soviet Union occupied the United States and has retained shaky but firm control of American institutions and society with the aid of a compliant and effective United Nations. The main characters are Devin Milford (Kris Kristofferson), a former Senator and presidential candidate who was jailed as a dissident after the occupation and has just been released; Peter Bradford (Robert Urich) a government official who cooperates with the Soviets with the pragmatic goal of helping his constituents, but who gradually becomes The Quisling; and Colonel Andrei Denisov (Sam Neill), the KGB officer overseeing a number of states in the Midwest the Soviets call "Heartland." The series follows the characters as the Soviets plan to finally dissolve the remaining American government institutions.
The series was an indirect response to ABC's TV movie The Day After, which depicted the horrible results of nuclear attack on American soil and created a spirited public debate regarding the country's nuclear deterrent. A columnist, Ben Stein, (yes, that Ben Stein) suggested that a movie should be made in response depicting the also horrible what-if scenario of America being conquered by the Soviet Union to show why the risk of nuclear war was necessary.
ABC president Brandon Stoddard optioned the idea from Stein, and the project eventually expanded from a TV movie to a 14-hour miniseries. The series was much-hyped by ABC as both a spectacle and an important refresher course on American values, with a budget on par with contemporary feature films. The politically-charged premise proved to be a firestorm of controversy, with the United Nations and the USSR lodging official protests regarding their depictions, while in America ABC was accused of the toeing the ideological line of the Ronald Reagan administration, with fears that it would lead to a renewed Red Scare. The series was delayed for years due to well publicized political considerations, including threats by the Soviet Union to close down ABC's Moscow bureau.
The hype and controversy led to phenomenal ratings on opening night, however, viewers quickly got bored with the dense political drama and deliberate pacing; David Letterman quipped that two of the most interesting questions actually raised by the series were "Do we still have those old board games in the closet?" and "What else is on?" The ratings dwindled with each new episode, making Amerika one of the last of the "epic" miniseries of the American broadcast networks.
- All There in the Manual: The miniseries itself is very vague on how the Soviet invasion took place, except that it clearly didn't involve a nuclear war (the country is obviously still livable). The novelization spells it out: the Soviets detonated some nuclear warheads in the ionosphere that caused an electromagnetic pulse that basically disabled all modern technology, including communications and weapons devices, leaving the US unable to mount a defense. Since this was prior to the modern Internet, and most would know only the TV version, it raises a problem and kind of ups the strawman status of this piece. To the viewer, who may only see the lack of tech and maybe think the conquering Soviets just forbid and shut it down for control, taunts about Americans giving up without a fight make it almost seem like the Soviets just kind of wandered in. So, to the viewer, it seems like not only did the Americans surrender without resisting, it looks a lot like they gave in without any attack at all.
- Black Helicopter: The UN peacekeeping forces help patrol the country with the use of some intimidating-looking choppers. It's been suggested that this miniseries influenced the belief in UN black helicopters among conspiracy theorists.
- Canada, Eh?: Filmed predominantly (perhaps ironically) in Canada for tax purposes. The courtroom Milford's first hearing is held is in the Canadian style, and the Heartland political convention is held in Hamilton's Copps Coliseum.
- Downer Ending: In the final episode Milford is killed, Bradford has become a fully compliant puppet leader for the Soviets, and the dissolution of the US seems inevitable.
- Dystopia: The series opens with Devin Milford being released from a prison camp and traveling through once-prosperous farmland run down by ten years of collectivisation...and then he travels through Indiana, which is in even worse condition due to Soviet asset-stripping.
- Divided States of America: The Soviet Union plans to do this to the United States in order to prevent a resurgent America from posing a military or ideological threat. The general plotline follows the creation of "Heartland," a Soviet client state that secedes from America. Even party stalwarts, however, seem to have trouble with the concept.
- Failed Future Forecast: Needless to say, the Soviet Union did not conquer America and keep a firm grip on it well into the 1990s, instead gradually losing all of its territory from 1989 to 1991 before formally dissolving.
- Flyover Country: The Midwest has had all its factory tech looted by the Soviets, and people never return from "voluntary" factory work in Russia.
- Hero of Another Story: One of the most frustrating aspects of the series is that it suggests several far more compelling stories than the ho-hum happenings in Nebraska.
- It's mentioned in passing that Alaska has never completely submitted to Soviet rule, and apparently local militias have been able to sustain a long resistance campaign against the Red Army.
- Some news videos are shown of Milford's wildcard presidential campaign against pro-Soviet candidates, but no explanation is given to what happened.
- The takeover itself or the economic collapse isn't explained within the series (see "All There in the Manual" above).
- Invaded States of America: Subverted; the United States gives up without a fight, since so few think the cost of resistance (wrecked economy, huge proportion of population dead) would be worth the pay-off (be it costly independence or subjugation anyway). Then again, while the USA's oligarchy has probably been Brought Down to Normal it is implied that the economy has been wrecked by collectivisation policies and the Partisan War may end up killing just as many people anyway (regardless of whether it succeeds or not).
- Lzherusskie: Most of the Russian military. One or two of them have names that were even completely made up.
- Minion with an F in Evil: The generals in charge of the Soviet occupation have far more sympathy for First World/NATO values than they can officially show, and arguably to a very unrealistic degree for lifetime members of the Soviet military.
- The Mistress: Several female characters are having affairs with Soviet officials.
- My God, What Have I Done?: The US Congress is wiped out in a "terrorist attack" in a prelude to the breaking-up of the country. Samanov is Driven to Suicide at the sight.
- One World Order: The UN is now a Soviet puppet organisation, and the Commies are implied to control the entire world, or at least the parts that are useful to them.
- Patriotic Fervor: Like Red Dawn (1984), the series portrays the suffering of US citizens and evil of Soviet citizens and Socialists+Communists in general so it can use US citizens' sense of national pride and community to get them to sacrifice themselves for the USA in Real Life.
- Red Scare: Associates anti-US sentiment with Social-Liberal, Socialist, and Communist values.
- La Résistance: Several characters, but not always working towards the same goals against the Soviets.
- Russia Takes Over the World: It is a miniseries set some years after the Soviets have taken over the United States and installed a puppet government. References to other parts of the world indicate the Soviets are firmly in charge elsewhere as well, with the Warsaw Pact stretching all of Europe and China ceding Manchuria to the USSR.
- Sinister Surveillance: After Devin is picked up by his father at the station, a member of the Secret Police notes down the occurrence in his notebook.
- State Sec: The United Nations Special Service Unit carries out periodic "training exercises" — involving tanks, Black Helicopters, Gas Mask Mooks and Stuff Blowing Up — designed to intimidate the local population.
- Take That!: Despite the origins of the series noted above, ABC said that Amerika wasn't supposed to be a rebuttal to The Day After, just a story that examined another possible Cold War outcome. However, the creators of The Day After took it as a personal rebuke to the extent that director Nicholas Meyer and several cast members unsuccessfully tried to petition ABC to allow them airtime after Amerika to defend The Day After.
- 20 Minutes into the Future: Takes place in 1997.