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"The American Embassy: Foreign Service Frolics"

Date of Article's Original Publication: March 2002
Original URL of Article: (Must pay a small fee to see the actual article)
© Patricia Brennan for the Washington Post

Conventional wisdom in the world of television entertainment used to be that nobody wanted to watch shows about the federal government -- "The FBI" and "The Untouchables" aside.

But, oh, that has changed. Now it seems that every bureau and branch of every agency has its own series, among them "The X-Files," "JAG," "The West Wing," "The Agency," "UC: Undercover," "Alias," "24," "First Monday" and, soon, "The Court."

What's next? The U.S. Postal Service? Well, no - the USPS already had its own letter carriers, Cliff Clavin of "Cheers" and Newman on "Sienfeld."

This time it's the Foreign Service, whose work is dramatized on Fox's "The American Embassy." This six-episode series, which debuted last week, airs Monday at 9. Filmed in London, it stars Arija Bareikis as 26-year old vice consul Emma Brody.

A series about the nation's diplomats might have turned up earlier if executive producer James D. Parriott ("Voyagers!") had his way.

"I had pitched an embassy show 18 or 20 years ago, back in the ear of 'Hill Street Blues' and ensemble drama," said Parriott from Los Angeles. “One of the very first things I did was to contact the feds and found the State Department didn’t have anyone [as expert consultants for moves and television] out there.”

Then he discovered Wayne G. Griffith, who was consul general at the U.S. Embassy in London when the series was made last year.

“Wayne opened the doors,” said Parriott. “We talked to the consuls. They allowed out set decorators to wander through the embassy, and gave us props and told us all kinds of stories, which we rolled into the episodes.”

For security reasons, the series was not allowed to film inside the real embassy, said Griffith, but “we gave them a lot of access. We loaned them a consul general’s flag and a seal, which they have in their conference room and a lot of papers and the like. It looks just as ratty as ours, awash with boxes and people walking around.”

Some embassy interiors were filmed at London’s Old County Hall building, and the exteriors were shot at a hospital in the city.

“When I visited and looked at ‘their’ embassy, I said ‘This isn’t my embassy, but it looks like an embassy,’” said Griffith. “Their place looks better than ours.”

Griffith sees the series as a recruiting tool and said the show’s Web site will include a link to the State Department’s site.

“The Foreign Service is not well known,” he said. “People think we’re bad guys, or we’re spies or something. The Foreign Service doesn’t get well-treated in the media.”

So Griffith saw his chance when Parriott came calling. “He said he wanted Emma to have an exciting, demanding and fun career, so we brought the actors into the embassy and we let them talk to some of the vice consuls, witness some of the work we do.

“I brought in a lot of my officers and told them our war stories and gave them some ideas. One thing about Foreign Service people: we have the best stories.”

Several of those ideas turned up in last week’s pilot, including the appearance of a naked man sitting of the floor of the embassy’s rotunda. Emma was assigned to find out what he wanted.

“Interviewing naked people seems to be common in the Foreign Service experience,” said Griffith. “In interviewed a naked guy in jail in Mexico one time.”

Another storyline involved the abduction of a 12-year old American girl by a parent.

“I’ve had exact cases like that,” said Griffith. “They at least showed it close to the facts of the case.”

Television needs “a little dramatic license,” acknowledged Griffith. “There’s going to be the usual shenanigans. We never asked for script approval. We had input, and they listened to it and some of my quibbles. What I was happy with is the work Emma does, they’re taking it seriously.”

In the series pilot, Emma Brody sets off for her new job in one of the world’s greatest capital cities, London. On the flight, she met-and nearly became involved with in a restroom rendezvous with-a CIA agent called Doug Roach (roach=bug=spy – get it?).

Then, as sometimes happens to air travelers, even to those traveling on diplomatic passports apparently, her luggage was lost. She was obliged to begin her career by turning up for work every day in the same pantsuit. For a reception, she borrowed a frock from Gary, her cross-dressing London neighbor.

For a game of flag football with new embassy pals, she was able to pull on jeans, sneakers and an Ohio State T-Shirt-from her carryon bag, perhaps.

“I want to say that my sister Fed-Exed them to me,” laughed Bareikis.

In addition to Roach, Emma also has attracted the interest of a wealthy, young British lord who apparently is having second thoughts about his own betrothal.

Oh, the life of a young Foreign Service officer! How glamorous! What fun!

Certainly Griffith thinks so. Griffith, now deputy assistant secretary of state, said he has shown the pilot to every Foreign Service officer he can corner, including some on Moscow and Warsaw, who were treated to screenings on recent trips there.

“We had a lot of fun with this,” said Griffith, 53, who had a tiny cameo in the first episode. “Early on, when Emma is almost hit by a car, she walks into the embassy and I’m standing behind her.”

Bareikis, a 1988 Stanford graduate from Bloomington, Ind (her father taught Germanic literature at Indiana University), and a high school cheerleader and homecoming queen, said she spent a year studying in Berlin but a Foreign Service career never occurred to her.

“Truthfully, I never though about it,” she said. “I never understood that somebody could choose to do that.”

Instead, after graduation, she worked as a paralegal and moved to New York to study dance and acting. She appeared on stage in the 1997 Tony-award winner, “Last Night of Ballyhoo”; in films including “Snow Falling on Cedars” and “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo”; and on television (“Oz,” “One Life to Live”).

She was making the “American Embassy” pilot in London last fall when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred.

“There was a wonderful memorial set up at the U.S. Embassy, but I ended up making up about 1,600 flyers encouraging Londoners to light their candles as well,” she recalled. “I got such mixed reactions – it was fascinating. Once guy crumpled up his flyer and threw it on the ground. I was confused a first-I didn’t quite get it. You find out that not everybody is crazy about Americans.”

To that point, Parriott ended his pilot with a car bombing at the embassy, shattering windows and Emma’s composure.

For him, the attacks also meant rewriting episodes he thought were finished.

“We weren’t aware of how audiences were going to react,” he said. “I did a lot of re-writing. I threw out one script that involved an airplane hostage situation. What we found post 9-11 was that the humor just wasn’t playing the same. People were not invested in self-involved characters. They seemed to want their embassy to be a little more serious, so we pulled some of the humor down.”

The series, originally called “Emma Brody,” begins with Emma’s letters and e-mails to her siblings. She still has unresolved issues with her mom, who bids her goodbye with a kiss for “my good girl.”

“It’s not that we’re going to take the show away from Emma or decentralize the character-it still will be told through her eyes,” said Parriott.

By design, said Parriott, the series does not focus on the ambassador, who can be either a political appointee or a career Foreign Service officer. When Parriott began the series, the U.S. Ambassador to Britain was Philip Lader. Now Williams S. Farish, a Bush appointee from Houston, holds the position.

“I consciously left the ambassador out,” said Parriott. “We decided to stay away from political appointees and stick with the career diplomats. The network may want us to get into ambassadors next season.”

Back at her apartment in New York City, Bareikis was more concerned with the current six episodes than she was about the show’s future.

“Truthfully I care less about its getting picked up than about its being good,” she said. “When 9-11 happened, we were just getting ready to shoot and I was afraid it might be canceled. The producers thought about it and decided it could be one of those projects that have some social relevance.

“I’m glad to know the show is touted as a dramedy-it’s a touchy thing to put a lot of jokes in a show that’s about serious stuff. I hope people don’t feel offended by it in any way, and that they get something out of it, and that they don’t think it was one of those opportunistic things.

“In a way, I think it’s uncanny.”