The twisted appeal of normalisation TV

'The Thirty Cases of Major Zeman', photo: Czech Television

With a few notable exceptions, television in the Czech Republic today does not offer much original entertainment. Members of my generation, sometimes referred to as Husák’s children, can only look back with nostalgia to the 1970s and 80s when communist-controlled Czechoslovak TV produced some true gems in the history of television. But digging through the archives can quickly turn into an obsession as it indeed has in my case.

'The Thirty Cases of Major Zeman',  photo: Czech Television
Back in the days of the so-called normalisation, television had already become a nationwide phenomenon. One of the first TV series I remember watching as a child was the notorious police saga of Major Zeman. A blunt propaganda piece, its strangely unappealing, polyester-clad protagonist, focused mainly on denouncing the enemies of “socialism”, from clergymen to rock musicians and human rights advocates. Seen today, the 30-part series is strikingly open in pursuing its agenda. But since the fall of communism, it has been rebroadcast many times, came out on DVDs, and its fans organize gatherings attended by actors who appeared in the series.

The Major Zeman series came out in 1976, a time when the communist party fully understood television’s potential. In the same year, another famous, albeit more civil, series was released. Entitled A Woman Behind the Counter (Žena za pultem), it follows the ups and downs of a shop assistant in a modern supermarket. The setting itself must have glued people to their TV screens: the shop was filled to the brim with all kinds of food stuffs that were nearly impossible to get in real life supermarkets, such as real Emmental cheese, French cognac, salmon, or bananas and oranges. But its mediocre plot along with the actress in the lead role – the communist functionary Jiřina Švorcová – makes it almost unbearable to watch now, at least for me.

There were many other series, most of them authored by the king of normalisation TV soap opera, Jaroslav Dietl. His masterpiece, The Hospital at the Edge of Town, is in its own class, and is not very political. Its first 13 parts came out in 1977; the next seven parts were co-produced with a West German broadcaster which attests to its quality.

Jaroslav Dietl however also produced some more peculiar pieces, such as the 1979 series Tin Cavalry about a group of harvester crews and their summer journey through the country, or Engineers’ Odyssey which follows the lives and loves of three constructors of textile machines.

My all time favourite, however, is a true jewel of a TV series that outshines all others. A District up North (Okres na severu) is at the same time bizarre, entertaining and educational. It centres on the chairman of the communist party’s district committee in a fictitious industrial town. Comrade Pláteník is an overwhelmingly positive character, just in his judgement and firm in his principles. He helps those who ask for it, and punishes those who break the rules. Much of the action seen on screen takes place in comrade Pláteník’s office. You can see him making phone calls, holding councils, and speaking words of wisdom.

The educational aspect of it comes in when you see how blatantly the communist party interfered with the judiciary. The local police chief is a frequent guest in Mr Pláteník’s office where he informs him of ongoing investigations, and so does the district prosecutor. It got bad reviews even at the time when it was first shown on Czechoslovak TV – but I highly recommend it to everyone who wants to understand the mechanisms of the post-invasion Czech society.

All these TV series were created in a unique historical context: during normalisation, an era of oblivion. They served a double purpose: to make people forget about the grim reality around them, and to brainwash them. Watching them now gives you a strange feeling of guilty pleasure. They are hilarious, but their hilarity turns bitter when you realize that millions of people including you and your parents lived through those depressing times.