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I’m about to introduce you to one of the strangest, longest-forgotten TV projects ever launched: a December 1968 television movie for ABC made to pitch a weekly series called Shadow on the Land. The grim, Twilight Zone-like premise: the U.S. is ruled by a dictatorship, and has been for decades more than anyone realizes, backed by the Federal bureaucracy and their Gestapo-like ISF, the Internal Security Forces. The nation’s churches have been cowed or intimidated into submission. A small band of freedom fighters emerges within law enforcement and government, and their never-ending secret struggle of sabotage against their own agencies is the plot of the TV movie, and of the following series that was never to be.
This wasn’t The Man in the High Castle; no foreign invasion, no defeat in a war was necessary, it’s something we did to ourselves. One of the most disturbing and effective things about Shadow on the Land was a deliberate choice of the filmmakers: its normalcy, an America with freeways and shopping centers where you can drive a Pontiac, smoke Luckies, and fly TWA. Where even the men walking the halls of secret police headquarters look like the ad agency staff in Mad Men, with a visual background of typing pools and office Christmas parties. There are no futuristic props at all, nothing that suggests that what we’re watching is anything but today’s world. Wild stuff, huh?