Diversionary Tactics

Commentary: As real-life terrorist drama unfolds, new dramas offer escapes with fictional good guys.

September 29, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

We are living in the middle of a fascinating and strange pop culture moment.

Even as we struggle to make sense of our lives in the wake of the all-too-real terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, the television networks' fall season arrives in our living rooms with no less than three new dramas featuring government agents battling international terrorism.

On Thursday, CBS pulled the pilot episode of The Agency, a drama about the CIA, because the main story line involved agents attempting to foil a bombing attack on Harrad's in London by Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization. The hour opened in Cairo with a booby-trapped CIA agent exploding as an Egyptian police officer tried to remove the American flag that was used as a gag in the agent's mouth.

Earlier in the week, Fox's new drama, 24, starring Keifer Sutherland as head of the government's Counter Terrorism Unit, made headlines when the president of the network's entertainment division was overruled by her corporate bosses and a scene showing a terrorist blowing up a 747 was excised from the first episode. The series is now scheduled to debut Nov. 6.

Premiering tomorrow night is Alias, an ABC drama starring Jennifer Garner as a 26-year-old graduate student recruited by the CIA to fight terrorists. At least she thinks it's the CIA, but it turns out that it might be another secret organization set up by terrorists to subvert the CIA.

If that sounds a little screwy, that's because it is. Alias is one of the most non-linear and illogical pilots I have ever seen. It's also one of the most exciting television rides I've had in years.

I love its energy. The breathless, roller-coaster montage of movement, color, action and emotion never quits. In a deal with Nokia that gives the company product placement, ABC will air the pilot tomorrow night at 9 without commercial interruption, a move that will give viewers a chance to feel the power that creator-director J.J. Abrams brings to the screen with this flashy, hip and daring anti-terrorism narrative.

In July when I first saw most of the new series, I wrote about 24 and Alias as the two best new dramas. After seeing all the networks' new programs, I still feel that way. But in the wake of Sept. 11, these anti-terrorist dramas become even more important because they also carry this vast new potential to tell us so much about ourselves and how we use the make-believe stories told by television in our real lives.

"People are now asking, `How can Alias, 24 and The Agency ever survive? No one's going to want to hear stories about terrorists now after what happened Sept. 11, are they?' " Dr. Robert J. Thompson, founder of the Center for the Study of Popular Television, said in a telephone interview last week.

"But I think these people are absolutely wrong. If we're to believe the president and CNN and all the rest who say we are about to engage on a military campaign that is going to be drawn out and filled with all these unsatisfying sorts of stories that lack closure, then these dramas become all the more important," Thompson said. "If we're not getting that kind of satisfaction in reality on CNN, I think we're going to be all the more desiring it in our fiction."

Thompson said Alias is the series that most clearly speaks to such desires.

"I look at Alias, where you have this beautiful woman kickboxing the living daylights out of the very bad guys we now fear most, and I've got to think watching her once a week actually beat terrorists - actually have these happy endings with some kind of closure - is going to be very desirable when we may not be getting that kind of closure in the real world," he said.

Acknowledging the incredible uncertainty of the times in which we have come to live and that more terrorist acts against the United States or actual warfare could change American attitudes in a flash, I think Thompson is right about the potential appeal of the new anti-terrorist TV dramas. And that doesn't mean we are hopelessly addicted to television or that we can't distinguish make-believe from reality.

Culture is popular when it successfully speaks to a need like the one so many of us are feeling for a victory over terrorism.

Granted, there are all sorts of practical problems these series face as they arrive on today's volatile television landscape. For example, a pilot is a very special kind of show that must in just one hour create a universe out of thin air, establish key relations among characters living in that world, and then make it all so interesting that we will want to return next week instead of choosing one of the myriad other viewing options.

When you pull a pilot and replace it with a regular episode as CBS did with The Agency, you are severely damaging your best-laid plans for attracting an audience. But CBS had no choice.

And, for all you and I know as I write or as you read this, we could be at war tomorrow night with Alias pre-empted for news coverage with Peter Jennings.

But, if prime time flows as scheduled tomorrow night, I think most Americans will spend part of their evening watching one of two high-priced, critically acclaimed productions - ABC's Alias or HBO's Band of Brothers, the World War II saga from Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks about one of our nation's most heroic victories over evil. Both air at 9.

There will be a generational split in the audience, with the World War II generation watching Band of Brothers, and people under 30 tuning to Alias. There will be a further split among baby boomers, depending, perhaps, on whether they identify more closely with their parents or their kids.

But all of us will come to the campfire hoping to hear the same kind of story - one that will make the darkness seem a little less frightening as it reassures us of American might.

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