Reality series goes inside war on terror

TV Preview

February 27, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Reality TV extends its creepy tentacles into another realm of modern life tonight with the debut of ABC's Profiles From the Front Line, a six-week video verite series that follows American soldiers fighting in central Asia.

Think of the long-running Fox series COPS, only instead of handheld cameras bouncing along behind big-city cops as they bust drug dealers, viewers here follow members of the U.S. military as they apprehend a suspected al-Qaida leader in Afghanistan, or confront Iraqi oil smugglers in the north Arabian Sea. It's COPS gone global, and some of it is quite compelling. But the series also raises questions about such subject matter being packaged as prime-time entertainment at a time when debate rages over whether to go to war with Iraq.

Tonight's hour is skillfully crafted to tap into not only feelings of patriotism, but also the vast psychic residue of 9/11. The first segment follows members of the 82nd Airborne Division as they finish training and begin to deploy to Afghanistan.

The cameras move from images of teary-eyed young men and women holding loved ones tightly as they say goodbye, to an officer addressing a group of soldiers in camouflage gear waiting to board the planes that will take them to war.

"The 82nd Airborne will not let anyone come and endanger the lives of Americans on this soil," Col. Abraham J. Turner says.

"And, if for some reason it's not clear in your minds why you are going to Afghanistan to join this war on terrorism, you ask yourself these questions," he continues. "How dare they fly aircraft into the World Trade towers. How dare they fly an aircraft into the Pentagon?' Remember, the American people expect you to be at the point of the spear so that no one ever again even considers coming to our country or endangering the lives of Americans anywhere on the face of this Earth."

The most compelling segment features three members of the elite U.S. Special Operations forces on a mission to bring an alleged al-Qaida officer into camp for questioning. Special Operations, which one officer describes as the "Rambo guys," are the stars of this series.

Three sergeants from Special Operations - who are identified by first name only for security reasons, according to the producers - provide a running commentary as they set off in their pickup truck.

"I always prefer to just pick these guys up and convince them to come along with us," the sergeant who is driving says. "Once you kill somebody, you have a blood feud going."

The three men quickly find themselves stuck in traffic on a narrow street in the marketplace at Orgun. The tension in the truck is palpable as people press up against the vehicle.

"This is the most dangerous spot for us," one of the team members says. "One hand grenade and our goose is cooked."

There's more tension at the compound of the suspect. When a man identified as a village elder says he hasn't seen the suspect for a day, the leader of the Special Operations team tells the interpreter to call the elder a liar. As voices rise and a crowd gathers, the intensity builds.

There is no shortage of drama in this reality series created by Jerry Bruckheimer (producer of Blackhawk Down) and Bertram van Munster (executive producer of CBS reality series The Amazing Race). Pulitzer-Prize-winning photographer David Hume Kennerly is a co-executive producer, which might explain why so much of the drama is generated by image rather than word.

But one danger of such television is that the strong visceral reaction to skillful manipulation of image, music and words can short circuit more careful consideration. There are all sorts of problems with this series, starting with the fact that some of the video comes from the Pentagon and Department of Defense rather than cameras controlled by the producers. Worse, the producers do not tell viewers which is which. This is the stuff of which propaganda is made.

There is also the issue of using the lives and deaths of American soldiers to sell fast food and beer at prime-time prices during commercial breaks. The image of a flag-draped coffin being saluted by comrades is part of the opening montage of Profiles from the Front Line. It begs a question as to whether the sacrifice represented by that image is debased in such a show business environment.

Premiere

What: Profiles from the Front Line

When: Tonight at 8

Where: WMAR (Channel 2)

In brief: Reality TV goes to war in Afghanistan

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