Here's the truth: The new American TV villain is the liar

Z ON TV

March 08, 2009|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,david.zurawik@baltsun.com

With the cancellation of ABC's Life on Mars last week, it's official: The cop drama as we've known it since Hill Street Blues in 1981 is dead.

Twenty-eight years is an impressive run, but as a culture, we have moved well past thinking of urban America as a dark and threatening frontier that needs to be tamed by hard-edged, big-city detectives like Mick Belker of Hill Street Blues and Andy Sipowicz of NYPD Blue.

As a nation, we have new fears, frustrations and nightmares, and so, Hollywood is trying to give us new prime-time heroes that speak to our anxieties and send us off to bed feeling a little better about the world in which we live.

The first wave of new TV heroes included Jack Bauer of 24 (Fox) and Jonas Blaine of The Unit (CBS), government-employed warriors who battled a major source of our post-Sept. 11 worries: the international terrorist.

But as these series and heroes wind down toward what could be the end of their runs, a newer model of heroism yet is emerging on the small screen - one that speaks volumes about what is now troubling the waters of the American psyche.

The new pattern can be seen in three freshman series: The Mentalist (CBS), Lie To Me (Fox) and Eleventh Hour (CBS). The Mentalist is the most successful new drama on TV, with a weekly audience of 19 million viewers.

Like the cop drama, each episode of each series involves crime and a team that solves crimes. But the new American prime-time heroes are a far cry from Sipowicz and Belker.

None works out of a gritty, downtown precinct house busting drug dealers and killers only to be frustrated at every turn by a dysfunctional criminal justice system. And none relies on a gun to ultimately assert dominance over dangerous criminals.

Instead, each leading man is a bit of a cranky outsider with a checkered past and a female associate who more or less keeps him in line. Each is played by a British or Australian rather than an American actor. But here is the thing that really matters: Each has special talents, training or powers of intuition that allow them to ferret out deception, dishonesty and outright lies.

Forget the big-city drug lord and bin Laden; the new American villain is the liar.

And why not? Aren't we in a war that has claimed hundreds of American lives and helped shred the economy - all because of a lie? And has anything bad happened to the man, then-Vice President Dick Cheney, who has been identified as the person who sent the lie about Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction out into the media marketplace?

And aren't millions of us in danger of losing our jobs and homes because high-fliers on Wall Street and hustlers in the banking and mortgage industries built a house of cards based on nonsecured credit and lies? The dishonesty ran clear through the system, from senior management at the country's largest banks to the first-time home buyers who were encouraged to invent jobs and annual income figures for their loan applications. (I can't even think about Bernie Madoff without my blood starting to boil - and, boy, is he ever suffering in that penthouse.)

Every realm of the American life and culture is polluted today by lies - from New York Yankees' third baseman Alex Rodriguez lying about his use of steroids, to Illinois Sen. Roland W. Burris lying to get into the Senate.

And is anyone punished - even when they are exposed? Don't make me laugh. At least in the 1970s, the last time we seemed as a nation to lose our moral compass, one high-profile liar paid for his sins: President Richard Nixon was forced to resign in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

This is the social climate that TV producers are trying to address with shows like Lie to Me. And don't think for a second that the men and women working in Hollywood don't understand it.

"I think this period of time right now has a lot in common with the early '70s. There's a recession, and there's scandal after scandal after scandal. And we're constantly being lied to and being shown things that feel like they're completely out of our control," says Brendan Hines, 32, the Baltimore-born, Loyola Blakefield graduate who plays Eli Loker, a truth-telling assistant to the lead character, Dr. Cal Lightman (Tim Roth), in Lie to Me.

"This show talks about the ways in which we're all the same when we lie. The series shows pictures of real-life famous figures who have been suspected of or proven to be liars - just as characters who lie are exposed and punished. And I think viewers can tap into that, can connect what they see on the screen with what is going on in society today. ... And that is why the show has hit a chord."

We know it is make-believe, but seeing liars punished in prime-time dramas is still more satisfying than what happens in our real lives. It might not quite measure up to what the ancient Greeks experienced under the stars in their outdoor theaters carved into the sides of mountains. But everything is downsized these days in America - even our TV heroes and the catharsis they provide.

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