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TV's Take on Government in a Terror-Filled World


April 29, 2002
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TV's Take on Government in a Terror-Filled World

by Caryn James, The New York Times

In the dreams of the creators of "JAG," the long-lived but clunky CBS drama about military lawyers, United States troops have captured the No. 3 Al Qaeda leader, a man who helped plan the Sept. 11 attacks.

The fictional character in tonight's episode has the glaring eyes of a zealot, and his story most closely echoes that of Zacarias Moussaoui, commonly called "the 20th hijacker," scheduled to go on trial in federal court for conspiring in those attacks. But the two are hardly twins.

Since the episode was completed several weeks ago, with the Pentagon's help, reality has veered away from it in a way that reveals how "JAG" has skewed its vision of the world. Last week Mr. Moussaoui declared he wanted to defend himself at trial, claiming that his court-appointed lawyers were conspiring with the government to deliver the death penalty.

In the glorified, simple-minded vision of "JAG," the accused Al Qaeda member wonders why his appointed lawyers are doing such a good job. "You fought hard in there," he says after a day in court, talking through the bars of his cell. "Why?"

"Our way of life entitles you to a fair trial no matter how cowardly the act," says the admiral who is defending him.

The drama had already detached itself from reality by putting the defendant before a military tribunal instead of a court, trying out an idea the Bush administration has suggested (to much criticism) but not yet put into effect. With the recent turn in the Moussaoui case, the strategy behind the "Tribunal" episode is more transparent than ever: the show creates the wish-fulfillment fantasy of capturing a terrorist responsible for the attacks, depicts an idealized military, yet ends with an ominous threat of more terror in the works, affirming the government's real-life message that Americans must remain vigilant.

In a season crammed with series about the F.B.I., the C.I.A., the courts and the military, the Pentagon-friendly "JAG" reflects one extreme in television's depiction of the government.

The opposite extreme is represented by a more surprising source. "The Agency," the CBS series about the C.I.A. (which also cooperates with the producers), has been revamped in its first season and now presents a more tangled view. If "JAG" offers a clean-hands vision of its characters' missions, "The Agency" shows the C.I.A. getting its hands dirty and offers an ambiguous look at how the government must function in a terror-filled world.

"JAG" (the title sounds like a character's name but is an acronym for Judge Advocate General, the military's legal division) has been around for six years, yet it is newly topical and popular. This season it has increased its ratings by 10 percent and many weeks has been among the Top 20 shows. Even the tribunal setting, though, doesn't improve the drama's cardboard figures and stilted dialogue.

On screen the tribunal is different from a court because the judges wear Navy uniforms instead of robes, and the event takes place on an aircraft carrier. Otherwise it is generic courtroom drama, filled with the potted arguments and lawyers' debates that so often pass for social commentary on television. The suspect has been deprived of sleep, subjected to constant lights and given a drug to make him talk; does that constitute torture, the lawyers ask?

The show rests on a deeper impulse, revealed during that same conversation when the admiral tells the suspect he will get a fair trial. In his orange prison jumpsuit, his face impassive and his eyes filled with hate, the suspect stares through the bars of his cell and says: "You want to know what I say about Sept. 11? Every single person who died that day got exactly what they deserved."

The admiral reaches through bars and grabs him around the neck, acting out what so many people would like to do. In the end the terrorist gets punished in a contrived way that leaves the government's hands clean, allowing the show to have it both ways. Beneath its superficial timeliness, "Tribunal" is an exercise in cheap satisfaction and government image-building.

The better dramas are more nuanced than that. Patriotism may be newly fashionable, but viewers don't have amnesia about the workings of government agencies. CBS has a disproportionate number of government-centered shows (for reasons that may be part programming strategy and part chance), including a two-part crossover that began last Saturday on "The District," the drama about the Washington police, and will conclude Thursday on "The Agency."

While investigating the murder of a former C.I.A. agent, the police chief on "The District," Jack Mannion (Craig T. Nelson), finds a C.I.A. listening device hidden in his office. He goes to Tom Gage, the agency's new, idealistic director, played by Beau Bridges, the cast's new, high-profile addition.

"The C.I.A. is not in the business of bugging our own citizens," Gage says.

Mannion responds with unmistakable sarcasm, "Yeah, they wouldn't do anything illegal, would they?"

Now we're getting real.

"The Agency" is still struggling in the ratings against "E.R.," but its recent changes have made it more gripping as drama, combining touches of "Mission: Impossible" with political infighting. The bland C.I.A. director (Ronny Cox) was replaced and viewers were given a Good Cop/Bad Cop contrast. Now the high-minded Gage has a rival in a dirty tricks specialist, Robert Quinn (Daniel Benzali), the liaison between the C.I.A. and Office of Homeland Security. The men distrust and scheme against each other, and viewers get to choose whose approach makes more sense.

In a recent episode, India and Pakistan seem headed for a nuclear showdown because of a rogue Pakistani general, and representatives from both countries are called into Gage's office. ("The Agency" plays its own games with realism, making it seem like the C.I.A. director single-handedly determines foreign policy). Quinn monitors the meeting by closed-circuit camera and spells out the sometimes murky plan Gage suggests: the United States will eliminate the threatening general, release a doctored photograph to the press proving that terrorists have killed him, and avert the nuclear crisis. "We get rid of their rogue general, and their hands are clean," Quinn says. Of course the C.I.A.'s hands are dirty, but many lives are saved. In Thursday's conclusion of the crossover story, the murder investigation leads directly to the C.I.A. and money-laundering.

The other government-centered shows that began this season have more to do with adventure than politics. ABC's "Alias," with Jennifer Garner as a double-agent for the C.I.A., is too cartoonish to have a thought in its head. In Fox's gripping "24," we have learned that Jack Bauer, the F.B.I. agent played by Kiefer Sutherland, was part of a government-sanctioned assassination attempt against a Bosnian villain (Dennis Hopper). Still, the series is driven by the chase, not the message.

When there are messages, they are less predictable than they used to be. Last week the usually sophisticated "West Wing" presented a sappy documentary in which real-life White House figures, from staff members to former presidents, said how great their jobs were. This Saturday "The District" offers a mundane episode in which an innocent man hours away from execution can be cleared only with information a priest got in the confessional (that tired plot). It may be a sign of these fluctuating times that even this ordinarily boosterish series comes through with an ending that suggests no one - not the police, the courts or the clergy - always gets things right.




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