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.
Al Qaeda leader, a man who helped plan the Sept. 11 attacks.
The fictional character in tonight's episode has the glaring eyes of
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
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
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
"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
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 show rests on a deeper impulse, revealed during that same
conversation when the admiral tells the suspect he will get a fair trial.
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
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
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
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
"The C.I.A. is not in the business of bugging our own citizens," Gage
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
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
do with adventure than politics. ABC's "Alias," with Jennifer Garner as
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,
series is driven by the chase, not the message.
When there are messages, they are less predictable than they used to
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.