Saturday, 28 April 2012

Forensic experts, super-spies, geniuses, alternate worlds – how US TV drama has reacted to 9/11

The search for Bin Laden
The first episode of the original, Las Vegas-based CSI series aired in 2000, a year before the 9/11 attacks. For almost a decade the CSI franchise – which went on to invade Miami and New York – ruled the ratings, along with the more standard police procedural Law & Order franchise. I know how pseudish this will sound, but I wonder if the ongoing success of both was partly a reaction to 9/11?

'Who called me "Ginger"?'
On the whole, both series feature legally appointed guardians of the law – ordinary cops and crime-scene investigators - working within the law, following procedure. The message is straightforward  – courage, good old-fashioned police work and American technical know-how can defeat the forces of evil while sticking to the rules. Despite the hilarious heroic poses struck by über-ginger David Caruso as Horatio Cain in Miami and the mildly Asbergerish Gil Grissom character played by William Petersen in Vegas, process, know-how, decency and gadgets will capture America’s Al Quaeda-supporting enemies within… but mainly the foot-soldiers.

"You have the right to remain silent..."
Then, just a month after 9/11, the first series of 24 hit the small screen – and proved a smash hit. The timing of the launch was absolutely – albeit inadvertently - perfect, because here, in the form of Whisperin’ Keifer Sutherland, we had the opposite side of the coin to the quiet heroics of CSI/Law & Order’s cops – a spy operating outside the law, willing to do anything to keep America safe, whether that be shooting a suspect dead during an interrogation pour encourager les autres to allowing himself to become addicted to heroin. Agent Jack Bauer isn’t brilliant, but he’s bold, resolute, a dab hand with technology, and, when everyone else is pussy-footing around protecting evil-doers' rights, he's blowing their friggin' heads off. Man’s gotta do, etc. Bauer was telling us that in order to capture Al-Quaeda’s top brass, “rights” were going to have to go on the back-burner.

But, while terrorist threats inside the US were being successfully headed off at the pass, Osama Bin Laden remained uncaptured and unpunished. Seemed he could both run and hide, thank you very much. And US military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan was rapidly – and inevitably - turning into an expensive and humiliating quicksand nightmare.

Something more was needed. Enter Dr Gregory House, towards the end of 2004. Okay, he’s dealing with medical cases rather than terrorists – but he’s an unconventional genius who believes rules are for stupid people, that patients routinely lie about themselves, and that saving lives threatened by stealthy, covert enemies (i.e. fatal medical conditions that hide their true nature from conventional minds – think terrorists) requires ignoring conventional wisdom and taking enormous gambles. Keeping America safe – and tracking down Bin Laden – is going to need psycho-nutter-bastard geniuses operating way outside the law.

Screw process – we’re going to out-think these SOBs (because, let's face it, conventional weapons haven't worked).

Don't book it - Thomas Cook it!
Meanwhile, the SF/Fantasy genre got into the act, with Lost, another 2004 arrival. A group of strangers find themselves wrenched out of their normal existence by a plane crash which leaves them stranded on a mysterious island, threatened by unknown – and quite possibly supernatural – forces. They spend a lot of time trying to figure out what’s happening to them, and how the hell they got there. (Pseud alert: a series of plane crashes on 9/11 destroyed America’s sense of normality and left Americans trying to figure out what the hell was happening to them, and how they got into this situation.)

Many of these strands have been successfully intertwined in Fringe, one of the best SF series ever to appear on television. Two scientists have created a “bridge” between parallel universes, which has led to a series of terrifying, inexplicable events taking place in both worlds. (Significantly, the Twin Towers still stand in the other world). If this interference with the forces of nature (involvement in the Middle East?) can’t be undone, one of the worlds will be destroyed – possibly both. Much of the mayhem in both universes can be traced back to David Robert Jones, a fiendishly cunning terrorist mastermind with a wide network of operatives (any ideas who that might be?).

Dr Walter Bishop
The FBI Fringe team in “our” world consists of one of the scientists responsible for the mess (Dr Walter Bishop – the House-style unconventional genius and drug-guzzler), his son, Peter (not quite as brilliant, shady semi-criminal past, tough and manly and willing to break the law to get things done) and Agent Olivia Dunham, who tries to play by the rules, but isn’t averse to stepping over the line when needs must. Dr Bishop has an assistant, Astrid, who represents normality. (Fringe - despite the ludicrous silliness of the plot -  is a wildly inventive and entertaining show, with sharp scripts and excellent acting, especially from the two Australian leads.)

Homeland, of course, is the latest and possibly the most gripping of all the various US TV series to bear the imprint of post-9/11 thinking. Of course, here the connection is overt. In many ways, it's the most grown-up of all the shows: there are no geniuses, no he-men super-agents, the standard processes aren’t getting the CIA or the FBI very far - but there is a mentally unstable, driven maverick agent willing to work outside the law in order to catch the bad guy(s).  I’m just not sure there’s as much moral ambiguity involved in the situation as the programme-makers are trying to imply – I don’t a rat’s arse if the US government lies about its drone strikes: when you’re fighting psychopathic gangsters intent on destroying your country to make way for a fascistic world government, bending the odd rule strikes me as a patriotic duty rather than a problem.

As for British television's response to 9/11 and our own 7/7, well that was mainly provided by the BBC's Spooks, which did its best to convince us that the real threat was from right-wingers Westerners and, of course, Israel - and any number of dramas about British military personnel whose sole purpose seemed to be to undermine the morale of our soldiers. So no change there, then.


  1. Horatio Cain? Nobodody has a name like that. That is almost as bad as Steve Segal playing somebody called Mason Storm. I haven't seen any of the programmes you mention - apart from dipping in and out very briefly - so cannot comment on your theory. But I have noticed that actors who appear in them either have a tendency to put on a lot of weight [Laurence Fishbourne and William Peterson] or join the Zombie school [Dr House or Caruso].

    Don't forget new series of Braquo on FX to-night.

  2. Interesting you should mention US actors' tendency to put on a lot of weight. The star of "Law and Order: Criminal Intent", Vincent D'Onofrio - a rather good actor - has always been on the plump side, but in the latest series appears to have had the Stephen Seagal "pump up the rump" treatment. He hunkered down to check out a clue on the floor in the last episode I saw, and I was half-expecting the camera crew to rush forward to help him up again.

    The excellent James Gandolfini told James Lipton on "Inside the Actors Studio" that he'd gone on a diet before one series of The Sopranos - but had found it so difficult to play Tony Soprano without the heft that he put it all back for the next one. If only we all had such a great excuse!