The Worst Happened

American Soldier

American Soldier

This here is a ’76 Chevy and somehow or other, it got stuck over here in Iraq, like the rest of us.
— Sergeant Ronald Jackson, Off to War

I’m giving up my whole life by being here.
— Sergeant Joe Betts, Off to War

On 26 October, U.S. military fatalities in Iraq reached the much-remarked “grim milestone” of 2,000. Television and other media commentaries noted the number’s historical significance and tried to situate it in a larger context, some noting the U.S. administration’s tone-deaf resolve concerning the country President Bush continues to call “the central front in our war on terror.” Just about a week later, FX decided “not to renew” the series Over There, citing its poor ratings performance, and, according to FX general manager John Landgraf, “our belief that the numbers were reflective of what the show is about, rather than its quality or entertainment value.”

If only the war could be cancelled for the same reasons.

But if the war goes on in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and any number of “secret” prisons around the globe, its tv representations remain underwhelming. Typically, the war appears as “numbers” — casualties from car bombs or IEDs, comparisons between months’ accumulations (October 2005 was the “fourth deadliest month” since the war’s start), troops moved from one location to another — graphics that skirt experience that might actually be horrifying for viewers or mobilize resistance to the war. As much as Cindy Sheehan or high school students or even Senate Democrats calling for closed door sessions find ways to make their protests visible on tv, the war itself remains strangely unseen.

This despite the fact that the Iraq war, even more than the Vietnam war or the Gulf war, is the tv war. The fundamental capacity for representing the “personal” and “intimate” experiences of this war is frankly remarkable, given the technologies available to troops and journalists. From blogs to cell phones to videophones, the war in Iraq is represented repeatedly, but for a relatively small, heavily invested audience: families keep in touch through email and internet discussion groups, reporters publish their work online or on non-U.S. outlets — Australian tv, the BBC, Al-Jazeera — so that those seeking data or images might find them.

Given all the potential venues, the lack of imagery — mainstream, incessant, harrowing — might seem surprising. Yes, the war is represented in any number of metaphorical and/or fictional ways: Afghanistan ground battles in E-Ring, the trauma of surviving veterans in Medium, the difficulties of “executive decisions” touched on in Commander in Chief, the fear of a relentlessly threatening environment and incompetent or malevolent authorities in Invasion, Lost, or Surface, and utterly brutal violence relegated to forensics series, from Bones and the CSIs to Killer Instinct and, in its way, Threshold. Meantime, the war as news, the war as tv in any explicit and so-named form, is rendered in brief, unspectacular, “daily installments.”

If few viewers will feel moved to mourning or outrage over the passing of Over There (whose soapy excesses were, as Landgraf suggests, “entertaining,” if nothing else), even fewer notice the war is appearing in a more or less coherent format in Off to War, on the cable network Discovery Times. Following the experiences of the Arkansas National Guard’s 39th Brigade, from Clarksville (pop. 7.719) to Iraq, the series, shot and directed by the brothers Craig and Brent Renoud, first emerged as what seemed a one-off documentary in April 2004. Released theatrically at the Tribeca Film Festival in May 2005, this first part — following only the brigade’s six months of training and first month in Iraq — earned generally positive reviews, specifically regarding its “raw” and “painful” images of troops in dangerous limbo, unsure of their mission and anxious about the disarray in which they leave their families (who are, in turn, unsupported by the military, the federal government or their private sector employers).

The next installments, airing under mainstream radar on Discovery Times beginning this October, are at once extraordinary and banal. The lives revealed are recognizable, sympathetic, even unspectacular. Except, of course, when the troops are fired on in Baghdad, or engage in their own shooting, shot in night vision, and muted black and white. Watching the presidential debates of 2004, the exceedingly young-seeming Specialist Tommy Erp, home on leave, can’t help himself. When President Bush insists that “the world is safer without Saddam Hussein,” Erp speaks to the documentary camera, as his mother sits quietly, her eyes resolutely trained on the television, not her son or the camera. “We’ve got no army that we’re fighting, we’ve got no causes that we’re fighting, we’re just getting killed for no reason.”

Off to War presents such exclamations of frustration as a matter of course, without sensational framing and alongside the declaration that everyone’s better off that Kerry has not been elected. But the expressions of irritation increasing as the series goes on — from October 2003, when the Renaud brothers arrived to film the unit’s training at Fort Hood in Texas (where the Army employs Iraqi and Kurdish American actors to simulate “actual war conditions”), through November 2004, when the bulk of the 39th remains in Iraq for Thanksgiving — as the mission becomes more unknowable, as the terms of deployment are extended, and as the local resentment of the U.S. occupation becomes unavoidably clear. Initially assigned to Camp Taji, renamed Camp Cook, the troops are at first both philosophical and understandably worried. “If the tables were turned and they invaded Arkansas,” goes the prevailing logic, the guys would be just as resentful as the Iraqis appear. And so, the Guardsmen make valiant efforts to show patience, as the local kids offer to sell them “sex movies” and cds and the camera moves in close on the troops’ exasperated faces.

Soldier in Iraq

Soldier in Iraq

The “characters” of the 39th are as compelling as any reality game show participant. This has mostly to do with their diurnal routines, that is, staying alive: “We’re getting mortared twice a day,” says Sergeant Joe Betts, gazing out into a dusty nowhere. Sergeant First Class David Short, framed in tight closeup even as his uniform and helmet make him nearly unrecognizable, instructs his men to wear their body armor, “24 hours a day, seven days a week. Whatever it takes to keep you guys alive, I’m willing to do. All hell has broken loose and it’s right outside that gate.”

Some subjects perform themselves knowingly, as wise guy observers. Specialist Matt Hertlein observes Iraqis at work: “Today is a good day because the National Guard doesn’t have to fill sandbags today.” Tommy Erp takes his digital camcorder around to make a tape to send home, pointing out “our home,” a trailer park that makes everyone feel like they’re back in Arkansas. Here we are, he narrates, engaging in typical activities to make them feel at home, “cigar-smoking and joking.”

Hertlein sits down to eat in the mess hall, assuring his presumed audience, “Mom, I know these potatoes aren’t gonna be as good as yours because they’re instant.” He instructs his little sister Megan never to join the Army: “Stay in school,” he says as the image cuts back to the family watching the tape back home, Megan laughing when Matt calls her name, “We’ll pay for you to stay in school.” And here, says Matt, holding up a carton of cigarettes for his camera, are his “Haji smokes.” He explains that a Haji is “a person who makes a pilgrimage to Mecca, but we kinda use it as a racist term.”

Such self-awareness and cynicism seem almost odd voiced by this sunburned kid, but this is the sort of conflicted, resilient self-understanding that Off to War reveals repeatedly. While the soldiers note their injunction not to speak about “anything political” in public (say, during an appearance at the local high school), in country they tend to say what’s on their minds. “What we’re supposed to be doing here is Security and Stability Operations,” says one sergeant. “But we basically have just tossed that right out the window. There’s no security here and no stability here. It’s basically a full-fledged very hot combat zone.” They argue over Abu Ghraib (“This is exactly why the Iraqi people stay pissed off at us”), they complain about being spit at. When they learn another unit has opened fire on a boy who pulled out a cigarette lighter shaped like a gun, leaving three Iraqis dead, the response is practical and weary. “People are gonna be pissed off,” notes a soldier. “It’s unfortunate, but they gotta know that we’re serious about this.” That is, you can’t be pulling out lighters at troops and thinking you’ll survive the encounter.

Sergeant David Short explains his own attitude to the camera, hunkered down in his helmet and goggles:

“I’m not into going out and meeting the people, you know, pressing the flesh, you know, trying to help ’em out and see what their needs are. They haven’t given me time to see what their needs are, because they won’t quit attacking me long enough for me to find out what their needs are. I really wish we’d a trained more for combat operations: train for the worst, expect the worst. Well, we trained for the best and the worst happened.”

Back home, Off to War’s subjects seem more constrained to appear “upbeat, despite the fact that their troubles are profound — bills unpaid, kids depressed, women lonely and fretful. As Amy Betts puts it, rather perfectly, “The hardest part was when he actually got in Iraq. I quit watching the news completely because I just can’t handle it.” An injured vet is hospitalized for repeated surgeries, his wife noting his “new jaw,” and the rods needed to hold his legs together. When Betts — an ordained pastor — is sent home for three months owing to a back injury, he observes that it probably saved his marriage, which has indeed appeared rocky during phone calls with Amy. The series shows Hertlein’s sister Megan playing softball, his grandmother in attendance. She smiles gently, sits deep in her lawn chair. “We can’t help but be proud of Matt,” she says slowly, “We don’t want him over there, we don’t exactly understand why they’re over there, but we’re proud of him.”

What’s most striking, perhaps, is the way the troops make connections between home and the war, make sense of their new lives because they must. Hertlein jokes, sort of, that he’s about to go out an “interact wit the locals. Hopefully, they won’t throw any rocks at me because if they do, I brought plenty of ammo,” at which point the camera cocks down to show his handful of stones. As a truck load of Iraqis drives by, all yelling and gesturing, Hertlein sighs, “It’s like being in Clarksville where all the Mexicans live at… You can’t understand a word they’re saying.” And with that, he resituates himself and his fellows: “Invading a foreign country and threatening its people: what could be better?”

Unheralded, largely unseen, Off to War shows the war in and against Iraq as a function of images and preconceptions, as the troops bring their prejudices, desires, and hopes. But it also shows, in a more nuanced and disquieting way — for those paying attention — the ways that war is waged by repression and reframing as much as it is by aggression. Engaging and disturbing, Off to War is hardly a whole story, for anyone. But it is one of the many ways that the war is represented and contained.

Image Credits:

1. American Soldier

2. Soldier in Iraq

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by: Cynthia Fuchs / George Mason University


NBC’s Medium

You mean we have a dryer that eats things? –Bridgette (Maria Lark), “When Push Comes to Shove (1)”

A typical day for Allison Dubois (Patricia Arquette) includes lots of spooky strangeness. The titular character in Glenn Gordon Caron’s Medium, she’s burdened with one of those quirky gifts that ground cop shows. Dead people visit her in dreams and during visits to crime scenes, insisting that she solve their murders or find their relatives or somehow put right the universe.

This role sets her against and alongside the “lawmen” who surround her, from her gently wise employer, Phoenix D.A. Manuel Devalos (Miguel Sandoval) to rocket scientist husband Joe (Jake Weber) to Texas-based Captain Push (Arliss Howard). “I don’t mind working as a human lie detector,” she whines in the first season’s closing episode, “When Push Comes to Shove (1)” (this would be the same episode that begins with Joe’s nightmare and little Bridgette’s worry about consuming appliances). Mostly, this seems true: she’s a generous, good-girly worker and mom (of three believably precocious blond daughters), willing to give time and energy she doesn’t even realize she has. But it’s also something of a lie, for Allison, aspiring lawyer, dedicated housewife, also resents all the incessant demands. In other words, she’s like most everyone else on the planet: usually tired, sometimes tetchy, always waiting for the next disaster to strike.

Despite its gimmicky hook, then, Medium is not very supernatural; the meetings with ghosts always seem too material, too utterly embodied to be spooky or very mysterious. (And now that her oldest daughter Ariel (Sofia Vassilieva) and Joe are starting to have scary dreams too, Allison’s visions don’t even seem so special, more like a contagion.) The show’s rhythms are deliberately and often creatively unflashy. It’s not nearly a smash hit like Lost (though it is one of newly number-foured NBC’s precious few bonafide successes) and if Allison’s often distressed, she’s hardly desperate. Instead, she has a recognizably crowded schedule — cereal breakfasts, rides to school and music lessons, a husband who’s got his own work and mom-related commotions, and fast-maturing daughters articulating fears of loss and abandonment.

And what if mom can’t figure it all out? As the season went on, she was apologizing more frequently to Joe for leaving him with the kids, expecting him to manage as she ran off into the night to peruse a dead body or jangle a suspect’s nerves. She’s not precisely happy about this new course, but she’s glad to feel helpful, as if she might have effects on a population that’s increasingly angry, psychotic, or careening out of apparent control.

So if the gift isn’t precisely the selling point, you might consider that Allison is (and indeed, Arquette’s subtle performance is garnering all kinds of praise) –she doesn’t wear bright red wigs, speak Thai or slay vampires, but she exemplifies a recognizable resilience. Allison has a regular, attractively lumpy shape and hectic schedule (she’s had three children and has no time for Pilates). She also has a drinking issue; back in the day when she was resisting her gift, she was looking to “quiet the voices” by self-medication.

As if to underline her everydayness, Allison inhabits a world driven by tv reports. Whether it’s Katie and Matt, local news, or cable reports on recent criminal activity, Allison and her girls are surrounded by what passes for news. Her life — the mundane parts and those extra-special parts — is informed by tv, which makes Allison less bizarre and more familiar than she might seem by the network’s promotional blurbing.

That she receives her own urgent updates by way of visions only underlines the metaphorical connectedness between dimensions. And this is where the show is most provocative, as it translates the term “medium” variously: she’s a medium, she reads herself as medium, she is tv, she is consumed by others (as in the D.A.’s hopeful query, “Did you have a dream last night?”). Where some series about television tend to be literal-minded (they’re set on a set, the characters are in the industry), this one is metaphorical and loosey-goosey, riffing on its own weekly inventions, concerned with the entire business of production and reception, questioning that whole flow thing. Even Allison’s visions complicate the tv thematic, as they’re sometimes past and other times future, and she can’t tell which because tv is always present, don’t you know? And so she takes her description to the office, where the D.A. always has time to dig up a file to correspond or send them off in a useful investigative direction. Good to have judicial system’s mechanisms at the ready when your dream’s parameters aren’t so clear.

On occasion, the murder stories in Allison’s head run like actual tv shows, or at least collide in aesthetically intricate ways: in “I Married a Mind Reader,” she’s inserted into a ’60s marital melodrama, on and off the tv screen, playing the blandly Darrin-ish star’s mistress and running smack into his wife (the formidable Frances Fisher). This recurring dream is triggered by a fever and cold medicine, starting anew whenever she plops down on the couch in her bathrobe, the tv set glowing as she drifts off, clutching Kleenex. The image raises questions not only about the reliability of the ensuing dreams, but also her reasons for going back: is she trying to re-solve an already closed murder case? Is she enjoying her dalliance with the actor? Is she representing that ancient model of female tv consumption, passive and yearning? (The fact that Allison doesn’t just insert herself into the sitcom plot, but takes up the more sensational, less neat off-set romance, hints that her delirium or her desire is not directly prompted by what she sees in this show.) Or is she a new sort of consumer, one who revises the scripts she receives, engages with them critically, reads them well and sometimes poorly?

At other times, Allison’s signal is skritchy and obscure, maybe promising improved reception in some indeterminate future. In “Lucky,” her news seems immediate (or more identifiable, anyway), when she sees her soldier brother Michael (Ryan Hurst) die in Afghanistan. That he arrives at her door shortly afterwards eases that particular nightmare, but leads to another, in which she’s haunted by a dead officer murdered by one of his own men, namely, a friend of Michael who has accompanied him to Allison’s home. Her efforts to sort out the case are hampered by Michael’s own inclination to drink himself to distraction, which leads her to reassess her psychic skills yet again.

Such reassessment comes up more than once in Medium. In some sense, Allison starts again each week, with mostly self-contained, not arcing episodes (not very trendy in shape or execution). At the start of each episode, she (or someone close to her) wakes up from a bad dream, a grisly murder or a threatening situation, doubting her insights, wondering about limits and trade-offs. By the end of each episode, some image has been decoded and some wrong has been addressed, though not always righted. Sometimes she’s misled (the dopey episode about ‘the And this is the lesson Allison can’t quite absorb’, that she makes mistakes that sometimes have deleterious effects, sometimes even for her family. Good intentions, fighting for the seeming good guys, or at least, the ones with badges. And while the midseason casting of David Cubitt as Detective Scanlon suggests that, like Cold Case, this show started to worry about a woman making solo detecting plots too “emotional,” he also introduced the plotline, via dead relatives, that a Maury Povich episode might inspire murder, à la Jenny Jones, that is, too much tv is trouble.

Allison’s relationship to tv remains less fixed. Surely it molds the soundscape of her existence, moves her or Joe to turn it off if a missing child or war news report pops up during their mornings-with-kids routine. But it’s neither all-pervasive nor abstract; rather, it’s a fixture and a process, a medium through which she views, resists, and comprehends her environment. It’s an environment defined by violence and chaos, only partly ordered by weekly schedules, graphics, and labeled anchors and guest stars. But tv, like Allison, is also a medium that makes mistakes. And this is what Medium shows most provocatively, if not always consistently, the costs of making those mistakes, the contradictions of living with them, the profound effort of making amends, for all involved.

Image Credits:
1. NBC’s Medium

More from Cynthia Fuchs on Medium
More on Medium

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by: Cynthia Fuchs / George Mason University

The Shield

The Shield

Mackey has the manner of someone who might erupt, geyserlike, through his bald pate at any moment.
Jon Caramanica, New York Times (13 March 2005)

I grew up with criminals. I grew up with dope dealers and guys who are now in jail and dead, and I don’t condone their behavior, but I understand it.
Ving Rhames, Daily Herald (20 March 2005)

USA’s new Kojak loves the baldness. From frame one, Ving Rhames’ shiny head fills space and throws back light. Yes, he’s got the expensive suit, the badge and the damn lollipop, but the point is plainly that great, portentous cranium.

It’s not even nostalgic, the head, though it does nod to the olden days, when Telly Savalas ruled tv’s New York (1973-78), when gritty realism was a matter of careening cars, cocky gangsters, and cops with catchphrases. Today, realism is more elusive, an assortment of disparate, sometimes irresolvable elements, terrorists, multi-generational and international gangs, and psycho-killers, raging their ways through downbeat plots and convulsive handheld camerawork. All this commotion leaves cops — those longtime purveyors of tv realism — a bit adrift. They’re no longer necessarily upright or even coherent. Now, as Kojak‘s pilot (25 March 2005) made clear, they’re as likely as criminals to be abusive and selfish, afraid and shady.

Welcome to the Terrordome. It’s different now, not so much a PE-style retribution as a constant condition. After 9/11, tv cops have struggled to matter, to make their earnestness relevant and their science effectual. Mostly, they’ve turned repetitive and self-absorbed: the Law & Orders and the CSIs are surely somber and forensic, and sometimes they’re even perverse (see the recent glut of child molestation and fetish sex storylines), but they’re also comfort food-ish. Because network tv isn’t in the business of disquieting viewers, it’s perennially behind on scary or potentially controversial curves (even 24‘s recent dip into torture by supposed good guys like Jack Bauer and the Secretary of State isn’t as alarming as it might have been even last year).

Enter basic cable. Caught between network and premium cable, USA and FX mean to rile consumers, win Emmys, and, of course, make money. The route to such lucrative upset is convoluted, of course, as demonstrated by Kojak and The Shield — both featuring notoriously bald, bombastic tough guys who ignore rules when it suits them. Operating on opposite coasts, in NYC and L.A., Kojak and Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) embody and exacerbate the tv cops’ present dilemma. Called on to protect their “communities,” they’re faced with all manner of cunning, brutal, hopeless criminals. The streets seethe with menace and madness, and no matter how quickly they respond, the cops are repeatedly too late. Borders are broken, home lives ruined. They lie and cheat, fight amongst themselves when they’re not fucking each other, resent the arrogance of their adversaries and feel so defeated by the system they’re supposed to uphold that it hardly seems to matter what they do.

Tellingly, both Kojak and The Shield have found similar means to make their mad bald anti-heroes even remotely sympathetic (they’re not in Deadwood, after all). And that route goes through kids. Whatever they do, they protect kids — from lousy parents, from sexual abuse, from drugs, violence, confusion, and horror. Kojak has already spilled his guts on a rationale (his jazz pianist father was murdered in a diner when Kojak was a child), and Vic, who apparently never had a childhood, has ongoing kid issues (his son is autistic, his daughter is acting out over his impending divorce).

For all their similarities, Vic and Kojak appear to handle their kids concerns differently. For Vic, it’s one of many motivations for brutality: When he hears that some child has been raped, turned into an addict, prostitute, or mule, Vic implodes, all steamy meanness, his symptomatic sense of entitlement ignited. During the fourth season premiere, “The Cure,” he’s furious at being condemned to desk duty for infuriating his outgoing captain, Aceveda (Benito Martinez) once too often. Holed up in what used to be called the Strike Team’s “clubhouse,” literally surrounded by videotapes of a custom cars sting, Vic finally finds his catharsis. He sees a child beaten by his father, one of the sting targets, and hauls ass to a bar where he goads the guy into assaulting an officer. Vic mashes his face in.

When he tries to slide it by his incoming captain, Monica Rawling (Glenn Close), she busts him. She knows where he’s been, what he’s done, and exactly why he’s untrustworthy, matching his every canny and cynical move. Suddenly, Vic is looking less adroit, more eager to please. And so he tries another move, contrite and committed: he’ll do whatever she wants, if only she’ll let him head up her new gangs task force. It’s an assignment made for him, he blusters, he’s gotta have it. His face goes taut with desire and conniving.

Alternating between child protector and childish bully, Vic is an uncomfortably representative post-9/11 tv cop, grasping, self-righteous, needing to be right, even if this means making up motives after the fact. His uneven parallel might be found in Aceveda, who was raped last season and is unable to make sense of this ritual unmanning. His responses have been multiple and horrific: more determined than ever to punish Vic, he’s also alternating, between empathetic father confessor/interrogator of a rape victim (in a scene that frames the room’s church window between him and the woman) and trauma victim, using this same woman’s victimization — a surveillance tape of the assault, ugly, obscure — as his personal pornography. It’s an awful moment, certainly rare on television, where rape tends to be done to women, who fight back on Lifetime.

Ving Rhames

Ving Rhames on Kojak

Kojak brings another sort of trauma to his table, in part resonating from his father’s death. He identifies immediately with a boy whose prostitute mother has been tortured and murdered by a serial killer, then spends montagey quality time with the boy and his sister, giving them lollipops in the park and ensuring their car thief dad’s release from prison. At the same time, Kojak relentlessly pursues the murderer, who turns out to be two: first, the traumatized serial killer (when pressed to produce “evidence” of his culpability, he sneers, “I am the evidence,” meaning, it’s really his prostitute mom’s fault); and second, a cop who challenges Kojak to take him in, as this would mean undermining any number of his trumped-up evidence cases. Seeming stuck (he cries), Kojak takes an unexpected option, getting vigilante on this smug bad detective’s ass.

These cops do save kids. That their methods include murder, deceit, and transgression only makes them part of the current zeitgeist. They’re symptoms, products, and purveyors of terror.

Image Credits:
1. The Shield
2. Ving Rhames on Kojak

More from Fuchs on Kojak at PopMatters
Ratings report on Kojak premiere
Fans of The Shield weigh in

Please feel free to comment.

Terrorists Watching TV

by: Cynthia Fuchs / George Mason University

What is the problem with the modern world?
— Ramzi bin al Shibh (Omar Berdouni), The Hamburg Cell

When I was offered the role, I didn’t accept it. I refused it. I obviously had my own issues with playing a terrorist.
— Shohreh Agdashloo, Newsday (9 January 2005)

About a half hour into Antonia Bird’s The Hamburg Cell, a group of young Muslims are watching TV. Gathered in a group house, they watch, rapt before chaotic, smoky, siren-laced images of the 1998 U.S. attacks against Sudan and Afghanistan. “Death to America,” they chant, angry at the retaliation for Al Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. At the same time, however, they’re pleased with the American president’s performance. As he asserts his nation’s clear “mission,” the viewers nod solemnly. “The war has begun.” A visitor is greeted by an enthusiastic believer: “Have you heard the news? Clinton is the best. He’s our personal PR. Every time he mentions Osama, it’s a challenge, he promotes jihad!”

This scene, in which the hijackers appear at once naïve and canny, shows their fervent devotion to an increasingly dreadful cause and awareness of the uses of tv. Sometime later, the group again sits before their television set, absorbing the lessons of their “jihad” tapes, their own faces reflected in the screen that shows various martyrs — armless in a hospital or dead and shown floating above pacific landscapes. Now they don’t cheer what they see, but only watch in silence, sober and knowing. It’s telling that the movie charts their transformation from eager students to committed martyrs in these images as media consumers, as they seek and find their self-images on tv.

Here they are like other viewers, looking for affiliation. But for viewers of the movie, another point is also clear: the men in this cell watch tv differently than you do. That television has become a medium of information and identity. That it appears on tv as a sign of such process is also common. And so here it is, repeated — in The Hamburg Cell (a Channel Four film that never found U.S. distribution, but instead showed up last month on HBO2) and in the terror-focused Fox series 24.

For this second case, terrorists watching tv at first fools 24 viewers into thinking the terrorists are not. The so-called “Terror Family,” that is, Navi (Nestor Serrano), Dina (Shohreh Agdashloo), and their son Behrooz (Jonathan Ahdout) Araz, first appeared this season watching tv. Seated at the kitchen table, their expensive flat screen perched on their pretty white counter, they discuss what seem to be daily details. However, they soon notice a news report of a terrorist attack on a train: raucous, handheld shots of twisted metal, smoke, and bodies strewn about. They settle into their seats and exchange glances, and agree that the “plan” is proceeding as they had hoped it would. And so the episode engineers one of its many big reveals: these folks aren’t just nice Southern Californian suburban Muslims, they’re terrorists, living next door to someone. Using tv to reflect and frame their identities, the series ensures that viewers will be effectively startled and disturbed, but also reassured, imagining that the Arazes’ emotionless reaction to the carnage on tv marks their difference, their utter monstrosity. “What we will accomplish today will change the world,” says dad, “We are fortunate that our family has been chosen to do this. We cannot fail.” (On seeing portions of this first episode, the Council on American-Islamic Relations understandably protested that the depiction “casts a cloud of suspicion over every American-Muslim family out there.”)

The series 24 has gone on from that first conflicted moment — at once so self-conscious and so awkwardly sinister — to complicate the familial interactions and political implications of the Turkish Araz family. Typical of the show in its first three seasons, it again combines intensely domestic melodrama and hi-octane action, perhaps most hysterically figured when the Secretary of Defense (William Devane), kidnapped with his daughter Audrey (Kim Raver), found the wherewithal — with Jack Bauer’s (Kiefer Sutherland) help, of course — to shoot his way out of the compound where they were held for a couple of tense hours. Imagine it: Donald Rumsfeld blasting his way out of a terrorist hideout, rescue choppers whirring, bullets flying, and yes, bodies dropping.

This isn’t Secretary Heller’s most despicable moment, however, only his most Wesley-Snipesian. In fact, his awful parallel to the plainly odious Navi is revealed in their similar attitudes toward their disposable, wrong-doing sons (and this doesn’t even get at the entangling of Jack as stand-in son, as he’s sleeping with Audrey). When the Secretary hears that CTU (the Counter Terrorism Unit) has determined that his long-haired peacenik son, Richard (Logan Marshall-Green), might have known something about the kidnapping, he’s only vaguely upset that the agents have tortured him, then gives them permission to do it some more, in case they can get “information” out of him. This seems of a piece with Navi’s decision to order Behrooz’s death for endangering their mission.

The fact that Behrooz’s troublemaking emerged from his affection for a whiny white girl high school classmate only underlines the preposterous soapiness of all this drama (as it also alludes to the intersections of romantic intrigues and parent-child tensions that power nearly every major plot point in the series). Heller and Navi are both bad dads on single-minded missions. (And frankly, though his daughter Kim [Elisha Cuthbert] is absented this season, Jack’s notorious single-mindedness remains an emblem of his own dis-ease, though it is by now expected; when he shoots a suspect in the knee to learn a terrorist plot detail, he’s just being Jack, as he’s been known to kill people to provide useful body parts and turn heroin addict to bring down druglords.) While Navi pursues his end in secret, out of (fictional) camera range, Heller appears on tv repeatedly. And, to jumpstart this season, he quite sensationally becomes an internet broadcast star as well, when his trial for war crimes is not only made available for all the world to see, but also serves as a ruse to set up the real crisis, an attack on multiple nuclear plants.

Television is everywhere in 24 — in CTU, in characters’ homes, in Air Force One, where the new, non-Palmer president, John Keeler (Geoff Pierson) shares ominous glances with his white guy administration minions. Television links Jack, Heller, Navi, and Dina equally but also imprecisely with the day’s events, as they work to push forward diverse agendas. Television is visible as well throughout what might be termed today’s terrorist-themed tv, the BBC movie Dirty War and tv series MI-5, and the U.S. series Medical Investigation and Alias, even the forensics or procedural shows that dip occasionally into terrorism as a “topical” plot device, the CSIs and the Law & Orders. In all cases, tv signifies connection and disconnection. It indicates the terrorist’s devotion to mission as a source and symbol of identity, a cause of outrage and frustration (all the “trash” on tv) and a means to channel emotion into morality.

At the end of The Hamburg Cell, the primary character, Ziad Jarrah (Karim Saleh), has left behind a wife in Florida, Aysel (Agni Tsangaridou), and her final understanding of what he’s been up to all these years appears in her face as she watches the Twin Towers fall on tv. She has struggled to gain his attention, to make him behave like the partner she desires, throughout. And his utter inability to be hers is captured in her face: eyes wide, mouth agape, she reflects the devastation on the screen in her horrified gaze. Television makes her a survivor. It makes her like you.

Patterns of Global Terrorism
The 9-11 Commission Report
Production Credits for ‘The Hamburg Cell’

Please feel free to comment.


by: Cynthia Fuchs / George Mason University

Some people do different things. Not saying that my wife would allow me to do that, but it’s just something that was done, and you move on.
–Donovan McNabb

I thought it hit at a lot of stereotypes toward athletes — black athletes in particular. I thought it was very insensitive on the heels of the Kobe Bryant situation, and I just don’t know that the Eagles PR people or the NFL would have let it go had it been a different player or a coach or an owner.
–Tony Dungy

Personally, I didn’t think it would have offended anyone, and if it did, I apologize.
–Terrell Owens

Apologizing is an art. And apologizing for tv is something else. Typically, tv apologies are designed to appease a public fury, as in the cases of Hugh Grant, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bill Clinton. Sometimes they’re poorly conceived (“I’m so sorry, my band started playing the wrong song!”), sometimes preemptive (Jim McGreevey), and sometimes liberating (Natalie Maines). But they’re always performative and strangely sensational.

Consider the recent rush of apologies surrounding Terrell Owens’ cross-promotional appearance with Desperate Housewives’ Nicollette Sheridan. At first, no one seemed to notice the causal event: in a skit preceding Monday Night Football, T.O. acted like he was distracted from his manly duty (to the Philadelphia Eagles) when Sheridan dropped her towel. Within 24 hours, however, the FCC reported a flood of complaints — 50,000 is the given number, even as, Frank Rich noted in the New York Times (28 November 2004), it’s likely that these were generated, or at least encouraged, by conservative action groups.

Such upset could not go unaddressed. And so crusader Michael Powell leaped into the public fray, announcing that the Commission would investigate whether the image of the white woman’s naked back wrapped in a black man’s arms constitutes “obscenity.” In the meantime, nearly everyone involved was told to be sorry, though each party involved found a way to pass blame. An NFL spokesman called the sketch “inappropriate and unsuitable for our Monday Night Football audience”; ABC Sports said, “We agree that the placement was inappropriate. We apologize”; and the Eagles announced, “It is normal for teams to cooperate with ABC in the development of an opening for its broadcast. After seeing the final piece, we wish it hadn’t aired.” We can only imagine how much they wish.

Amid this scramble to re-comport, no one expects Sheridan to say she’s sorry, because she was, after all, only playing a role — Edie, the campy tramp she plays each Sunday night, to the delight of some 24 million viewers. Owens, however, is always playing T.O., the celebrity wide receiver who has earned praise for his excellent game and censure for his spectacular end zone showmanship. These two responses typically collide in a kind of explosion of expectations. For one thing, as Tony Dungy points out, Owens is a black athlete in a hyper-mediated world, and he needs to be aware of that chaos and deal with it responsibly. That doesn’t make Owens or any other celebrity responsible for the chaos. It only makes him a likely target within its perpetual swirl.

Owens is, after all, a black man paid a lot of money for appealing, for the most part, to white male tv viewers. No matter how terrific his performance might be on a given Sunday, his audience — voracious consumers of images and icons, heroes and playmakers — still presumes he owes something. And so, while his partnership with quarterback Donovan McNabb has resulted in 13 touchdown receptions so far in 2004 (the best in the league) and put him in line to challenge Jerry Rice’s single-year record (22), both his fans and detractors want more. More points, more TD gyrations, more outrages.

While such anticipation isn’t specific to T.O., his particular affinity for tv cameras makes him an ideal star. Youngish (30) and cocky, beautiful and clever, he repeatedly delivers on the handheld camera’s promise of notoriety and desire. He’s more than willing to play the role of thrilling victor, utterly available and indestructible. He makes his emotions visible for cameras, by yelling at teammates or coaches on the sidelines, tearfully expressing his
gratitude for the new position. And he boasts for any reporter with a mic in his face, as when he guarantees wins or mouths off on Raven Ray Lewis’s “double murder case,” a brief, admittedly brash comment that hardly compares to the exploitative hay made of the story by cable news just a couple of years ago, it was poor taste and so, he was punished for it — by sports journalists, colleagues, and fans.

Like so many other adept tv performers — say, the President of the United States — Owens is not the sorry sort. He’s proud of his end-zone parties and weekly thinks up new ones, as pleasing to his fans as the antics on Wisteria Lane are to Desperate Housewives viewers. He’s also willing to discuss any new umbrage for camera crews. And so he decided, 18 November, to follow the leads of ABC and the NFL: he apologized for tv. Like Martha Stewart and Janet Jackson have performed their tv apologies, so too has T.O. On 18 November, he took up the optimum position, pronouncing the words in an order that allowed him to appear sorry for the ruckus but retain his dignity and sense of righteousness: “I felt like it was clean, the organization felt like it was a clean skit, and I think it just really got taken out of context with a lot of people and I apologize for that.” While he doesn’t quite concede the offense to those who assumed it (and thus reveals their sense of profound injury to be overreaction, given all the other misbehaviors on the planet that might offend them), he also offers just enough contrition to allow viewers to move on if they so desire.

This possibility of moving on was simultaneously compounded and complicated by the Motown Meltdown on Friday (19 November). Suddenly, Owens and Ron Artest became poster boys for the same problem. And no matter how this problem is parsed — sex and violence, misbehaving black men, egotistical sports stars — all of it is on tv and so demands suitably public penitence. As of this writing, Artest scheduled and then cancelled an apology press conference last week. As moving on is so plainly impossible, with or without the tv apology, caution seems a sane response.

iFilm video
ABC Sports
National Football League
Philadelphia Eagles

Please feel free to comment.


by: Cynthia Fuchs / George Mason University

The first presidential debate garnered predictable media excitement. The tv run-up included a week’s worth of entrenchment, with usual suspects — anchors, analysts, seeming armies of spinners — setting up shop outside the University of Miami in Coral Gables.

There’s a big problem with young people not voting. –Drew Barrymore, The Best Place to Start (MTV 28 September 2004)

The revolution will be televised, mark my words. –P. Diddy, The Oprah Winfrey Show (ABC 28 September 2004)

Today it seems like practically everybody is calling herself an activist. –Yvonne Bynoe, Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership, and Hip Hop Culture

The first presidential debate garnered predictable media excitement. The tv run-up included a week’s worth of entrenchment, with usual suspects — anchors, analysts, seeming armies of spinners — setting up shop outside the University of Miami in Coral Gables. For days they anticipated what each candidate must do to appear “presidential” for those 62.5 million viewers who ended up watching, gazing solemnly into their teleprompters as they asserted the event’s “importance,” not only for Bush and Kerry, but also for voters.

Some reporters ventured off their established locations to interview people on campus, usually former Clinton Secretary of Health and Human Services and current University president Donna Shalala, but also the occasional professorial type. But if — as they demonstrated all week and all the night of 30 September, the mediators really only wanted to talk to one another — their background space was typically cluttered with placards and bodies — most all of them young. brandishing signs, pointing to their t-shirt logos, talking on cell phones, smiling and waving to friends out in tv-land, these kids were everywhere.

And they are members of the demographic that so-called experts say don’t know and don’t care about world events, domestic politics, or this year’s election.

Of course, much of this “youth” effect was site specific. If the debate were held in a location harder for students to enter or less fun for them to crash, it’s likely that the backgrounds for Hardball and Larry King would have been less busy, less antic, less peculiarly chaotic. And if the Today Show has taught tv talking heads anything, it’s that an enthusiastic background crowd makes any interview look more energetic and vital, perhaps even more compelling. In a word, more like reality tv, that supposed ratings magnet for, among other viewers, “kids.” At the same time, these kids — who come with their own backgrounds, interests, and dimensions — are increasingly turning to non-reality tv for their sense of how the world works. Drew Barrymore finds out as much during her trek across America to discover the whereabouts of the “youth vote” for her “Choose or Lose” documentary, The Best Place To Start. When she asks university students (“boys,” as she calls them) where they got their “information,” they tell her: The Daily Show, described repeatedly by Stewart as “fake news.” The next day, Barrymore has her own experience confirmed in seeming “real news” — while riding in her bus (understandably, she hates to fly, following 9/11), she opens a newspaper and then displays the headline to her cameraperson: “There’s an article in USA Today about how comedy with Bill Maher and Jon Stewart is making politics palatable to young males.” She sees this as “sort of ironic,” given that she was just talking about this very subject, but the point is less “ironic” in the way she means it than straight-ahead telling: in a universe where the real news lies and spins as a matter of course, what better source for some semblance of “truth” than speakers who tell you upfront they have ideas, construe askew, and read between lines?

No surprise, the post-debate breakdown that outdrew all others — especially in the coveted “adults 18-34” bracket (otherwise known, in Bill O’Reilly’s estimation, as “stoned slackers”) — was The Daily Show. Reportedly, some 2.4 million viewers saw Jon Stewart point out that Iraqis have in fact been trying to protect themselves, against U.S. troops (“I think that’s actually kind of been the problem”); that naming Poland as “your second country” in a list of coalition partners is hardly effective in building confidence in the U.S. “mission.”

When it comes to watching tv this political season, confidence is key. If watching O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, or even Tom Brokaw is an act of faith, seeking out alternatives is increasingly a combination of wit and perseverance: kids look hard for what they consider quality tv. And tv (quality or not) is looking for them. Consider the many and mighty efforts of the past months: the Bush and Kerry girls soliciting registration on the MTV Video Music Awards (one of many deployments that had Shaila K. Dewan worrying the “children” were becoming “weapons of mass affection” [New York Times, 5 September 2004]); Christina Aguilera’s own “Choose or Lose” special, Sex, Votes, and Higher Power (in which she spends 20-some minutes explaining the differences between the presidential candidates’ stands on abstinence, abortion, and funding for women’s shelters, tactfully leaving little doubt as to her own ideas on these issues); MTV’s proliferating “Choose or Lose” PSAs (by J. Lo, Alicia Keys, Jadakiss, Hilary Duff, and Kanye West); or the multiple, much-publicized campaigns by P. Diddy (who’s pumping his “Vote or Die” campaign every Friday on 106 and Park), Russell Simmons’ “Hip Hop Action Summit,” and the currently touring “Vote for Change” crew, including Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., Jackson Browne, Babyface, the Dixie Chicks, Keb Mo, and James Taylor, among other not-so-youthful rockers. The get-kids-to-vote movement has even caught the attention of tv forums usually directed at so-called adults: everyone from Deborah Norville to Oprah Winfrey to Larry King wants to know how the youth vote has turned so crucial. And, no small thing, their producers want a piece of this lucrative bandwagon.

All this sudden love for kids might be considered disingenuous, even exploitative, if not for the well-performed sincerity of the most prominent pitch-people. This isn’t to say that such “celebrities” might actually secure the “youth vote” in a sustained, coherent, or even sensible way. Alan Wirzbicki of the New Republic is particularly skeptical of Barrymore’s effort: “She talks about voting like a civic virtue that one should practice along with all the other virtues — and to fight the man, or whatever” (“Celebrities and the Youth Vote: Star Power,” 23 September 2004). It’s true, that at 29, Barrymore retains a naïveté that seems as cloying as it is adorable. Here, in her honesty, she seems most unreal. But that might just be what makes her most persuasive on tv.

Barrymore realizes during her documentary that young voters are caught up in a cycle (“That chicken and egg thing,” explains Hillary Rodham Clinton), left out of politicians’ appeals because they don’t vote, and not voting because politicians don’t attend to their concerns. This cycle, apparently by definition, both stems from and reproduces what Farai Chideya calls a lack of trust in political, economic, and legal systems. This disconnect has to do with ideology as much as generation, class, race, and gender: in her new book, Trust: Reaching 100 Million Missing Voters, Chideya writes, “Today’s political landscape is the result of a forty-year movement by social and fiscal conservatives to claim political power and reshape intellectual debate” (35).

While it’s called “conservative,” such reshaping largely rejects democratic ideals articulated during previous eras, and explicitly rebuffs viewpoints that might be termed “diverse.” It’s the logical next step in the cycle, to judge non-believers summarily, to skip even pretending to care about kids’ concerns. This attitude is hardly confined to self-proclaimed “conservatives.” At a later point in her excursion, Barrymore comes across another newspaper, featuring a photo of herself speaking with Wesley Clarke in New Hampshire (a conversation that, she noted in her “confessional cam,” made her feel slighted, indeed, treated like a “10-year-old”). Captioned “Get Off the Bus, Angel,” the image underlines that this girl is going to have trouble being taken seriously.

This even as she makes her most sincere and frankly public effort to get “educated.” Barrymore reveals her own insecurities (in one scene, she’s in tears while talking to producing partner Nancy Juvonen on the phone, fretting, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” That’s okay, soothes Juvonen. She can incorporate that very ignorance into the project. And so, Drew is inspired once more, and sets forth to “stop feeling like politics was so daunting and start making it more personal.” To this end, she visits with celebrities whom she feels influence those “boys” she met in New Hampshire, that is, other boys. Following brief and mostly conventional observations by Stewart, Chris Rock, Michael Moore, and James Carville (who fusses that at malls, he sees “kids hanging out, with this vacant look”), she finds Bill Maher himself, who tells her, “Young kids, I notice a lot, will say, ‘I don’t follow politics because politics is dirty,’ as if that somehow makes them cleaner. That doesn’t make you cleaner. That’s just an excuse to not do your homework.”

Moved to do some homework, Barrymore heads to Selma on a “Civil Rights quest,” because, she says, it marks voting rights history, namely, the Edmund Pettis Bridge, where police stopped marchers by force in March 1965, and the National Voting Rights Museum. Here she talks with black people, and participates in a black kids’ classroom exercise, where she discovers (apparently to her surprise) that most everything you do is affected by voting, from the food you eat to the air you breathe.

When she leaves, Drew spends a few minutes hugging the kids good-bye as the handheld camera watches from a low angle, underlining the earnestness of the moment, despite its wholly overt banality. While it hardly inclines you to trust in the possibility that political imbalances will work out, or that race and class relations might be changed, for a second, you think this authentic white girl believes it. From here, Barrymore walks across that historic bridge, to look back on what she’s learned. “I come from a privileged world,” she observes, “but I’ve always been enlightened by struggle. No matter where we come from, all over the world, whatever location, from whatever history, we all have the power to make a difference. And in the voting booth is one of the most tremendous places where this is evident. I have also come to believe that we all passionately want to feel a part of something, so that we are not alone. And although voting is a very personal ritual, it brings us all together in the most profound way.”

Following this moment, so fragile, so faux-haunting, the scene cuts to Drew sending in her vote by mail, in a tender, home-video-ish sequence. It’s way too MTV, way too connived. But it’s also familiar, careful, and self-knowing, a kind of Real World flash for those who know all the tricks, the viewers who were far ahead on the reality tv curve that now bedevils adult primetime. Even if you still don’t understand why voting is “important,” an obligation as much as a right, you may also be moved to do your homework.

Links of Interest
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Alan Wirzbicki’s New Republic article on Barrymore
Chideya’s work Trust: Reaching 100 Million Missing Voters:

Please feel free to comment.