24. Homeland. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Quantico. What do all of these shows have in common? Besides prettier than real secret agents? They all, basically, focus around the idea of counter-terrorism in some way or another. Jack Bauer, Carrie Matheson, Phil Coulson, Alex Parrish, their entire calling in life is to snuff out the latest threat to American interests. Sometimes an Allie may be in danger but, come one, we all know that it’s really all about the good old US of A.
And for a time there, that made sense. It’s become a cliche to say it but 9/11 has really changed everything in the West, and in the US in particular. Not since Pearl Harbor, which wasn’t even on the US mainland, have Americans been attacked at home. The World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf Wars, all of them fought in the distance, and in many ways it was impossible to tell it was war at home. 9/11 changed that. Paris and Brussels are changing that right now in Europe. Vulnerability is something even our high powered armies with precision missiles smarter than the average middle schooler, and what not, cannot make us feel safe at a concert or some other big event anymore. So, like always, we took to fiction to cope with this. Jack Bauer can take out two terrorists threats in a day all without sleeping, going to the loo, and reading the Geneva Conventions. Carrie Matheson can track down Not-Bin Laden in a couple of weeks by connecting all the dots. Phil Coulson… does stuff with Not-Mutants. And Nazis. And something is happening on Quantico but that’s not been spoiled by pop cultural osmosis yet so why spoil it here. In real life the big three letter alphabet agencies were not able to protect the citizenry even while happily undermining basic civil rights for privacy and person-hood.
But as long as Jack Bauer and Carrie Matheson can do it on TV once a week there is that little, tiny voice in our mind that tells us that at some point the security agencies will do the exact same thing. It’s pretty fascist in many ways, but Jessica already talked about this the other day or… whenever she talks about AoS (FYI: good job). While researching all of these shows for my oral Bachelor’s exam in English (yeah, that’s my job… I realize now why people make fun of the liberal arts), I noticed that a lot of problems with these shows, similar to long running superhero comics or crime shows, comes from the fact that they are weekly serials. There’s a new murder every week, a new cabal, a new threat every year or even half season. The “heroes”, despite their awesome superpower of violating basic human rights and decency, are completely ineffective. It’s terrorism Wack-a-Mole. It’s a mythological hydra: cut of one head, two more shall take it’s place. And while that alone could be a meta-reference towards the never-ending threat of terrorism and violence in our present day world, the way it’s implemented in the series, precisely because the serial nature of television and the demand to put out at least 20 but more like 25 episodes a year, means that the threat of terrorism becomes more unbelievable as time goes on. Terrorism in the present day exists for numerous reasons, and is a very heated issue in itself, especially because terrorists that are on our side, or that history looks back upon fondly, are called “freedom fighters”, “guerrillas” or similar terms. But usually it’s terrorism, striking fear behind the front lines, because they don’t have the material that terrorism groups in fiction employ. They have AK-47s, rocket launchers, and explosives. That’s it. But on 24, Homeland, any other show really once it’s outlived it’s original premise, terrorists are so well equipped that it makes them look more like super-villains than Al-Quaida stand-ins. Maybe that’s what it is also about: feeling like there actually is a real threat instead of flying drones over Pakistan, declaring anyone over 14 a combatant, and then not having to go home and see Dr Doom in the mirror. Counter-terrorism TV is exactly as inappropriate in serialized television as the X-Men are in ongoing superhero comics, because status quo is god.
There is always another threat to America. Often for petty problems because you can’t, or aren’t willing, to build up groups like Al-Quaida or the Taliban on a TV show as it would require going back decades to when the West destabilized the Middle East (or another part of the world) and then shoulder some of the responsibilities in helping these groups, inadvertently or as a way of sticking it to old Ivan with full intent, come to a position where they do have gripes with the West. But that would be morally complex and people already had a problem when Battlestar Galactica got into the New Caprica arc. I think that’s really my issue here: terror groups on television spring up like good old GI Joe villain Cobra. Or Nazis in superhero fiction. They don’t need a backstory that we may or may not have had a problematic hand in, they’re just evil because they don’t like American flags and apple pie. They hate us for our freedom. That’s a simplistic world view at the best of times and flat out backwards stupid and other mean words at the worst of times.
Movies do it marginally better, probably because those tend to be biopics or historical dramas. Revenge fantasies often make their way in there as well, but the one-in-done nature of most films also helps to keep the whole let’s-get-fascist-even-though-it-never-helps-and-oh-look-here’s-another-Bin-Laden-lookalike-slash-Taliban-esque-group a bit under wraps. And even then the “X has Fallen” franchise with Gerald Butler and Aaron “at least I get paid this week” Eckhardt shows how preposterous a situation like 24 and Homeland would be with a bigger budget. Once can be fun and blow some revenge porn steam. Twice I let slide. Three times and it’s a full blown GI Joe cartoon.