Never underestimate the power of a fantabulous writing team.
That’s just what I did when I suggested, however gently, that the new shows Person of Interest (CBS) and Homeland (Showtime) might tank for all of their overdone, paranoid schlock. This is what I wrote last year around this time:
Let’s hope the reviewers are wrong and like many of today’s best-hyped TV premiers, these stinkers eventually land in pilot purgatory.
If not, they may be useful to watch, like looking into a crystal ball into our future.
First, these “stinkers” are, a year later, at the top of their game, with Person of Interest, today’s answer to a high-tech “Star Chamber,” coming in at #5 in the Nielsens (right behind two versions of the pro-cop NCIS, the faux-geeky Big Bang Theory and football) and Homeland, well, it is pretty much the most celebrated drama on TV right now, earning four Emmys after only one season in September.
Second, I was right — these shows may be useful to watch, but not necessarily for predicting our “future.” Instead, they tell us how Hollywood continues to cash in on our worst fears and prejudices, today.
Let’s concentrate on Homeland. This heavy drama (heavy on the acting, action and sex, light on reality) at least attempts to offer a more sophisticated view of post-9/11 counter-terrorism efforts in that the government is portrayed as morally and operationally dysfunctional as we assume it is, at least much of the time. It actually takes the insanity of the permanent war state to a whole new level. But the writers’ insistence on portraying Muslims in such a two-dimensional, diabolical way shows that such such crude caricaturing is still fair game. On planet Homeland, Muslim terrorists are not only able to pull off assassinations, bombings and firefights on U.S. soil, but they infiltrate the media and deploy a former Marine as a quasi (yet so far amusingly ineffective) Manchurian candidate. All the critical acclaim suggests — no, demands — that Arab-baiting is necessary in order to produce “serious drama” in Hollywood. Meanwhile, Homeland’s belabored efforts at presenting the “other side,” which are promising, yet so tiny that they all but get lost amid the melodrama in this overblown narrative, lamentably fall short.
This wouldn’t be such a big deal, since this is television, after all. But as I pointed out before, Americans watch an average of 34 hours of live television, plus another six hours of taped programs, a week. Homeland alone is averaging 3 million viewers an episode in November, up 52 percent from the first season. As this one survey shows, the less educated and lower on the socio-economic ladder you are, the more likely you are to sit in front of a television, susceptible to the manipulation of corporate-driven programming and advertising, which at this point, are relentlessly inextricable.
Like it or not, the medium imitates, as well as cultivates our conventional thinking and consumer impulses. It massages and instructs our beliefs, our biases. If Homeland is the only drama dealing with post-9/11 counter-terrorism issues head-on, then it is not only confusing reality but it’s reinforcing old tropes and bigotries we all needed to shed some time ago.
Bipolar Love and Other Plot Devices
If you have never seen Homeland here is the abridged set-up: Carrie Mathison, masterfully played by Claire Danes, is a bipolar CIA officer whose obsessive insistence that returning Marine POW Nicholas Brody, played by Damian Lewis, has been turned by Arab terrorists, has paid off: he is a sleeper agent, and he’s plotting an “attack” in the United States.
Brody is complicated by a few things: he’s a got a hot wife and two kids who are happy he is home from the war but don’t know how to deal with his weirdness. We are told, eventually, that Brody was indeed brainwashed overseas by known jihadist leader Abu Nazir. Brody’s indoctrination was facilitated by his closeness to Nazir, who took him out of captivity and brought him back to health, though no one in the States knew of his whereabouts. During that time, he tutored Nazir’s young son, who is later killed in a CIA drone strike. This supposedly compels Brody to convert to Islam and resign himself to assisting Nazir’s terrorist plot once back in Washington.
Back home, Brody is hailed a hero, and eventually becomes a hapless puppet of the political machinery. At one point, after another vet-buddy-turned-terrorist assassinates one of the vice president’s aides in the middle of the capital, Brody ends up with the veep in a secured bunker where he comes perilously close to killing them all with a suicide vest — except a teary phone call from his teen daughter causes him to abort at the last minute. He later kills his vet buddy as a test of loyalty to Nazir. Days later, he is asked to run, and then wins, a seat in the U.S. Congress.
Meanwhile, he has fallen into a brief but plot-changing sexual relationship with crazy Carrie. The audience never knows whether she is faking it, falling in love or about to fly off to the booby hatch. Somehow she does all three – and that is all during Season 1.
This season, Brody is running for vice president, his daughter is involved in a hit and run accident and his jihadi handlers are putting their final plans into motion. Carrie and her team, which include a refreshingly sane Saul, played by Mandy Patinkin, finally nabs Brody. But instead of charging him with treason Bradley Manning-style, they “turn” him over to their side (we think) after some cooing from Carrie and a knife through the hand by another CIA interrogator. Meanwhile a bungled raid in Gettysburg leaves several CIA agents slaughtered by Arab terrorists and later on, Brody is kidnapped and brought to Nazir, who somehow slips in and out of the country at will. Carrie has very loud sex with Brody while trying to convince him of his patriotism, and the whole thing is picked up by bugs in the room and broadcast back to Langley like an adult drive-in movie, yet she maintains a lead role in the task force. Is she just doing her job, or totally hooked on this Marine dad-turned-Jihadi Joe? We just don’t know.
The Muslims Are Coming … No, They Are Here
Phew. Where to start? How about with the positive. If there is any, it has to do with the fact that while two of the show’s key writers hail from Fox’s 24, the series that right after 9/11 allowed Americans to vicariously torture Muslims every week through the broadly drawn everyman hero Jack Bauer, that show’s conservative producer, Joel Surnow (friend of Rush Limbaugh), is nowhere in the credits. Homeland is written by a committee of older writers who do not appear to have the right-wing impulses of 24.
As a result, there is some effort to suggest that drone strikes that kill innocent civilians can create blowback, and that the government is taking full liberty (no pun intended) with the Patriot Act and is spying on everyone, all of the time. Politicians are duly depicted as ruthless and greedy and cynical. Solitary confinement is recognized as cruel and unusual punishment. Similarly, the Global War on Terror reflects a relentless whack-a-mole operation, where the ends justify the means and anyone who gets caught in the crosshairs is just collateral damage.
That said, in typical Hollywood fashion the government technology is much better than it really is, the agents sexier, the bureaucratic red-tape non-existent and politics way oversimplified and cartoonish. Agents and their bosses make wrong snap judgments all the time and with little consequence. That would require the normal suspension of disbelief — except where the show engages in counterproductive stereotyping in order to ramp up the drama week after week. Then it becomes dangerous.
Here, Muslims are the “other,” dark and swarthy and almost superhuman in their capabilities to infiltrate Washington and execute schemes. But they do pray a lot and revere their Qurans. Terrorists seem to be everywhere. Brody’s contact, a beautiful Arab girl with an Oxford accent played by Zuleikha Robinson is a journalist for a reputable television network. She plots over the phone walking around Lafayette Square near the White House. In Season 1 her compatriots somehow latched on to Aileen Morgan, a pretty white American who eventually does time in solitary – that is, until she slits her throat with a pair of reading glasses.
None of this ever happens in the so-called “real world.” Remember, aside from Richard Reid, the “underwear bomber,” and the doughnut who tried to blow up a car on Times Square, all of the big busts of so-called terrorists have been sting operations in which the FBI used informants to suck vulnerable jihadist wannabes from mostly poor neighborhoods into fake plots using phony weapons. The closest the government has gotten to exposing a “cell” was nabbing a used car salesman who was supposedly planning to kill the Saudi ambassador by enlisting the aid of Mexican drug goons. He never got further than the mailbox. Not exactly Nazir and a truck load of dynamite.
There are no “good Muslims” in Homeland, unless you count Carrie’s informants. Her most recent interaction with a “friendly,” took place in an episode over which the Lebanese government is actually threatening to sue. Seems like officials there take offense to their cosmopolitan city being portrayed as Thief of Baghdad meets Raiders of the Lost Ark. Again, the U.S. is seen as posting snipers and assassinating people in a country for which any such activity would be not only rare, but illegal. Lebanon has their own problems right now; anti-American militant summits seem rather low on the list.
Of course, this is how people like Frank Gaffney, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer see the world normally: sleeper cells, turncoats, turbans and knives in the shadows. The Muslim menace is fueled in Homeland and that is a shame. So is the paranoia that homegrown terror is a problem our government can barely keep one step ahead of. Veterans seem to get the short end here, too. The only war veterans in the show are either cuckoo, drunk or in the case of family friend Mike who loves Brody’s wife, weak and ineffectual.
Of course the writers know that it’s the sex and drama that the people want. Watch Frontline if you want a lesson in cultural understanding and the implications of endless war. Plus the critics love Homeland. It’s not the first to dramatize real events and caricature the enemy for the sake of entertainment: James Bond did it all through the Cold War and is still doing it.
But Homeland is anything but campy, and its material far more sensitive. It is skewing the real power and authority of the government. It encourages our neuralgias and picks at our scars.
Remember, we’ve had numerous political candidates in the last several election cycles deploy the ugliest American Islamophobia to win over voters. In some cases, thankfully, it doesn’t work. But we have a Muslim congressman who must defend his religion and prove his patriotism each time he runs for re-election, and another who won again despite her insistence that the Muslim Brotherhood had infiltrated the State Department.
It’s time to find another enemy to kick around on television. That’s why I liked the X-Files, where the real monsters were the federal government and E.T. A lot of time they were one in the same. Sounds about right. But those times are gone. Now Hollywood thrives on the dichotomy of mostly good (government) and all evil (Muslims). It’s the enemy we know, or at least the one Hollywood writes for us.
Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos.