There aren’t many shows out there
willing to take on Sept. 11 and its aftermath. “Homeland Security” was
originally on NBC’s schedule as a full-fledged drama series this past
fall, but the network got skittish and bumped it.
Now the pilot’s being presented as a two-hour movie this
Sunday at 9 p.m., and it’s unlikely any other episodes will ever hit the
The concept of a show about the
Office of Homeland Security runs into some immediate problems. People are
touchy about the men and women whose job it is to protect us from another
The writers can’t treat them
like they do cops on “NYPD Blue,” showing them roughing up a suspect.
They can’t treat them the way they do lawyers on “The Practice,”
showing them making questionable moral decisions to get a defendant off.
Instead, the characters must be
heroes. Which makes them dull and, more to the point, completely unreal.
Like a highlight reel from hell,
“Homeland Security” begins by ticking off a timeline of the missed
signals and close calls in the month leading up to Sept. 11 (many based on
When an Arizona flight instructor
calls the FBI to report that his Middle Eastern student seemed like he was
“learning to aim” the plane rather than fly it, an agent sounds an
alarm—and is ignored by his supervisor.
In Germany, an informant tells
CIA field operative Bradley Brand (played by Grant Show, forever Jake from
“Melrose Place”) that Islamic militants “plan biggest operation ever…big
American cities.” Before he has a chance to find out more, the informant
At the NSA, a team analyzes
intercepted messages. “We see a theme,” someone notes, “numbers
being repeated, 9s and 11s.”
In Virginia, CIA agent Joe
Johnson (Scott Glenn) is leading a pointless psych analysis of Osama bin
Laden. “He’s got daddy issues,” notes a student.
In Seattle, FBI surveillance of a
suspected Islamic terrorist is botched by an ATF raid that leaves their
This opening half-hour does a
remarkable job of illustrating the ineptitude and bureaucratic bumbling of
the various government agencies in the weeks leading up to 9/11. It’s
difficult to watch, though the terrorist attacks themselves are presented
tastefully, shown on television sets as the various main characters stare
in stunned silence.
After Sep. 11, Admiral Theodore
McKee (Tom Skerritt) is called upon to head the new Office of Homeland
Security. (Luckily, no actor is called upon to impersonate the perpetually
vacant expressions of the real director, Tom Ridge.) Though he readily
accepts, recruiting old NSA pal Sol Binder (Leland Orser) to help him,
McKee’s position causes some family friction: His daughter, a left-wing
Berkeley student, is dating an Arab-American. When her boyfriend’s dad
is rounded up, she rages against her father and the system he’s a part
Alas, as the movie details the
creation of the OHS, it screeches to a halt. The point of the agency,
after all, isn’t to chase down terrorists. It is, as Sol explains while
inspirational music soars in the background, to get all the other agencies
to “send us all their data so that we can get it into one central
This is no doubt important, but
it’s not the stuff of great drama.
And the incompetence on display
before 9/11 is far easier to believe than the heroism that follows. The
characters who leave the other agencies to join the OHS aren’t just good
at their jobs; they’re good people, one and all.
No one argues that civil
liberties should be trampled in the interest of security. No one mistreats
prisoners or considers using torture to get information.
On Fox’s “24,” the
counter-terrorism agents constantly show their willingness to sink to
horrific depths to stop a nuclear bomb or a virus from killing thousands—and
that makes the show, despite wildly far-fetched storylines, feel
But in “Homeland Security,”
all members of the new office are sanctified. McKee even trots out that ol’
post-9/11 cliché: “If the people of this country are losing their civil
rights, then the bad guys have already won.”
It’s a noble statement, but
hearing it from the head of Homeland Security rings patently false. When
was the last time you heard Tom Ridge mention civil rights?
So long as the writers and
producers are unwilling to show these people as less than perfect, there’s
no reason for a series to exist at all.
And then, after all that earnest,
sanctimonious slop, comes a twist, a ludicrous, deliciously cruel
cliffhanger of a twist. It’s just the sort of thing you’d expect to
see on “24.”
While it can’t really
salvage what’s come before, it’s enough to make me wish there were
more to come.