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'Homeland Security,'
duck, run for it

Unreal NBC drama of saintly sorts out to save us

By Dan Jewel

   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 airwaves.
   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 terrorist attack.
   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 real events).
   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 is killed.
   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 suspect dead.
   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 of.
   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 computer.”
   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 chillingly real.
   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.

April 8, 2004© 2004 Media Life

-Dan Jewel is a freelance writer in New York and a regular contributor to Media Life.

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