The Axers of Evil

Pentagon Spokesman Jerry Bruckheimer; Buffy's Dread

As if reality TV didn't have enough shame attached to it, some critics are condemning the genre as an embarrassing manifestation of national denial—an attempt to drown out nagging thoughts of war and terrorism. I happen to think these shows are side effects rather than the cause of apathy, but you have to wonder: Would more young people be whipping up a revolution if they weren't so busy nodding out on American Idol? Maybe somebody should pitch the networks a series called American Activist—the story of eight lovable protesters who live in a van and travel around the country causing a ruckus; each week, viewers could vote off the character least likely to raise anyone's consciousness.

Back in the real world, we have Profiles From the Front Line, a six-part series about the armed forces that capitalizes on the reality boom while also serving up a perfect pre-war appetizer. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (the man behind war flicks Black Hawk Down, Pearl Harbor, and Top Gun), Profiles filmed the American troops in Afghanistan last year with the full cooperation of the Pentagon. The crew got far wider access to Operation Enduring Freedom than the rest of the American news media. In fact, ABC's press release explains that although most of the footage was shot by a primary team of documentary cameramen, the show "also relied on materials provided by the Department of Defense." The Bush administration has clearly broadcast its intention to control media coverage of military operations—last year, Admiral Craig Quigley slyly noted, "There's a lot of other ways to convey information to the American people than through news organizations." So it's safe to say that we won't be seeing anything too shocking here, other than some poor dental hygiene on the part of the Afghan peasants in the final episode.

Profiles focuses on a handful of soldiers and special forces operatives doing their jobs—from the baby-faced ex-Wall Street broker who refuels airplanes to the hardcore Special Forces tracking down men rumored to be terrorists. The Special Forces dudes are the ones wearing Arab "uniforms" and scruffy beards, looking like they stepped out of the Clash's "Rock the Casbah" video. They're also the most impressive and articulate characters in the two episodes I screened. The team commander, Sergeant Mark, calmly negotiates with a local warlord and takes a one-armed man suspected of Al Qaeda ties into custody. But the scene's dramatic buildup ends with frustrating abruptness, because all the good stuff is off-limits to civilian eyes.

Profiles From the Front Line: sanitized militarism
photo: Annie Chia
Profiles From the Front Line: sanitized militarism

Details

Profiles From the Front Line
Thursdays at 8 p.m. on ABC

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on UPN

The series fails by current reality-TV standards, because the pleasure of those shows is catching people at their worst. That would only work here if the camera had caught soldiers beating the truth out of suspects or accidentally maiming civilians. But nothing truly random happens in Profiles. This is a sanitized version of militarism. It's damn near pure propaganda as it piles on the images of the brave ordinary folks who go out "catching bad guys, capturing weapons, and doing what we signed up to do," as one lieutenant phrased it. "Bad guys" is apparently a technical term in today's army, official jargon judging by the hilarious (but also scary) frequency with which it is spouted during this series. In the first episode, an American soldier shows photos of wanted men to the locals, saying: "These are the bad guys—do you know where they are?"

Flickers of genuine emotion do make it past the barricades—young recruits sitting anxiously awake among their sleeping cohorts as their helicopter touches down in the desert for the first time, or an army doctor regretfully leaving behind a flood of patients that he doesn't have the time or resources to treat. But the mini-biographies are mostly so superficial and fleeting, you don't end up knowing much more than you'd learn in a capsule obituary.

If Bruckheimer had managed to convince Spielberg to take on the project (or coerce Leni Riefenstahl out of retirement), Profiles might have roused some genuine patriotism in the masses. Instead, the program offers dribbles of insight into American attitudes about the world. There's the scene in which a soldier searching a smugglers' boat finds family photos and diaries. "I don't feel funny searching through anybody's personal stuff," he says, "because they wiped how many thousands of people's personal stuff at the World Trade Center"—as if the entire Middle East is just one giant, undifferentiated mass of turbaned bad guys. The ex-Wall Street broker only learns that there are good people in Afghanistan after he helps teach local boys to play baseball.

I expected more death and destruction from Bruckheimer. Yet hardly anyone in this series gets injured, and when they do, the cameramen seem to go all weak-kneed and look away. We glimpse a young boy and an American soldier maimed by mines, but neither gets to speak; they're mostly used as an example of the dangerous state of the Afghan countryside. This is one long advertisement for Bush Inc.'s unilateral and interventionist foreign policy. Profiles creates a perfect vision of war: efficient, noble, bloodless, and cost-free.

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