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.
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.
“This isn’t a story about how good triumphs. Good people are going to die.” When you get tired of manipulative terror alerts and flag-waving, you can always turn to Buffy for a dose of emotional ambivalence. But the Slayer’s not referring to Iraq—she’s talking about the coming apocalypse in Sunnydale. Now that Sarah Michelle Gellar has announced her intention to leave the series in May, the storyline could be a reference to the death of the show itself.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was steeped in moral ambiguity from the start. All of its central characters have tasted the dark side: Geeky Willow became addicted to black magic last season and flayed someone alive; Anya’s a former demon who still likes to “get her vengeance on” now and then; Angel and Spike are reformed vampires. And then there’s Buffy herself, an adolescent killing-machine who flirts with evil (literally) even as she saves the world on a daily basis.
Now in its seventh season, Buffy has lost much of its original jouissance as the characters’ youthful innocence hardens into professionalism (nightly demon-decapitation will do that to you). The Scooby gang now seems rudderless and despondent; Buffy’s mom is dead, her watcher Giles has largely drifted from the fold, and an amorphous force called the First Evil is approaching. Although the clever jokes and whiplash dialogue still flow at a rate most shows would die for, a pall has descended, much like the one that hangs over our own hellmouth, New York City.
Maybe it seems ludicrous to make connections between the Buffyverse and our own, since her cartoony enemies have little in common with America’s adversaries. But I’m not the first to draw parallels. In an essay from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (csis.org/burke/hd/reports/Buffy012902.pdf) on “Biological Warfare and the ‘Buffy paradigm’ ” dated just a few weeks after 9-11, Anthony H. Cordesman uses this series about a girl “who lives in a world of unpredictable threats” as the basis for a new way of thinking about terrorism: “We can conduct studies or exercises, and we can write doctrine until hell freezes over, but . . . the uncertainties in Buffy may be more realistic than efforts to create predictable methods of attack.”
As the series heads toward its endgame, Buffy constantly tests the limits of her power, wondering whether she can ward off the coming apocalypse without compromising her good intentions or losing too many fellow warriors. Goofy and fantastical as it is, Buffy feels more attuned to the dread and precariousness of the current moment than almost any other show on television.