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Confessions of a Neocon TV Fan

Or, How I Learned How To Stop Worrying If Watching Torture Condones Torture And Enjoy Prime Time American Television

By Bret McCabe | Posted 12/12/2007

I learned something about myself watching TV over the past year. I don't know if it was while watching Jack Bauer torture his own brother or Vic Mackey do the same to a suspect before murdering him, or if it was watching one member of an elite military squad tell another how to repair the gaping gunshot wound in his back, but at some point over the past 12 months of TV viewing I realized I watch some freakishly male television shows. The embarrassing part isn't that I do--and proudly enjoy it--it's that it took me so long to realize that the man's man shows I liked were freakishly so.

As in, it didn't pass my mind during The Shield's second season, which implies, off-screen, that a drug dealer rapes and tattoos a barely teenage girl for snitching on him and Mackey responds by searing the man's face on a stove's heating unit. It didn't occur to me when some outlandish plot point required 24's Counter Terrorist Unit to bring Jack Bauer back into the story line, and he gets things moving by shooting a federal witness in the chest and asking for a hacksaw to cut off his head. And it didn't occur to me while totally believing in The Unit's covert Special Forces soldiers-qua-superwarriors, who could tool around the far reaches of the globe and speak perfect Urdu one week, protect a Mexican diplomat the next, and then masquerade as Secret Service agents and switch between Farsi and Pashto and Arabic. No, it occurred during one of the more innocuously dumb moments on The Unit--of which there are many--the CBS series created by David Mamet and executive-produced by Shield creator Shawn Ryan. A commanding officer (liquid-metal Terminator Robert Patrick) asks another (24's assassinated president, Dennis Haysbert) what falls from the sky. The answer: manna from heaven and the Airborne Rangers.

Oh my god: I've got an unironic appreciation for neocon TV.

It's not the hard-on for shows of force that brand these programs as neoconservative. Nor is it the frequent reliance on Islamic villains in the case of The Unit and 24. Nor is it the gung-ho trust in the small but highly specialized government force of the strike team (The Shield), the titular Unit, or 24's überagent Bauer. It's not the "moral clarity" that gives these fighting men the peace of mind never to doubt that shooting-to-kill the specified target is good for the country/city. It's not the rock-solid insistence that the traditional nuclear family remain intact, whole, and inviolate for the men to feel like Real Men. (Want to anger any one of these shows' men of action? Threaten his family in any way.) What makes these shows neocon wet dreams is that they take place in a world where the men entrusted with protecting the city/country must deter and defend against the threat before it is unleashed: They are proactive defenders of freedom. If, to that end, you have to kill 'em all and let the ratings sort out the rest, so be it. Hoorah.

If only it were so simple. I have to confess that my prurient interest in such programming snuck up on me. Yes, part of the morbid thrill of watching a show such as The Shield is waiting to see what completely amoral thing is going to happen next: lock two drug dealers in a cargo container and see which one is left alive the next morning, grenade-bomb the friend you think is going to rat you out, keep a woman tied up in your car's trunk, hate-fuck the wife of the internal-affairs cop breathing down your neck, immolate a foe. Around my house, we call it slit-your-wrist Tuesdays.

But I've never really had a cop show or movie jones or a war movie interest or a western thing or even that much of a Lee Marvin thing. Like many males who grew up in the late 1970s and '80s, I've got a very pedestrian relationship with the gory beauty of horror movies, but as Carol Clover so ably demonstrated in Men, Women, and Chain Saws, that's not because we're cinematically identifying with the knife-wielding psychopath next door: We're identifying with the final girl.

No, if there's any one program that paved the way for my own affection for neocon TV--and, in many ways, paved the way for obvious neocon fantasies on television--it's the most revolutionary program of the past 20 years. Yes, I'm talking about John Langley and Malcolm Barbour's COPS.

Cops premiered on Fox in 1989, perhaps not the pinnacle year of the rampant late-1980s crack-and-cocaine booms in urban centers, but not too far off. The premise of the show is so simple it inspired immediate lampoons at the time: follow law-enforcement officials around and watch what they do. The narrative is whatever unfolds. Edit it down, and that's the entire episode. No preamble, no editorializing, just cops, the people they come into contact with, and a cameraperson in the backseat.

The show's visual impact is unmistakable--quite simply, no Cops, no The Blair Witch Project, no direct addressing the camera as a mundane device in movies and television, and half of reality TV doesn't work--but its psychological subtlety is more impressive. The beauty of the show is the simple setup of the ride-along; the thematic genius of the show is that it celebrates officers of the law doing their jobs.

Don't underestimate that simple fact. Man beats his wife and the cops show up; man gets arrested. Guys steal a car and bail while being pursued; cops catch them hiding under a kiddie pool and they get arrested. Belligerent drunken man gets out of hand; man gets arrested. Things go wrong and order is disrupted; cops show up to restore it as best they can. Problem, solution.

Was such placating, humanizing portrayals of law-enforcement officers at a time when major police departments around the country were under fire to get a handle on urban crack dealing the goal of Cops? Probably not. It was probably more a confluence of lightweight, quality video cameras, Langley's background in investigative TV journalism, and the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike that got the unscripted Cops on the air. Seven hundred episodes later, it's still there.

Cops subtly set the tone for the nature of law-enforcement shows during the 1990s. No longer mere vehicles for bankable stars (the formula from the 1970s through the '80s, from Police Woman and Charlie's Angels through Miami Vice) nor the low-rent version of movie teams (S.W.A.T., The Rookies), TV cop shows became incubators for start-to-finish crime stories: crime, investigation, confession, and prosecution.

And so shortly after Cops debuted in 1989, you see NBC's Law and Order expanding the law-enforcement narrative to include prosecutors in 1990, and other similar shows soon cropped up: NBC's beloved Homicide: Life on the Street and ABC's NYPD Blue in 1993. It was no longer enough just to show the police catching their proverbial man: You could see the real thing almost any night of the week.

And, wow, was the real thing better than anything anybody could write. Bill Hicks once joked that he had never been into so many trailer parks in his life until he started watching Cops, and therein arises Cops' cruel subtext. The police incidents on Cops invariably involve the working class, undereducated minorities, substance abusers, the underemployed, the inebriated, the desperate, the embarrassed, the distraught, the no further down to fall. Each episode, you get to gawk, feel immediately better about your own miserable life, and think to yourself, My word, we really need to do something about the criminal elements in this country.

Which is not to say that everyone featured on the show is guilty: As the voice-over disclaimer says, everyone is innocent until proven guilty. But, come on now, doesn't it go without saying that if you're appearing on Cops you've done something you shouldn't?

Deter and defend against the threat before it is unleashed: That's the object lesson of Cops. No drugs, no woman getting upset about giving a drug dealer $20, getting nothing, and incomprehensibly calling the cops to settle the score. No men straying outside their marriage, no prostitutes getting liquored up and incoherently yelling at people. If there was no crime, our country would be this amazing, lovely place. Crime bad, cops good.

Yes, I'm being extremely reductive here, but seeing is believing and repetition is the mother of wisdom. How do we combat the ills of drugs and the moral decline of this great nation: more and more police officers doing their jobs in a more effective and comprehensive manner. Hey, it worked for Rudy Giuliani, didn't it?

The interaction of cop shows and actual crime is only one instance of what I'm talking about here. Another is recalling that in 1994, one year after Hillary Clinton chaired the president's Task Force on National Health Care Reform in an effort to address what many Americans felt was a weak and careless system, NBC comes out with a sympathetic portrayal of heroic if flawed health-care practitioners just trying to do their jobs called ER. Sickness bad, doctors good.

I'm not saying there's a cabal of political and television suits who decide how to spin news-cycle talking points into TV drama (Fox News would have to be the subject of a completely different examination). I'm just saying you can draw parallels between a culture and how it chooses to represent itself. I'm just saying that there's something to consider in the fact that, although obviously developed in a Sept. 10th world, 24 premiered after contemporary American domestic and foreign policy on terrorism was irrevocably and cataclysmically forever changed. I'm just saying that surely it's not incidental that a show about the most competent and effective U.S. military personnel ever appears in the fall of the third year of one of the modern military's most incompetent, disorganized, and stalled occupations of the modern era. I'm just saying that when Jack Bauer sticks a knife into the knee of a potential subject and momentarily loses his cool and turns to his unlikely Arab accomplice and confesses that he doesn't know if can he do it anymore and the guy replies, "You'll remember," maybe I shouldn't chortle as hard as I did. I'm just saying that while the city of Los Angeles has maintained one of the most corrupt police forces of the 1990s and 2000s, maybe my favorite TV cop shouldn't be the Satan of TV world's L.A. Maybe. Maybe I should think about what I'm watching before I find it so divertingly and distractingly entertaining. And maybe I'll put some time to that end in 2008. Right now, there's a new episode of The Unit coming Dec. 18, and I'm sure the team has a complicated tactical chess match of a perilous mission to complete in order to protect national security. It's not like anything else is on.

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