Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Cultural Anxieties of Imperialism: Two Case Studies

Spoiler warning: This post contains spoily plot details about episodes of 'Law & Order: Criminal Intent' and 'The Closer', so if you're really hardcore about not having your police procedurals spoiled in the service of political analysis, stop right here, pardner.

In the last couple of days, in the unflagging grip of my obsession with polprocs, I've seen two episodes that struck me as fascinating reflections of the mainstream liberal culture's confused and anxious reception of the world under GWOT. Both clearly came from the fading-but-still-tenuously-dominant patriotic-liberal wing of Hollywood (this is not a given; many of these shows are or have become profoundly reactionary: witness the despicable CSI: Miami and the cybernetically jingoistic CSI: NY). Both found themselves in a quandary of befuddled handwringing, vised between their instinctual distaste for oppression, their unreasoning panicked fear of Muslims and 'terror', and their inability to even begin to frame a critique of government that might help resolve the confusion. In both cases, the muddle resulted in complete breakdown of plot and characterization, kind of the episode equivalent of a rogue supercomputer in original Star Trek being confronted by Kirk with an insoluble conundrum of logic. Smoke pouring from vents.

The first was a rerun of
'Criminal Intent', the only interesting Law & Order littermate (starring the divinely histrionic Vincent D'Onofrio, my adulation for whom will be familiar to longtime readers of this blog, and guest-starring the decidedly less appealing Chris 'Big' Noth), entitled 'Stress Position'. (I'm about to summarize the whole plot, so spoiler-stragglers, flee now.) Prison guard is found murdered, and the investigation reveals that a group of 'secret prisoners' are being held in a Brooklyn jail, under the abusive watch of a ring of corrupt guards (of which the vic was one, albeit troubled and about to leave). The secret prisoners are, it's implied, all Arabs, and are being held under the material witness statute; one former prisoner is so terrified of reprisals that he fervently denies his evident mistreatment. The secret-prisoners thing is the big hook of the plot; there's also various interpersonal stuff, and they save the day by means of the usual delightfully improbable psychological intervention by Goren, who shame-talks all the ancillary baddies into standing down and not killing him and Big and Big's girlfriend the troubled but compliant prison nurse, leaving Fat White Piglike Ringleader Guard abandoned in his corruptness.

But here's what's so weird. Although it's chock-full of outrage at the notion of these prisoners being treated thus, and packs plenty of exchanges showcasing that outrage, the show can't actually bring itself to blame the government. It doesn't have the balls to come out and admit that, duh, the material witness statute is a tool invented and used by the government for its human-rights-abrogating War on Terror. So instead, omg this was so weird, it invents a completely insane, barely-explained, plot-credibility-hashing Mob connection. It just suddenly waves its hands in the air and says 'Oh it was the Mob who were behind the whole thing, and who killed the guard and for no apparent reason whatsoever were maintaining a stash of secret Arab prisoners under the material witness statute. Hush hush isn't it terrible, lucky we put a stop to it.' It's absolutely extraordinary. Faced with an incontrovertible chain of logic, the logic of a real-life phenomenon that they chose to write a show about, the writers so lost their bottle that they simply jumped the rails of logic altogether and ran screaming off into the night.

The second instance was last night's episode of 'The Closer', TNT's new series starring Kyra Sedgwick as the Adorably Bumbling, personally-out-of-control Deputy LAPD Chief Brenda Johnson, who despite her Georgia accent and untidy ways always manages to get her man (or in this case woman) in the interrogation room. (This show, I must say, constantly has my misogyny sensors on low-level alert, without ever quite tipping over into full-scale Awoogah. Its relationship to Johnson's femaleness and the ways she exploits it or is stereotyped in it is far from straightforward, and I'm persistently on edge watching.)

This one was really complicated. Wealthy Iranian businessman is assassinated along with his bodyguard. FBI intervenes in LAPD's investigation, looking for $2M the dead man supposedly had. References to terror investigations and national security ensue, met with scorn and disbelief from Johnson and her boss. They go to the victim's house to interview the widow (played by Marina 'Deanna Troi' Sirtis, looking like aging ass I must say and wearing, as an Iranian widow, rather more clothing than ST fans will be accustomed to, which these days is probably a blessing) and son, and find the FBI have trashed the place searching for the money, which it appears they had given him themselves in some never-clarified sting. Sympathy for the victims from Johnson, menacing references to the PATRIOT Act from the FBI liaison, who happens to be Johnson's boyfriend Fritz.

Here's where it starts to get complicated and kind of ugly, because the widow is angled very sympathetically, and the whole oppressed-Muslim-woman thing is played to the hilt, with ample coverage of her fearful but restive obedience to her angry son, and a constant uneasy juxtaposition of blame for the Feds' paranoia and brutal methods with the never-resolved implication that the victim, and now his son succeeding him, were in fact involved in funding terrorism. Johnson does a lot of mooning about worrying and trying to protect the widow from her son who slaps her in public (she slaps him back), but the woman insists on staying with him. Then the Feds arrest the son and send him (possibly) to Egypt for interrogation, giving Johnson the opportunity to express her personal opposition to torture. So that's that covered.

In the end it gets even more confused, because it turns out, based on some entirely contingent and dull plot details, that the murder was in fact plotted and committed by the widow and her lover, a white doctor who was trying to save her from her husband who wanted to send her back to Iran to his fundamentalist family. So we get this extraordinary interrogation scene where Johnson has the widow and doctor in a room and he's telling her not to say anything, to get a lawyer, and Johnson manipulates her into confessing by telling her that if she waives her rights to counsel and to remain silent, she will at last be taking control of her own life and not letting men tell her what to do. And this is played like sisterly solidarity! We're supposed to be cheering Johnson on for empowering an oppressed sister to incriminate herself for premeditated murder!

Tearful confession, big cow-eyed sympathetic gazes from Johnson, then suddenly she turns all hard and says 'Well what about the innocent man [the bodyguard] you also murdered in cold blood, just so you wouldn't have witnesses?!' Onscreen consternation, momentary confusion while the audience tries desperately to figure out what we're supposed to be thinking, followed by the Feds suddenly busting in and dragging the woman away, sobbing for them not to hurt her son, while Johnson just sits in her chair looking tiny and wide-eyed up at the (male) FBI agent who's stolen her perp.

The whole thing was astonishingly jumbled, in gender, religion, race and authoritarian terms. It just didn't know quite what it thought in any cohesive way, but it was pretty sure that Islam was bad, because it oppresses women and, you know, it's probably linked to terrorism, and then on the other hand that women who are oppressed might turn out to do desperate things and kill innocent men, and that's bad too, but it's also bad if the FBI come and take them away from you, and also the FBI might probably be bad, unless they're your boyfriend in which case they might have a reversion to conscience late in the plot, in which further case it will be all right to end the episode by deliberately stopping and with a coy glance allowing him to open the door for you like a lady. A lady cop, of course, but Still A Lady.

The GWOT has scrambled liberal minds. They're stuck between the rock of their terror of terror and the hard place of government encroachment on civil liberties, with a substantial dash of siege-mentality xenophobia thrown in to make the ground (beneath the rock and the hard place, you know, stay with me) slippery. They literally just don't know what to think anymore, and they end up thinking many logically incompatible things at once, some of which are commendably compassionate and others passive, bigoted or downright cruel. Result: they make TV shows that make no sense. Chalk up one more casualty in the War on Terror.

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