I wasn't expecting much going into ABC's Threat Matrix. My initial reaction to the show was further diminished by an opening sequence depicting a pair of US servicemen in a Minuteman Silo playing video games and the theft of an American nuclear warhead by a group of apparent terrorists made up of white Americans. I thought to myself, this is going to be like most of 24- they don't want to offend Islamists and liberals so they're going to make a show about the War on Terrorism with white guys as the villains. That's been the path taken by virtually every major television drama when it comes to terrorism. The West Wing responded to 9-11 by producing an hour-long sermon on tolerance. When Aaron Sorkin finally got around to writing a terrorist act into the show, he had it committed by white militiamen. Even shows like JAG and The Agency have addressed the war in only a half-hearted fashion- as a setting, not as a basis. There seems to be a reluctance to write about heroism in the war against the Islamists. As I've said, 24 made their villains turn out to be a bunch of Evil Rich White MenT, plotting to start a war for the sake of oil profits. For the first few minutes I wasn't expecting much better from this show.
A few minutes in, however, it is revealed that the theft of the bomb was not the work of terrorists; it was the work of special agents of the Department of Homeland Security, working to keep the Federal Government on its toes.
`And you two what, go around the country stealing warheads?' asks an incredulous General,
`When the President asks us to,' responds Special Agent James Kilmer (played by James Denton). That's when it hits me; this is going to be the first 21st century show, a show updated to the new sensibilities of the American people regarding foreign affairs and the current war. This isn't going to be a show which creates a fictional liberal-fantasy President (a la 24's 'President Palmer' or The West Wing's 'President Bartlett'), this is the fusion of that most venerable television genre, the police procedural, with the sensibilities of the many patriotic films made during the Second World War lauding the heroism of America's fighting men.
On reflection I ought to have known it sooner. The show opens with a little text and narration bit which, if it is retained, is destined to become a classic, it explains the meaning of the phrase, `threat matrix' (it's the report that the President receives every morning about terrorist threats) and explains how the job of the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the CIA have the job of, `keep(ing) us safe.' New sensibilities for a new era.
The plot of the pilot episode revolves around a terrorist plot, which I will not describe to avoid spoiling several excellent plot twists but, needless to say, it's fun and entertaining. More than that, the show is filmed in a wonderful CSI-like style. It's a show about investigating terrorism which is as detailed, as thorough, as the newest crime shows.
But the best thing about the show is its general sensibilities and moral compass. A few years ago, the movie The Siege, depicting a terrorist campaign against New York City, was widely attacked by Muslim advocates for being 'racist' because of its depiction of Muslims as 'terrorists'- a charge that was backed up by many critics. This despite the fact that the movie went to wild lengths to differentiate between 'loyal' Muslims and terrorists, even suggesting that it was America's own fault for provoking terrorism (by holding a terrorist leader prisoner and abandoning the Kurds in Northern Iraq). The movie ends with a US Army General (who is the villain of the piece) being arrested for murder after having a terrorist killed. Even with all of this, film critic Roger Ebert claimed that, `the prejudicial attitudes embodied in the film are insidious, like the anti-Semitism that infected fiction and journalism in the 1930s.'
The same sort of attitude has infected virtually every other piece featuring Muslim terrorists, no one wants to offend those who slaughtered 3000 Americans. In last years The Sum of All Fears the producers went to the insane step of changing the villains from Islamic fanatics into generic European Neo-Nazis. There's none of that in here. At one point in the episode the agents end up taking a group of teenaged terrorists prisoner, classifying them as enemy combatants. One of the agents objects saying, `they're kids,' to which the other agent responds, `They're terrorists, sent by terrorists.' End of discussion in this new day and age. In another scene an agent tells a person with information of terrorism that either he will divulge his information, or she will leave him to be executed by Indonesia. A new show for a new age.
The cast is mostly made up of unknowns (with the exception of Melora Walters, from Magnolia and Boogie Nights). But, like other shows of this type, other things matter more than cast here. This is a brave show. I don't know if it'll survive in this form to air but, if it does, it will prove to be a hit- regardless of how many people denounce hit. Those associated with this production are brave- this defies the conventions of Hollywood by showing things as they are: American security forces as heroes, Muslim terrorists as villains. The way things ought to be.