Last Week in TV Land

There have been less-than-flattering depictions of American presidents on TV before, but none has come close to Charles Logan, the current fictional president of 24. You keep thinking every week that this guy can't get any lower and then he surprises you with something even more despicable. And, yet, the genius of the program is that Logan's not a cardboard villain. He is made to seem believable in his dastardliness. This week he decided, somewhat reluctantly, to let terrorists blow up his wife as part of a bargain not to launch an attack against the public. But when, government security forces on their own discovered the assassination plot and rescued the first lady, along with the president and first lady of Russia, Logan's first thought was to let it be known that his wife was in the car with the Russians so that nobody would suspect he was in on the scheme to kill them. He's a real politician, as we say nowadays. It's fascinating to speculate about where this is all going. It's hard to believe that Logan will make it all the way through without being discovered. Already, many of his staff know what a disaster he is. Meanwhile, Jack is hot on the trail of the nerve gas canisters, and despite almost being blown up himself, seems to be getting closer. Next week, we have two hours on the same evening, so maybe we'll catch a glimpse of where the plot will take us next. It's a part of the show's amazing appeal that most viewers will probably be glad that a double dose is coming up.

I used to think there was a clear difference between Bill O'Reilly and commentators in the vein of Rush Limbaugh. But lately that distinction has begun to fade. The O'Reilly Factor is so consistently manipulative and so unwilling to give a fair hearing to opinions not in line with O'Reilly's that it can't any longer be seen as, even partially, a news analysis program. It is clearly no more than entertainment, designed to feed a xenophobic, punishment-oriented audience. O'Reilly's latest big project involves playing on the natural desire to protect children as a means of promoting harsh, mechanized minimum-sentencing requirements throughout the whole country. And any state that refuses to go along is subjected to vicious name-calling and accused of caring nothing about it's own children. Mr. O'Reilly's caring of course, is very selective. He shows no concern for children who are not getting an adequate diet, or for children who have no access to health care, or for children who have no decent place to live. The only measure of child care he shows any interest in is harsh punishment of people who have committed crimes against youth. But, then, this is in line with O'Reilly's general stance, which seeks to address every social problem through either killing or jail. Policies of this stripe can't be seen as serious approaches to politics. They are merely spectacles for tossing red meat to bloodthirsty viewers.

Somebody should do an academic dissertation about how often Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy of Law and Order has been a force for justice and decency and how often, out of ideological rigidity, he's been a complete monster. Probably the split would come out about 60-40. This Wednesday, he added to the 40% by relentlessly prosecuting a woman who clearly did what she out of a sense of both helplessness and social responsibility. She performed a terrible act, it's true. She killed her son. But she did it after long experience taught her, beyond doubt, that he was a sociopath who would, among other things, kill the young woman he had got pregnant. It came out during the trial that he had shortly before murdered a man in a stickup after the guy had given him the money he asked for. But none of this made any difference to McCoy. In his mind, murder is murder, and no matter who's going to be hurt by it, somebody's got to go to jail for a long time. After all, putting people in jail is what he believes in. It's what he spends his life doing. The horrible thought arising from watching him is that, as prosecutors go, he may be one of the better ones and that in many others the ratio would be, at least, reversed

One  of the astounding things about TV is that though the average cable subscriber has well over a hundred channels to choose from, it's not unusual to find an entire evening when nothing palatable appears on any of them. Newton Minnow produced one of the gigantic euphemisms of all time when he said that television was a vast wasteland. If he could see it now, he wouldn't be so kind. The pressing question is: what does this mean? Is it lack of talent? Lack of intelligence? Lack of imagination? Or might it be that there are significant numbers who actually like a good portion of what's on the screen? That thought is too dismal to be pursued further.

Numb3rs had a pretty good episode this week. That was partially because the mathematical nonsense was downplayed. But it was mainly because the badness of the old FBI and the goodness of the new FBI was played up. About the badness of the old there's little doubt. The goodness of the new is a less certain proposition. But, on TV at least, the new represented by Rob Morrow's Agent Don Eppes, is willing to look askance at the old's practice of instigating a bombing that killed two people in order to arrest the person who actually carried it out (which, by the way, wasn't accomplished until the new got on the case thirty-five years later). It reminds one of the old joke from the 1970s about how a majority of the American Communist Party was made up of FBI agents spying on one another. If life does, indeed, imitate art, then maybe the FBI can improve itself by watching fictions which show it to be an honorable enterprise. We can hope, at any rate.

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