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3 Anti-Authoritarian TV Shows that Grapple with America's Security State

Three new shows examine ways the USA Patriot Act can play out in our daily lives.

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"Homeland" is on Showtime, so the risks are there for the taking if the writers want them—and based on the pilot, now viewable online, it seems they do. CIA agent Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Danes) begins to suspect that a Marine POW just released by Al Qaeda has developed a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, defecting to the other side. The pilot already touches upon some of the uncomfortable truths of our government: Mathison is reassigned after participating in a rogue, unapproved operation in Iraq (wouldn’t be the first time that happened!), and heads to the counterterrorism unit. When Marine Nicholas Brody is rescued from Iraq after being considered missing in action since 2003, he’s viewed as a war hero—but Mathison believes he’s actually working to attack America.

Not only is the pilot premise a critique of unchecked jingoism, it illuminates the nuances of our post-9/11 reality, the fine line that must be tread between actual threats and intense paranoia. Mathison is an analogy for the latter; her PTSD has left her heavily medicated, and the show seems to allude to the idea that her suspicions about Brody could in fact be rooted in her trauma. Then again, if you buy the line that gross negligence in the Bush administration led to the actual carrying out of 9/11, you could easily believe our country’s desire to honor a POW would be blind to that POW’s new allegiances. "Homeland" underscores that terrorism really is about terror; where it comes from, and how it manifests, depends on your point of view.

Even as most media conducts its political coverage (or lack of it) with a complete lack of critique of US policy, it’s heartening that new well-funded, prime-time shows with recognizable stars seem to want to open up the debate about the past 10 years. Not all of them have worked so well--one show seems to have decided to just go nuclear. In a recent episode of "CSI: NY," commemorating the decade anniversary of 9/11, the show actually recreated the events of that day to suit its plot, which centered on the flashbacks of lead detective Mac Taylor, whose wife perished in the attacks. While they didn’t re-air the images of the planes smashing into the towers, there were full reenactments of the dust tsunami as the towers collapsed. Even though the media was saturated with the 10-year-old footage leading up to and on the anniversary, the "CSI" episode was rather jarring—not quite a “too soon” moment, but it certainly seems like something no one would take any joy in acting out.

Mostly, though, it provided a stark reminder of how far the political tenor of pop culture has changed since that day. In the wake of the attacks, much art was sanitized: television shows like "Sex in the City" and "Friends" wrung their hands over whether to discuss the attacks or reference terrorism, while big budget films like Collateral Damage were delayed for rewrites. Hip-hop act the Coup had to pull its uncanny album cover, which featured the two members with a remote control and the towers aflame behind them (they replaced it with a portrait of a flaming Manhattan in a martini glass).

Reenacting the attacks then would have been unfathomable, heretical to even mention. Reenacting them now feels slightly cheap, but not like blasphemy. And it underscored how finally, the mainstream is beginning to be daring about 9/11 and its aftermath, seeking answers to some of our most complicated questions. Most of all, by providing fictional context to real-life laws, they might connect with viewers whose knowledge of our eroding boundaries has been shortchanged by a media meant to protect us. And if good art is made in the process, even better.