Homeland Security: The TV Show

Although the ABC television show "Threat Matrix" is based on what the station calls "the world's most secret and scariest database on terror," the show hasn't managed to enthrall audiences. In October, ABC rebroadcast "Threat Matrix" in a new time slot in the hopes of reaching a wider audience.

We are making progress.
-- Colonel Roger Atkins (Will Lyman), "Pilot"

This is worse than weight watchers.
-- Lark (Melora Walters), "Pilot"

Here's a terrorist threat that hasn't yet made a Fox News headline: bees. So unexpected, so diabolical, so simple, and so seemingly possible. At least it looks that way in the first few minutes of the first episode of ABC's Threat Matrix.

According to an opening global map, the episode's first shot is rocketing through space as if by a global positioning satellite, to the Minuteman Missile Site at the McClain Air Force Base in Wyoming. Following this view as it zaps through cables and layers of voices ("chatter," a la the movie Contact), along with requisite whooshing, zip-zap, zoom, to dump into some kind of security observation room, looking down from a ceiling mounted surveillance camera.

A bee wanders across the lens, then the focus racks to see two young men peering at their video screens: they're playing one of those first person shooter games, arguing about who's supposed to cover whom. "Damn," says the white one, "Ambush." Or, as his monitor announces, "Game Over!" Just at that moment, the black one looks up to see bees -- lots of them -- entering through the vents. And the white one goes a little crazy because, he says, "I'm allergic." Oh dear.

Enter the Team -- as yet of unknown origin -- being metal-detected as they approach the elevator that will take them to their target, deep inside the base. "We'll smoke 'em out and suck 'em up," says team leader, eerily echoing George W. Bush's repeated promise to smoke Osama and his ilk out of their caves. Once inside, the team removes their anti-bee gear and heads toward the warhead they're going to steal, helped along by their all-seeing techs, who fake the base's video feed (so the team can run around undetected), unlock doors, monitor progress and minutes ("You're out of time!").

Even for this tension buildup and action-movie music, the team succeeds, escaping with the warhead. The Department of Energy back in D.C. is in a panic, as the faux global positioning camera reveals. At just the moment when heads are likely to roll, team members show up outside the DOE window with the warhead in the trunk of their car (the voice on the cell phone taunts, "Missing something?"). "Who the hell are you?" asks the Officer in Big Trouble. "Special Agent in Charge John Kilmer," comes the answer, and yes, the team, as evil-doing as they have seemed to be until now, have been sent by the President himself to teach a lesson to the DOE officer, so clearly not in charge.

This introduction to the current (fictionalized) war on terrorism underlines what's been circulating in the (real life) press: agencies compete for money, prestige, and intel, undercutting the larger mission. What comes next, however, is particular to Threat Matrix. Working alongside John is his ex-wife, Frankie (Kelly Rutherford), whom her ex calls "the queen bee" (reasons presumably to be leaked later). When the Officer in Big Trouble complains that this pair of exes should have followed protocol, and let him in on the operation, John sneers, "In the old world, you're right. But no terrorist is going to follow protocol." Doh!

The series, its opening credits remind you weekly, is focused on the activities of John's elite team, one of 10 squads culled from the CIA, FBI, and NSA. "Their job," officious Colonel Roger Atkins (Will Lyman) namechecks Secretary Ridge and assures reporters in his daily press briefing, "is to keep us safe." I, for one, feel better already. During this same press conference, a reporter asks the Colonel, operations liaison to the President, about the Echelon "network," which allows the government to monitor emails, phone calls, and faxes: "What assurances do we have that Echelon won't be used to spy on Americans?" she says, earnestly referring to her notepad. "Because," he snips, "It's against the law, Pat." Well, phew.

Much as this exchange suggests, any remotely counter-administration thinking that filters into Threat Matrix is cut short: patriotism means you toe the line, Pat. When former FBI forensics specialist Lark (wonderful Melora Walters, remembered prior to this jacked-up venture, for her delicate work as the abused daughter in Magnolia, and here stunningly leather-cat-suited), raises a question about holding underage suspects without allowing them access to a lawyer, John informs her that it's okay, because they're enemy combatants. Lark frowns, "They're kids, Kilmer." Tough toasties. As Kilmer understands, they're terrorists, whether recruited or brainwashed, committed or confused, and neither the press nor the Justice Department needs to know they're in custody (he instructs her to "keep a Chinese wall between us and Justice," spy talk for lying). And if she has a problem with that, she can just let John know. She backs off, for now.

It's possible that Threat Matrix is intentionally sowing such seeds of discontent, or maybe even raising fundamental questions about the ethics of Patriot Act-related procedures and policies, in order to reap them later. It's more likely that Kilmer's ramrod-straightness is the show's preferred attitude. Two episodes in, all challenges to Ashcroftian dogma have been slammed down -- even the one lobbed by a drug dealer in Jakarta, who sneers about "You Americans and your ethics," by noting that for all the bombing in Afghanistan, not "a single poppy field" has been destroyed. "Could it be," he asks Frankie, "that somebody high up in America actually wants the drugs to come through?"

It's not an original question, but the show can't really deal with it. That's not to say Threat Matrix doesn't illustrate the ravages of drugs (one cop in the second episode screws up because she's been snorting the drugs she's been buying undercover). And it does allow that drugs do routinely get through U.S. border "security." But here these serious problems look less systemic than the results of inept individuals -- when the best of the designated security agencies come together, in this action version of Homeland Security, stuff gets done right.

For the most part, the show makes the terrorist-fighters look sleek, efficient, and multi-culti. Members include former FBI forensics specialist Lark, deaf operative Holly (Shoshannah Stern), who signs her dialogue (which the rest of the group appears to understand); field agent Tim Serrano (Kurt Caceres), forgiven for a serious field error in episode two, because John empathizes with the boys on his team; the imperturbable tech Jelani (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), in charge of surveillance, image clarification, the speediest transportation this side of Alias; and even -- in a bit of casting that preempts charges of racial profiling -- an Egyptian-American former CIA operative, Mo (Anthony Azizi, whose bio includes the note that he went to high school with the Rock), to preempt against charges of racism.

Repeatedly, the series deals with race in oddly original, if disturbing, ways. During the premiere episode (18 September 2003), several terrorists ship themselves to the U.S. as cargo (presumably, the episode was shot before news broke of Charles McKinley's self-mailing), in order to set off a sleeper agent, originally from Yemen, currently working at the Chicago Commodities Exchange and living as a white man. Apparently taking a cue from Michael Jackson, the dastardly Fayez (Adam Donshik) has had plastic surgery and his skin lightened, so he can pass as nerdy, balding "Tommy," so innocuous that he can walk onto the trading floor with a C-4 bomb strapped under his jacket and no one blinks an eye. The team saves the day, of course (though Fayez/Tommy blows up inside the bomb truck), but the point is clear: just when you thought racial profiling might do some good, it turns out to be unreliable.

In Threat Matrix's second episode, "Veteran's Day" (25 September 2003), the process of identifying terrorists becomes even more convoluted. Teddy (Wade Andrew Williams), a Gulf War vet long since depressed and desperate, has taken to selling drugs he cooks up in his small-town Utah meth lab (where he also keeps his girlfriend and their baby, both zapped out of their heads -- not a little disturbing). Unbeknownst to Teddy, his drug dealing has helped to fund a Canadian al-Qaeda cell's activities, all leading directly to a planned attack on a Veterans' Day parade in D.C. Quelle ironic.

That the vet learns his lesson (at terrible cost) is not a surprise. That the team members once again avoid disaster is also not a surprise, but this pattern reveals the basic structural problem for Threat Matrix: if the team loses, the series' rah-rah posturing is seriously undermined. Sort of like the current Administration's.

Cynthia Fuchs is PopMatters Film and TV Editor.

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