It's easy for us to assume that no matter what comes our way, America will prevail politically and economically. Fox-TV's Tuesday night drama Dark Angel, which recently won a People's Choice award for favorite television dramatic series, confronts that assumption by asking "what if we don't?" Behind this rather typical sci-fi action thriller is a siren warning us where Gen-X thinks the world is headed in the new millennium. Unfortunately, the only hope the show gives is the old-fashioned triumph of the American individual.
Produced by filmmaker James Cameron (Titanic), Dark Angel thrusts viewers into a rundown, Bladerunner-like Seattle in the year 2019 where its rogue-heroine, genetically engineered Max (Jessica Alba), tries to remain undetected as she hides from malevolent government operatives who raised and trained her to be a superhuman fighting machine. Her goals in life are to not get caught or killed by these men; score enough of the amino acid called tryptophan to satisfy a genetic malfunction; and find the other test tube soldiers who escaped with her 10 years before.
Along the way, Max finds a friend in underground journalist Logan Cale (Michael Weatherly), a wealthy wheel-chaired idealist who anonymously broadcasts his investigative findings on a streaming video show named "Eyes Only" (only his eyes are shown). Logan is a cynical savior figure on the show, committed to bringing truth to a world where a free press is no longer functioning. He also occasionally gives Max information about the "siblings" for whom she's looking.
The world presented in Dark Angel is violent, filthy, urban, and young. Seattle looks like our worst ghetto nightmare, with open-air buildings used as squatter apartments, graffiti on the walls, homeless people camped out everywhere, and swarms of 20-somethings hanging around with nothing to do. The narrated show opening tells us that terrorists had set off an electromagnetic pulse that fried all computer systems and left the United States "a Third World country overnight." The environment appears ruined, the infrastructure has crumbled, and street crime is the rule. In fact, Max is a postmodern Robin Hood, stealing from the rich so she can help her friends, all of whom are poor.
This is a world in which technology has gone tragically awry and turned on us. The show capitalizes on the panic we feel when our computers crash, or our election machines fail to properly count our votes. Its premise asks us to consider what life might be like when the United States becomes like much of the rest of the world: poor and powerless. How then will we live?
THERE ARE SMALL strands of hope in Dark Angel. Individuals living on the edge and doing their best to endure even if the environment and social structures are doomed. Relationships thrive and individuals band together to frustrate the powers-that-be.
But boiled down, the show's main message is the triumph of the individual. Television often portrays Americans as distrustful of power structures, fearful of technology backfires, and as favoring individualistic solutions to societal problems. How refreshing it would be for a series like this to illustrate a resurgence of community empowerment in the face of such destruction, or a new interdependence that values the individual as part of a community at work to solve the problems of crime, filth, and disorder in society. But that is not the show Cameron gives us, nor has it historically been the kind of sci-fi thriller that works on television.
So how should we view Dark Angel? We certainly shouldn't ignore it because it's not perfect. Powerful and popular visual stories-like Dark Angel-raise key theological questions and can help us become engaged with television in a new and productive way. How does genetic engineering affect family ties? How will our cities cope with the devastation war and terrorism can cause? Critically engaging with the questions this show raises will leave us shocked and bothered, but I hope committed to activating our faith in ways that will ensure that family, community, the environment, and the infrastructure will survive our fascination with technology.
Teresa Blythe is a free-lance writer, spiritual director, and media literacy advocate in the Presbyterian Church. She lives in Novato, California.