A frequent comment by political pundits after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was that the United States lacks "good old-fashioned human intelligence" against terrorism. So it's not surprising that three new television dramas—Alias, 24, and The Agency—address that gap with positively glowing images of counter-terrorist agents.
Crass exploitation of the tragedy? Not initially. Although the shows don't downplay connections to the Sept. 11 events and aftermath, their creators could not have known this time last year—when the shows were developed—how badly viewers might want to believe in the CIA agent as a new mythical hero-savior.
The biblical word usually translated as savior refers to a human raised up by God to deliver a nation from present and future danger. That's what we need now, right? A savior in the war on terrorism. Agents with the same dazzling courage, brilliance, and integrity as Sydney, Jack, and Lisa.
Alias, winner of the People's Choice Award for best new dramatic series, features the adventures of Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner, winner of a Golden Globe award for best actress), a double agent working by choice for the CIA and by accident for the shady SD-6 operation. Her dual status requires her to be as agile intellectually as she is physically—which is to say, plenty agile, judging from her martial arts displays. Sydney is bold, brainy, and eager for risky assignments. She's also big-hearted, sometimes to a fault. In the episode "Mea Culpa," Sydney risks blowing her cover to call for medical assistance for her seriously wounded partner. She is the young "iron fist in a velvet glove" savior.
The show 24 moves at a breathless pace due to its "real time" format. Jack Bauer (Golden Globe winner Kiefer Sutherland) is the savior most likely to succeed: He's courageous, autonomous, and brilliant under pressure ("Officer, shoot me or help me, but decide NOW!"). He needs to prevent a political assassination, rescue his kidnapped daughter, and find an agency mole, all in one day. Crafty enough to mastermind the jailbreak of a murder suspect who can help him find his daughter and then convince his superior it was justified, Bauer works at the speed of light. He's a flawed savior whose integrity earns our trust.
The most introspective agent in the bunch is Lisa Fabrizzi (Gloria Reuben, formerly of ER) on The Agency. Exuding quiet strength, Fabrizzi is cool, clear-thinking under pressure, and gracefully diplomatic. Her demon is perfectionism. Angry at being outsmarted by a terrorist, she tells the staff psychiatrist she needs to know that what she's doing "isn't just an exercise in futility."
Recognizing this as a theological crisis, the counselor relays a story illustrating the notion of incarnation, stressing that God created us to do the hard work of justice. Later, after a successful mission, Fabrizzi recovers her faith, deciding there is value in small victories, even if only a few people benefit. Fabrizzi is the savior who embraces her incarnational role. Such a saintly portrayal of the Agency is not at all unexpected given that The Agency works with a communications consultant from the CIA; it may not be official propaganda, but it's at least officially approved.
ONE CAN'T HELP but wonder if these rosy portrayals are somehow contributing to the staggering increase in CIA job applications—from 500 a week before the attacks to 5,000 a week, even many months after Sept. 11. Is enthusiasm for these superhuman "savior" characters shaping public attitudes toward covert activities?
The CIA has not been the peace-preserving "savior" these shows present, with its history of illegal assassinations, the destabilization and overthrow of democratically elected governments, and support for corrupt dictators around the globe. TV agents like Sydney, Jack, and Lisa operate in a different world. Their world may entertain us and momentarily comfort us, but in the end it is one vastly at odds with reality.
Teresa Blythe, co-author of Watching What We Watch: Prime-Time Television Through the Lens of Faith, teaches a class on television and religion at San Francisco Theological Seminary.