Saturday, 18 July 2009

Bad guys beware

Looks like Jack Bauer could soon be hanging up his jump-leads and heading off to Boca Raton to enjoy the early bird specials at Denny's. With the news that NBC is about to launch a new reality show about terrorism, it's fair to assume that there'll be no longer be any need for fictional anti-terrorist types.

The Wanted is a bold new concept in docutainment, teaming up journalist Adam Ciralsk with retired Navy SEAL Scott Tyler, retired Army Special Forces officer Roger Carstens, and former U.S. intelligence official David Crane. Together this elite squad of arm-folders will hunt down accused war criminals and terrorists who are currently living "in plain sight in the U.S. and Europe". Although they're going to have to come up with some clever ways of injecting excitement, since it hardly takes Holmes and Watson to uncover something 'in plain sight'.

When 24 and Alias premiered in September 2001, ABC and Fox were understandably unsure about whether their shows would find an audience. Despite wildly different tones, both focused on undercover agents fighting terrorists both within the US and overseas. Airing just weeks after 9/11, the shows struck a chord with a bruised national psyche, and went on to be massive hits. While Alias descended into sci-fi mythology and familial discord, 24 expanded its grip on America's perception of terrorism and, in particular, Islamic fundamentalism. Season 4 depicted the attempts by a Turkish Muslim family to execute a terrorist attack on US soil, and played on people's deep-seated fears of the enemy next door, so much so that Fox was pressured into recording a Public Service Announcement in support of the 'American Muslim' community.

So it will be interesting to see what impact a 'reality show' about the possibility of terrorists living right under our noses will have on the more impressionable viewers. NBC previously courted controversy with a similar show called “To Catch a Predator” which showed police officers and journalists trying to catch possible sex offenders. As well as claims of entrapment, and the fact that many of the accused ended up having their charges dropped, the sensational nature of exploitative 'factual' shows like TCAP serves only to enhance paranoia and suspicion.

Of course, it would be remiss of me not to also question the integrity of a show that runs with a strapline 'Truth is the real weapon' and then pursues people who are accused, rather than convicted, of terrorist connections. Who cares if they're guilty right? It's all about the hand-held cameras, rapid-fire editing and other cinematic elements that have been added into the mix, such as sweeping helicopter shots and a command centre for the team. And how do the ethics of journalism sit with news teams helping to create the story, rather than impartially reporting on it?

I wouldn't be surprised if The Wanted turns into a massive hit for NBC, especially considering the frankly alarming comments that its target audience have posted beneath this news story about the show. As would-be viewer Gary Ogletree says, "Special Ops guys beat actors and phony scripts any day." Indeed, there's no reason why phoniness should be limited to the dramas.

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