Category Archive: Television

June 8, 2007

Surveillance & Torture

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For the past couple of days, I’ve been blogging about my reactions to Alias, as well as to 24 and Lost.  I’d been planning to blog about these things for some time, and in particular about the topic of torture, but I discovered that my friend and former elder Dale Callahan beat me to it.  So you can read his blog or you can just keep reading mine ’cause I’m going to steal some of what he said and run with it.

Spoiler alert: If you plan to watch any of these shows, you’ll probably want to stop reading at this point.

I hadn’t thought about it a lot until I read Dale’s blog entry, but I had noticed in several episodes of Alias that the CIA guys were able to track people and find their location by using all kinds of surveillance equipment.  Somehow, their computers were able to tap into ATM cameras and cameras on traffic lights and security cameras and satellite cameras.  A guy would detect the bug they planted on him and throw it away, but they’d find him almost instantly, thanks to Marshall’s computer geek genius, by using one of these cameras.

Now I recognize that a lot of this is science fiction.  Alias, after all, was a science fiction show, whether its fans recognized it as such or not.  What else was all that Rambaldi stuff if not science fiction bordering on fantasy?  And the fact that they could download things from the villains’ computers in just a few minutes and never have the computer hang up with a little hourglass on the screen the way mine does so often — what was that if not sheer science fiction?  (And did you ever notice that computer screens on TV never look the way they do in real life?  The font is always huge so that you, the viewer, can read it.)

But this surveillance stuff is also science fiction, I think.  I don’t believe that the CIA or anyone else can track people quite as well as they did on Alias.  At least … I hope they can’t, though Google Maps Street View is causing some people some concern.

And there’s the rub.  As we watch the show, we’re supposed to be glad that such technology exists.  It helps people catch criminals, right?  It helps APO find the guys who’ve kidnapped Sydney.  We want the good guys to be able to track the bad guys.

But at what cost?  At the cost of the loss of privacy for countless people?  After watching a show like Alias, it’s not too hard for me to imagine face recognition software associated with a surveillance system installed in a home.  Of course, the technology would be expensive at first, but maybe not forever.  Cameras in your house would survey everything in the home, maybe sending images to a security company’s big computer where the face-recognition program would verify that the person in the house was you or your wife or your son or an authorized guest … or someone the system didn’t know.  It would store all those images, and then if you reported that something had been stolen while you were out, the system would spit out the images of everyone who was in the house during the time of the robbery.

Sounds great, right?  If a study showed that such a system reduced home invasions significantly, would you want one?  Maybe some people would.  I, on the other hand, wouldn’t want cameras taking pictures of me and my family and sending them to other people, no matter how “safe” it would make my house.  I want to preserve my privacy, not just my possessions.

But shows like Alias, I suspect, may be getting us used to the idea of constant surveillance.  We no longer flinch when we hear about traffic cameras on street lights.  The fact that our picture is being taken at an ATM or that we’re being videotaped by a store’s security camera doesn’t phase us at all anymore.

In short, we’re learning to live without the privacy that previous generations took for granted, not because someone is trying to persuade us that such privacy is bad and that constant surveillance is good but because our entertainment shows us the benefits of that surveillance in terms of the show we’re watching.  We know the guys in that car are bad because they just kidnapped the main character and so they don’t have the right to privacy.  But the technology that would take away theirs so that they can be caught also takes away ours.

In his blog entry, Dale also talks about torture and that’s what has bothered me for some time about Lost, 24, and, most recently for me, Alias.  When Sayid, who used to be a torturer, plied his trade on Sawyer in the first season of Lost, it was disturbing, not only to me but also to Sayid himself who didn’t want to go back to the evil he had left behind.  But by the second season, Sayid seemed to overcome those qualms.  And he wasn’t alone.  Others joined him in tormenting a man whom they thought was one of “the Others,” but who claimed to be an innocent man stranded, like them, on the island. 

And never mind what the outcome was.  It’s not as if torture becomes wrong only at the point when you discover you’re torturing an innocent person, nor is it the case that torture becomes justified if you discover the person you’re torturing really is guilty.  On Lost, they didn’t know if the man was guilty or not but they tortured him anyway.  And even if he had been one of “the Others,” what crime had he committed to warrant the torture?

But torture is relatively rare on Lost.  It’s common in Alias and 24.  Time and again, the good guys want or need information from someone and so they torture him to get it.  Never mind that people who are being tortured have been known to lie to escape from pain and that torture is not necessarily a reliable means for extracting truth, in these shows the quick way to get accurate information is by torturing someone.  The need (or desire) for that information overrides the person’s rights — he gets no phone call, no lawyer, no trial — and appears to justify any outrage that the “good guy” perpetrates.

“But,” you might say, “the guy being tortured really is guilty!  Weren’t you watching?  He’s the guy who kidnapped the girl and she’s buried alive and unless they get him to tell them where she is, she’ll die!”

Yeah, you know that.  But Jack Bauer doesn’t.  As Dale Callahan points out,

One of the subtle tricks that television plays on us is that it gives the viewer a type of divinity.

We watch the behind the scenes “dirty stuff” that even the characters in the show are not privy to. This means that “we” know that the dirt bag in the back room is guilty…we saw him in the last episode planning to plant the bomb or whatever slime ball activity he was doing…so when we see the torture instruments getting pulled out…we tend to justify it…because…hey the guy is guilty…right?

But in the eyes of Jack Bauer…or the other CTU agents…they didn’t see the guy planning…they are just assuming his guilt…and violating his rights as a U.S citizen…as most of the viewers [many who are U.S citizens] nod their heads in approval…

But what about the fact that the torture leads to the rescue of many people who might otherwise have died?

First, I doubt that people who are being tortured in those kinds of circumstances always blurt out the truth, so that information extracted through torture isn’t necessarily reliable.  If the guy tells you where the person he buried alive is located, you’ll stop torturing him.  But you’ll stop if he lies, too, at least until you find out that he lies.  But by then, it’s probably too late.

Or do you keep torturing him for a while, to see if his story stays consistent?  What if he was telling the truth all along?  Does the concern to make sure he’s telling the truth justify the prolonged torture after he blurted out the location?

Second, but even more importantly, this argument boils down to a claim that the end justifies the means.  The torture, the argument is saying, is valid because it leads to something that we, the viewers of the show, think is good.  But ends don’t justify means.  Sin is not legitimate if it leads to something genuinely good.  If you commit adultery with someone’s wife and she reveals to you her plot to murder him and so you’re able to rescue him, the adultery is still sin, no matter how much good comes out of it.

And where do you draw the line?  I don’t know how much torture I’d be able to take.  As William Cavanaugh says, “It should be clear that resistance to torture and refusal to talk belong almost exclusively to the realm of movies and cheap novels, not to the modern reality of the secret police apparatus” (Torture and Eucharist, p. 38n48).  Everybody talks.

But even if I could hold out if someone tortured me, would I hold out if someone threatened to torture my wife or daughter?  Suppose the kidnapper who has the girl buried alive could hold out for three hours before talking.  By then, the girl might be dead.  Would it be legitimate to torture the man’s wife or child to get him to talk right now so that the girl could be rescued? 

Or what about the technique used by the character Rorschach in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, who solves crimes by going to a seedy bar where criminal types hang out and starts breaking fingers until someone talks, confessing guilt, revealing important information, passing on a story he heard, or naming someone who might know more.  Is it a big leap from Rorschach to Jack Bauer?

The kind of surveillance presented in Alias and 24 is still, I think, science fiction.  At least, I hope it is.  And even if the technology develops, not everyone can access it as quickly as Marshall does in Alias.  But the more we see it on these sorts of shows, the more we may become used to the idea of being under constant (potential) surveillance.

But unlike this sophisticated surveillance, the kind of torture we’re being led to approve in these shows has been going on for a long time, and not just among the people we’re expected to think of as “bad guys.”  Even back in the 1960s, the United States had men such as Dan Mitrione training the Brazilian miltary regime in torture, “using beggars taken off the streets as his subjects” (Cavanaugh 24n5).  I don’t know if everything in this Wikipedia article is accurate, but it’s extremely disturbing.  There’s been an outcry about the kinds of torture practiced in places like Abu Ghraib.  We may be disgusted by the reports we hear.

But on our televisions, Jack Bauer and Jack Bristow and others whom we treat as heroes practice torture and we are expected to approve it because it gets the job done, because someone we care about is rescued as a result, because the good end is supposed to justify whatever means brought it about.

As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, I’ve recommended 24 to people.  I haven’t seen any of the recent seasons, but I can imagine enjoying a lot of things in them.  I’ve enjoyed many episodes of Alias.  But I’m disturbed by the subtle endorsements of evil and what Dale calls the “mental conditioning” in these shows.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:39 pm | Discuss (8)
June 7, 2007


Category: Television,Uncategorized :: Link :: Print

In my previous entry, I mentioned that Moriah and I strongly disliked the character Michael Vaughn (played by Michael Vartan) in Alias.  One reason for our dislike was that he rarely seemed happy.  Weiss cracked jokes and didn’t take himself seriously.  Will went through great trauma and yet came through it with his sense of humor intact.  But Vaughn seemed glum from the start.

But it wasn’t just that he was overly serious or that he was often mopey or that there were too many scenes where he gazed at Sydney with sad eyes which we were probably to take as revealing his deep sensitivity.  It wasn’t even that he was headstrong or that he went rogue and did dumb things, annoying as that was.  What bothered us the most, I think, was that when things didn’t go his way he was angry and, as a result, loud, demanding, and pushy.

He should have been the one named Jack.  If you’ve watched 24 and Lost, you might catch what I mean by that.

Moriah and I have seen only the first season of 24.  If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may remember that I praised the show for its portrayal of mature men.

I’m rethinking that appraisal in part because it seems to me from what I’ve watched and from what I’ve heard that Jack Bauer often comes across as an angry and demanding man, a man who will raise his voice to try to make someone do what he wants or who will perform an act of violence to get his way.

Granted, he’s in a desperate situation and desperate men do desperate things.  When you have only twenty-four hours to save the world, impatience is understandable.  And again, I’ve watched only the one season and that was some time ago, so my memory of it is fuzzy.  Perhaps we can cut Jack Bauer some slack on this score.

I’m less tolerant of Jack Shepherd in Lost, who frequently smoulders with rage and raises his voice to attempt to bully people into doing what he wants.  In this third season, he’s been locked away much of the time.  Instead of speaking calmly to those who have him captive, he shouts at them, as if that’s going to do any good.  That isn’t mature masculinity; it’s childish temper.

Again, he’s in difficult circumstances and, like all the characters on Lost, he has some dark stuff in his background.  Perhaps we’re intended to see Jack as an immature, proud, angry man who has to learn to humble himself and grow up and start acting like an adult so that he doesn’t turn out like Michael, the other angry man on Lost, whose immature behavior originally cost him his wife and son and who left the show (so far, at least) having committed a horrible sin without repentance.

Perhaps.  But I’ve heard that there are people who regard Jack as one of the heroes, which seems to mean that they approve of his behavior.  I don’t understand that, but it was hearing that that sparked my meditations on this subject.

In three different shows, two with the same creator, we have main characters who respond to obstacles and challenges not with humility and creativity, not with gentleness and meekness, not with wisdom and maturity, but with violent words and violent actions.  They’ll shout at you until you submit, and if that doesn’t work, they’ll hurt you.  But at all costs, they must have their way.  Do these shows intend us to see such men as heroes?

I’ve met people like that, people who thought they were mature men because they were decisive, knew what they wanted, and would trample over any obstacle on their path.  In my sin, I’ve acted like that sometimes.  And the good thing about Jack Shepherd on Lost, whether the writers intended this or not, is that he doesn’t look like a hero to me at all, which means that the behavior I sometimes exhibit looks petty, pouty, childish, and evil to me, exactly as it should.

I can give one or two cheers for a portrayal of men who are able to make decisions, to take responsibility, to act boldly and do what needs to be done, and I can learn something about maturity from those aspects of their character.  But when it comes to their response to anyone who stands in their way, I pray that I may not be like the Jacks.

Posted by John Barach @ 11:28 am | Discuss (2)
June 6, 2007


Category: Television,Uncategorized :: Link :: Print

AliasRecently, Moriah and I finished watching all five seasons of Alias, which Moriah had found cheap at a secondhand store.  There was a lot we enjoyed about Alias.  What interests me, however, is that it seemed to us as if we weren’t exactly tracking with the makers of the show.

Spoiler alert: If you plan to watch the show, you’ll probably want to stop reading at this point.

For instance, consider the characters.  Moriah and I liked the main character, Sydney Bristow, well enough at first when she was still smiling and had friends.  As the show progressed, however, she grew darker and more serious.  I don’t recall her smiling as much.  She didn’t seem to have a life outside of her work.

Plus, she was involved with Michael Vaughn, originally her CIA handler.  I’ll say more about Vaughn later, but for now I’ll just say that Moriah and I couldn’t stand him.  Perhaps it was due to the limitations of the actor, though I suspect it was more the limitations of the script, but he seemed to have two ways of acting: either he was mopey, with sad eyes, probably intended to seem sensitive, or he was angry, angry, ANGRY.  His character didn’t develop; it was never more than two-dimensional.

As a result, we really didn’t want the two of them to be together.  Sydney’s old friend, Will Tippen, would have been a far better match for her.  But instead, we had to put up with Sydney and Vaughn gazing into each other’s eyes, Vaughn looking sensitive.

Furthermore, the show seemed to want us to believe in the rightness of their love, to think there was something beautiful and special and right about the two of them being together.  But Moriah and I thought they were ill-matched and frankly dull together, especially compared to Weiss and Nadia.  Besides, in one season Vaughn was married and it seemed to us that the show wanted us to hope that the marriage would fall apart so that Vaughn and Sydney could be together.  I know, I know: Vaughn’s wife turned out to be bad.  But I resent it when a show tries to make me disdain marriage.

The characters Moriah and I liked best were either the minor characters or the bad guys.  Marshall Flinkman was in some ways a stock character, the brainy geek who can do anything on the computer and who says strange things because he’s off in his own world and is socially inept.  In some episodes, he was simply a stereotype and was included for some comic relief.

On the other hand, from time to time, he developed as a character.  My favorite moment in the entire show, I think, was when Marshall, who hates flying, is taken along on one of Sydney’s missions.  Afraid, he invents a suit jacket parachute with an extra belt so that if the plane goes down, he can save Sydney, too.  The plane, of course, doesn’t crash.

But Marshall gets captured by a villain.  When Sydney tries to rescue him, she gets trapped with him in a building, forty (?) stories up.  There’s no escape. Or is there?  Marshall tells her to smash the window.  She reminds him how high they are.  He tells her that the jacket he’s wearing has the parachute and that the parachute will support her weight, too.  And then he says the line he’s always wanted to say: “My name is Marshall J. Flinkman, and I’m here to rescue you.”  Perfect.

But again, the show doesn’t give Marshall the respect he deserves.  He can’t get respect from the other characters most of the time and all too often the show reduces him to a stereotype.  Only rarely does he get to shine.

The same is true of Eric Weiss.  Weiss starts off as Vaughn’s partner.  When everyone else is overly serious, Weiss is cracking jokes, usually self-deprecating ones.  He’s considerate and thoughtful.  For a while, it seemed as if the show was going to do something with him.  He didn’t simply have to stay at home; he got to go on missions.

Eventually, he even got a girl and, as I mentioned above, his relationship with Nadia is full of laughter and fun.  It seemed as if we were supposed to view their relationships as somewhat juvenile, compared to Sydney and Vaughn’s serious love, though it’s actually that sort of mopey love that’s more characteristic of the high school soap opera than the true and humble delight in each other that Weiss and Nadia display.

Finally, we come to Arvin Sloane.  I don’t know how the show expects us to view Sloane, but Moriah and I generally liked him.  We didn’t always like what he did: he is a villain much of the time.  But he was also usually the most mature person on the show.  Compared to him, the other characters sometimes seemed like cardboard cutouts, including Sydney.  When reviled, Sloane didn’t revile in return.  When hated, Sloane responded with faithful love.

And so the makers of Alias ended up with Sloane being either their biggest failure or their biggest triumph.  He’s their biggest failure if they wanted us to hate him all along, if they wanted us to feel about him the way that Sydney and the other characters do.  I couldn’t: I liked him too much.  But he’s their greatest triumph if they intended him to be a tragic character because what made the tragedy work was precisely the grandeur of Sloane’s character and the fact that we liked him.

So why am I blogging about this?  Needless to say, I don’t blog about every show I watch.  But Alias sparked some reflection in me about the way the story worked and the way I was expected to respond, and I’m curious.  Was I supposed to respond the way I did?  Did other people respond to Alias the same way Moriah and I did?  Or was it just us?

Posted by John Barach @ 1:38 pm | Discuss (7)
August 22, 2006

Television and Social Capital

Category: Miscellaneous,Television :: Link :: Print

One of the chapters in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone deals with the impact of technology — and television in particular — on social capital, the bonds which tie a society together and which have been replaced in this generation by increasing civic disengagement and isolation.

What has brought about this disengagement?  There’s no one answer, Putnam says.  But a lot of the blame can be placed on television (or at least television as it is often used).  He quotes T. S. Eliot on TV: “It is a medium of entertainment which permits millions to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome” (New York Post, Sept. 29, 1963, cited on p. 217).

The biggest consequence of television, Putnam claims, is that it brings us home (p. 223), so that we’re not involved as much with other people besides (perhaps) our own families.  We can’t be out on Tuesday night!  American Idol is on!  In fact, the American Idol results are on Wednesdays and we don’t want to miss that eitiher.  Besides, Law and Order is on Wednesdays.  And so forth.

Putnam is not claiming, of course, that television benefits family life; rather, television tends to isolate us from our families, too.  Because not everyone wants to watch the same show, many families now have more than on TV on at a time.

In fact, Putnam also suggests that channel surfing may be linked to superficial friendships (p. 226).  Don’t like the guy you’re talking to?  Switch channels.

(Putnam doesn’t discuss the internet, largely because the book was written several years ago, but I suspect that the internet exacerbates this problem.  Just as we channel surf, we surf the web, jumping from page to page, link to link, and so we surf our friends also.  In fact, it’s my impression that there’s something about the internet which breaks down our ability to concentrate.  It’s easy to surf; it’s much harder — or at least for me, I think — to read something online in any depth.  I wonder if researchers will start to see that the internet disrupts our ability to read — or concentrate at all — for sustained periods of time.  Does the internet give us all a case of Attention Deficit Disorder?)

In the end, Putnam concludes that television watching is “the single most consistant predictor of civic disengagement” (p. 231).  The more you watch TV, the less engaged you’ll be in your society.  In fact, the more you watch TV, the more likely you are to give the other driver the finger, too (p. 233).  TV makes us aware of problems … but less likely to do anything about them (p. 242).

In this connection, he quotes an Amish man speaking about “how the Amish know which technological inventions to admit and which to shun”:

We can almost always tell if a change will bring good or bad tidings.  Certain things we definitely do not want, like the television and the radio.  They would destroy our visiting practices.  We would stay at home with the television or radio rather than meet with other people.  The visiting practices are important because of the closeness of the people.  How can we care for the neighbor if we do not visit them or know what is going on in their lives? (cited pp. 234-235).

I’m not Amish or Amishly-inclined.  I enjoy TV and radio, watch movies — and read books, for that matter.  But I can see the point this Amish man is making.

I mention books, by the way, because, as Jim Jordan points out in one of his lectures, reading is one of the most anti-social inventions of all time.  When you watch TV, at least you can do that with other people present, but when you’re reading, you lower your head, shut the other people out, and retreat into your own world.  Everything the Amish man says about television here could be said about books, in fact.  If you’re racing through your Dean Koontz novel to see how everything works out, you won’t be inclined to visit with your neighbor.

Nevertheless, I can grant the Amish man’s point only to some degree.  It still seems possible to watch television and listen to the radio — and read books — judiciously.  I admit that many people don’t, but one can limit television watching to a show or two, to read in the evening after everyone else has gone home, to make a point of getting involved in the community and visiting fellow church members and chatting with your neighbours at least sometime during the week, even if you don’t do it on the one or two evenings when your favorite show is on.

Posted by John Barach @ 10:41 pm | Discuss (3)
April 8, 2006

Talking Heads

Category: Television :: Link :: Print

Later in the first volume of the first volume of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, Ken Myers interviews Quentin Schultze about television programming. He asks Schultze what kinds of programs QTV (“Quentin Schultze Television”) would show, assuming someone were to bankroll such a television station.

Schultze’s answer astonished me. He said that he would get a plain backdrop and setting, like the one that William F. Buckley used, and have interviews with people who were making a difference by applying their Christian faith. After all, Schultze said, what TV does best is talking heads.

That statement continues to baffle me. Radio does interviews fairly well. Television is okay with interviews, provided the person being interviewed is interesting to watch. But surely interviews (“talking heads”) aren’t what television does best. It seems to me that television does very well at short stories (like most TV shows) or longer stories spread out over several weeks (such as Lost).

Would I watch QTV, with its (hours and hours, presumably) of “talking heads” interviews? I might watch an interview from time to time. I might watch if Schultze decided to have, say, a lecture by someone like James Jordan or N. T. Wright. But even then it would depend on one all-important question: What’s on the other channels?

Posted by John Barach @ 5:20 pm | Discuss (0)
October 13, 2004

Cop Shows

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Here in Grande Prairie (or at least here in our basement), Moriah and I get only two channels, CBC and CTV.

Of the two, CTV is far superior (which may simply be a way of saying that it has far fewer Canadian shows). Last night, Moriah and I watched Da Vinci’s Inquest on CBC for the first and last time. There was no interesting dialogue: the characters hemmed and hawed and mumbled. In fact, I’ve seen little on CBC that would attract me to watch it. (Can that be because CBC has more Canadian programming? Perhaps.)

Another TV-related note: It seems as if police shows are gradually taking over television. Law and Order has spawned a couple more versions, including Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and now besides the original C. S. I., set in Las Vegas, we also have C. S. I.: Miami and C. S. I.: New York.

This, it seems to me, is all to the good. The more police shows we have on TV, the less space there is for sitcoms.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:33 pm | Discuss (0)
September 7, 2004


Category: Television :: Link :: Print

Moriah and I don’t usually spend all of our evening glued to the TV, but last week was an exception. Over the course of the week, we galloped through the whole first season of the TV show 24 at the rate of about four episodes an evening.

24 stars Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, who is in charge of a counter-terrorist unit. The season starts with Jack being called in to the office at midnight because there is a threat to the life of a presidential candidate, David Palmer, who happens to be black and who stands a very good chance of becoming the first black president. Jack’s mission is to keep Palmer safe. But the threat to Palmer is hardly the only danger Jack has to face during the twenty-four episodes of the show.

And the fact that there are twenty-four episodes is no coincidence. Each episode covers exactly one hour in a day. The first episode starts at midnight and ends at 1:00 AM, and everything in that episode happens in real time with no flashbacks and no condensing of time.

Moriah and I enjoyed the show. We were gripped from the beginning, and as soon as one episode ended we went on to the next.

But what may have impressed us the most was the way the show presented men. Jack Bauer and David Palmer were both solid examples of real men, men who take responsibility, men who stand up for what is right. There were other men who were immature but who grew toward mature manhood during the course of the show. Very impressive!

Posted by John Barach @ 9:33 pm | Discuss (0)