"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 8 August 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
The JAGged Edge

To bicoastal boulevardiers, TV might well seem a brave new world. From the pepper-biting drama of The Iron Chef to the verité venality of Survivor, the future seems to be now in the world of TV programming. Even the job descriptions of viewers have changed, from yesteryear's audience particle to today's slash fiction fabulist or interactivist guerilla. But those of us with our feet happily encased in the cement of Nixon-era American mass culture can rest assured. TV's center of gravity remains retrograde, propagandistic, and about as "voyeuristic" as kabuki.

A case in point is CBS' JAG, a rare ratings hit (with a regular top 20 Nielsen) and better still, a demographic spanning the ages. The square, authoritarian JAG would seem far more in keeping with CBS' traditional quarry, the armies of weary retirees who flocked to such thanatological programming as Murder She Wrote, Diagnosis Murder, and Touched By An Angel. But the military-legal drama, which follows the adventures of the pert young go-getters who work for the Judge Advocate General corps of the US Navy, has attracted a huge 18-49 audience. Part of this is no doubt ascribable to the sheer physical charisma of the show's stars — David James Elliot's rock-ribbed abs and dreamy blue eyes, and Catherine Bell's pixie face and bodacious rack.

But since Bell and Elliot are invariably shown only in full military dress onscreen, no such easy answer will suffice. There is clearly a JAG cult. A frightening number of sites are obsessively devoted to JAG, from the JAG Asylum ("a place for JAGniks to share their illness") to the JAG Cheerleaders ("why not join the JAG cheerleaders by signing the dreambook?"). There are extensive archives of the kind of fan fiction so devoted you can't even find anything dirty ("Why, dad? Why'd you have to go?" Harm whispered, his forehead pressed against the cold black stone. He knew the answer to the often-asked question before he spoke. "I went because I was called, Harm. You know you'd do the same." Harm could almost hear his father's voice, and nodded. "I'd go, dad."); numerous chat forums and listservs; a drinking game. One guy has created a site archiving every line of the end credits for each episode. This is Buffy/Simpsons/Star Trek territory here, a phantom zone generally believed habitable only by separatists — weirdos, nerds, the obese.

That it is inhabited by so many well-adjusted people suggests that we are not as a nation producing the same quality of freaks we used to. Because JAG is a shamelessly propagandistic show, a valentine to (and from) the Pentagon. Much of the show's appeal is its physical accuracy, a feat of TV production impossible without the active help of the US Navy. The mutual admiration society between JAG and the Navy is therefore pronounced: "For the first time, the Navy permitted JAG to film aboard the U.S.S. Stennis, its number one-rated carrier," boasts the Paramount website, "continuing the show's tradition of visually-compelling footage". (The CBS site features a special section dedicated to naval hardware: "If you want to know everything about the F-14, as well as, other military planes, ships, and armaments you're in luck!")

But so what? For years, shows like The FBI and Project UFO were happy under the light yoke of the government agency which assisted, often to the extent of having their well-groomed young stars parrot official dogma. (On one memorable episode of Dragnet, LAPD chief Thomas Redding addressed the audience directly at the show's end.) Hell, even Bernardo Bertolucci was willing to pass along commie brainwashing at face value in order to get The Last Emperor made in China.

Yankee imperialist running-dog propaganda, on the other hand, is a lot harder going down, or it should be. JAG gives us a world in which the military is seen pretty much as taught to cadets at a highly insulated, utopian military school, such as The Citadel, or Bunker Hill Academy. There are a few bad apples, and important issues torn from today's headlines appear constantly ( "Gunny and Tiner get into a fight outside of a gay bar and Gunny goes on trial for gay-bashing."). But Harm and Mac (Elliot and Bell) generally satisfy themselves with a terse, Jack Webb-like last word, and return to their airless subjugation with palpable relief. Harm is so untroubled by doubt that he makes Captain Kirk look like Daniel Ellsberg in comparison. In one episode, Harm was accused of having written an Op-Ed piece critical of the President; after an hour of struggle, he was able to prove his innocence. Setting changes are indicated by a blinking cursor pinpointing physical locale and "zulu time." The show lets up occasionally in the terse, tendentiously loaded banter between Mac and Harm, another one of TV's tendentiously unrequited romances; but both are truly married to their duty first and foremost. And that relationship is conpicuously consummated week after formulaic week.

Suck has proudly claimed for years that hipsters were on the run, or at least deserved all the abuse their betters could heap upon them. But few of us had imagined that the worst excesses of the Reagan era would resurrect themselves in the 21st century, at a time when the liberal consensus seemed to riding so high. Much as educators are dumbstruck by the revival, in this era of clones and captive neutrinos, of Victorian arguments against evolution, the residents of the cultural high ground find themselves unexpectedly on crumbling and uncertain turf. It just goes to show how much liberals misunderstood the liberal consensus. Better living through subversiveness only became big when the liberal consensus had broke down. Originally, the plan called for all of us to live progressively and well in a good (make that great) society, protected from commies by the stouthearted men of Strategic Air Command. The Vietnam War gave militarism a bad name for a while, and dètente and Glasnost removed all the battleships from our opponents' game grid. But now rogue states and rebels have stepped into the breach, and the center is holding very well indeed.

JAG is far from the only pop culture phenomenon testifying to this strange twist of fate. The return of throughly righteous military he-men like John McCain — the type of guy who would send Billy Jack to the brig in two shakes — seems to have only whetted our appetite for more. Milquetoasts like Spielberg and Brokaw moon after the days when men were men and we all hung together in the cause. Even our non-jingo success stories suggest that America is not quite the Marcusian irony zone it has been made out to be. Fat and sassy, completely unencumbered by shame, boldly bourgeois projects like Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Titanic are swaggeringly successful, and even the excesses of Eminem only serve to tighten down the status quo. You can almost hearing the strains of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" echoing in the distance, drowning millennial doubt and fin de siecle sorrows in its stirring strains...

"I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free...."

A show like JAG is a sophisticated production, with a sure grasp of contemporary psychobabble, and a measured prurience light years ahead of its immediate forebears like I Dream of Jeannie or Rat Patrol. But the show is definitely a throwback to the days when CBS ruled American culture, spoonfeeding the silent majority on Red Skelton, Green Acres, Dean Martin, and Bewitched. It took a good 20 years, but the old silent majority is wired, well-heeled, and looking to take back mass culture from the aging wiseguys who had annexed it from them. The spheres are righting themselves, and the ten year reich of so-called alternative culture has been set to bed in history's graveyard. And good riddance! There's nothing for it now but to follow JAG's lead, get with the program, and come aboard for the big win.

courtesy of The Boob
pictures Terry Colon

The Boob