Published on Tuesday, December 9, 2003 by the Daytona Beach News-Journal
Good vs. Mob Evil in Network's Offering
by Pierre Tristam

Last Tuesday ABC ran a two-page ad in The New York Times for its new drama, "Line of Fire." It was the culmination of an unusual marketing blitz for what looks like just another cop-and-robber show on TV. I didn't see the show (I'm waiting for the book to come out), but the ad told a story all its own, an allegory for these days of gentle repressions and phony virtues.

On the left page, there's a largish picture of an angry woman pointing a largish gun at a man crouching on the deck of a boat. He must be a bad guy because he has a pony tail, the distinguishing bad-guy prop of choice now that even 12-year-old girls have tattoos. The angry woman is an FBI agent, not just because she's overreacting, or because she's a woman -- it is a cliche of choice now that those take-your-daughter-to-FBI-headquarters-days have paid off in spades -- but because "FBI" appears in large letters on the flack jacket of someone standing with his back to the camera. In a triple-deck above the picture are the words: "RESPECT," "LOYALTY," "JUSTICE," followed by the syllogism's punch-line: "THIS IS THE FBI."

On the right page, a picture of equal proportions shows the actor David Paymer walking away from a hooded man sitting at the edge of a boat dock (marinas being the set equivalent of pony tails). The expression on Paymer's face is one of patient boredom, like that of a man who's been shopping with his wife for two hours but is willing to endure one more (hour, that is). Reviews tell me that that's the scene where Paymer's character has just finished bashing the hooded man's face with a pipe many times over. The syllogism below the picture: "RESPECT," "LOYALTY," "REVENGE," followed by: "THIS IS THE MOB."

Among its many scenes of ratings-enhancing violence (Disney's ABC is trailing CBS and NBC), the first episode of "Line of Fire" included one in which a mobster chains an athlete to a tree and breaks his arms with a sledgehammer. The message is as unsubtle as the breakdown of good guys and bad guys in the mug shots at the bottom of the two-page ad. The FBI agents are sexy, well-shaven, well deodorized and clearly as determined to bag as many bad guys as they will sexual partners in the sado-Manichean season ahead. With the exception of Paymer's "mob boss" character, who is clean-cut but wears black-rimmed glasses and that get-me-out-of-this-mall expression, the bad guys are unshaven, look ambiguously sexy, and, in the case of the "mob wife," frustrated.

The show screams to be hip and current, but the plotline is weirdly off-key, like when grownup characters say "friggin' " all the time instead of the more honest obscenity for which it stands. I was under the impression that in this good-versus-evil world order, the FBI's great target was supposed to be al-Qaida. Mobsters are the cozy criminals of that lost era before September 2001, the kind of criminals our intelligence services might recruit (and have, in Afghanistan certainly and in Iraq probably) to fight the war on terrorism. Here's another enigma: If there's one branch of government that has very little claim on credibility anymore, whether from sleepwalking through evidence of imminent disaster before Sept. 11 or from taking a pipe to the Bill of Rights since, it is the Justice Department's FBI and its sister-spook boutique, the CIA. A little less respect for authority and less loyalty to bureaucracy's turfs might have gone a long way to averting a few recent problems and living up to that claim on "Justice," rather than turning the claim into a punchline.

So it's doubly strange when one of the sexiest characters in "Line of Fire" joins the FBI as a young recruit allegedly to avenge her husband's death, who, she says, was "in the Pentagon on September 11th." Strange, not because revenge, as the ad tells us, is the mob's business (the reigning law-and-order mentality is indistinguishable from the criminal mentality), or because Sept. 11 is being cheaply exploited (9/11 exploitation is the lingua franca of politics and entertainment); but because if anyone had revenge in mind for Sept. 11, the FBI would qualify less as means to that end than as a target -- of Congressional inquiries, of course.

The violence of "Line of Fire" is less enigmatic. We are officially at war, at least according to the White House's storyboard, and in times of war ultraviolent entertainment of the mob kind tends to sell well. The most popular novel in England during the blitz was "No Orchids for Miss Blandish," a ridiculously violent gangster novel of kidnapping, rape, rubber hoses, serial murders and tortures that Londoners must have found warmly comforting while being pummeled by Herr Goering's Luftwaffe. Mario Puzo's "Godfather" cult began in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War. The popularity of "The Sopranos" peaked in 2001. "Line of Fire"-like entertainment must create the same warm-and-fuzzies these days, with the added advantage that it provides free PR for one of the government's most suspect agencies: In a neat role- and time-reversal, the FBI has turned back the clock to those happy days when the mob was its worst enemy and justice wasn't a euphemism for back alleys. Priceless propaganda is always, at its best, harmless entertainment.

© 2003 News-Journal Corporation