After ordering two promising pilots tied to 9/11 that it chose not to turn into series, NBC should perhaps save itself trouble and stick to “Law & Order” spinoffs. Though awkward in places, as its fictional characters brush up against reality, “Homeland Security” proves a compelling, well-made prototype that the network is essentially dumping with little fanfare on Easter Sunday, having previously punted on the foreign correspondent drama “War Stories.”
Although designed as a series springboard (meaning the “movie” has no real ending), “Homeland Security” does feel timely in chronicling the formation of a Homeland Security Dept. before, during and after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. As a result, the pilot explores some of the finger pointing and lack of coordination that prevented the plot from being uncovered — precisely the issues currently being mulled over by the 9/11 commission.
By virtue of that approach, “Homeland Security” is more realistic and engaging than a similarly themed series, “Threat Matrix,” which ABC scheduled last fall to mediocre results, though comparisons between the two pretty well end there.
Tautly directed by Daniel Sackheim from Christopher Crowe’s script, the multipronged story traces FBI and CIA operatives in the prelude to the attacks, from mystery men taking flight lessons to heightened intelligence “chatter” in which the numbers “9” and “11” keep repeating. The hard-bitten roster includes Tom Skerritt as Theodore McKee, the admiral who brings the department together; a craggy Scott Glenn as a CIA veteran pressed back into service, pursuing Osama bin Laden; and “Melrose Place’s” Grant Show as another agent operating in Afghanistan.
The most sobering voice, however, belongs to national security expert Sol Binder (Leland Orser), who refers to “stovepiping” — that is, the failure of disparate agencies to share information — and the value of a joint department to assemble “all the dots … just waiting to be connected.”
“Homeland Security” becomes a bit soapy and routine in the second hour, which sees McKee’s daughter whining about her Arab boyfriend’s detained father. There’s also a fairly conventional chase-the-bad-guy plot involving a terrorist played by Nicholas Guilak — an actor whose dance card is busier due to post-9/11 priorities, previously starring in NBC’s movie “Saving Jessica Lynch.”
Crowe captures the bellicose mood after Sept. 11, as an agent who had struggled to find probable cause tells a colleague, “Today, I think we can get a warrant on Nancy Reagan.” Yet his characters also cite the need to safeguard civil liberties, another ongoing concern since the attacks.
Admittedly, it’s hard to foresee precisely where a series would have gone. Blurring fiction and reality (including a sequence where the fictional agents watch President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address), the pilot ends having assembled a team to thwart terrorism, manned by some talented actors. Moreover, two able grownups, Skerritt and Glenn, are on board to preside over the harder bodies tailored to younger demos.
Both “Homeland Security” and “War Stories” might have been deemed to slice too close to the bone, though that’s clearly debatable, based on the horrors endured on “24” this season and the more fanciful threats dished out by “Alias.”
Either way, it’s a battle NBC apparently thought better of fighting, leaving behind only this exercise in cost amortization as a somewhat tantalizing taste of the series that might have been.