Prime-Time TV Hasn’t Yet Gotten the Terrorism Issue Right

Depictions of Terrorism on Television
Courtesy of Showtime

“For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.”

That quote comes from Roger Ebert, whose presence and writing are still deeply missed two years after his passing. Movies, of course, have always and will always serve this vital function. But let’s face it, television is the biggest empathy-generating machine on the pop-culture landscape today. And it just keeps growing.

Five years ago, 213 scripted prime-time series were made — and that felt like a lot. This year, TV is on pace to produce double that number. But as Thanksgiving approaches, I cannot be anything but grateful for the size and reach of this empathy-generating machine. If not for the TV explosion, would I have felt moved and amused by such a varied array of messy, captivating human beings?

And yet, despite the explosion of television production, there is so much unfinished business and so many territories the industry has yet to fully explore. There’s been no shortage of writers and actors who have been willing to go to difficult places and wrestle with moral quandaries in the past decade or two, but when will TV begin to robustly confront the evils that ideological struggles have brought us in recent months and years?

The years after Sept. 11 produced a wave of shows that grappled in radically different ways with the fallout of that awful day, and for television to do its job, it has to wade into this difficult arena again. Not to score partisan points — scripted television with an explicit political agenda is almost inevitably artistically inert — but to give us what only art can supply: an imaginative window onto our present-day fears, and glimpses into what flawed humans are capable of at their best (and worst).

“For television to do its job, it has to give us what only art can supply: an imaginative window onto our present-day fears, and glimpses into what flawed humans are capable of at their best (and worst).”

For instance, the prosecution of the war on “Battlestar Galactica” offered a complicated view of true believers, brutal methods and the effects of demonizing one’s enemy. “BSG’s” willingness to constantly turn the tables on its characters and examine the philosophical roots of its core conflict made the drama the most richly realized and most necessary response to Sept. 11. We need another show like that — not necessarily a space opera, but a powerful mirror capable of examining many facets of a complex situation.

In this era of peak TV, will any network — broadcast, network or streaming — give creative carte blanche to writers who want to delve into the amorphous and ever-evolving war that is being fought with the Islamic State? “BSG,” “Generation Kill” and “Rubicon” offered worthwhile explorations of the wars of our recent past (and “24,” whatever its flaws or addictive qualities, undeniably captured the mood of the American mid-aughts). But it seems strange that today, “Homeland” is the only drama even attempting to explore our present geopolitical predicaments.

Speaking of barely told stories, I can’t help thinking of Ebert’s words when I see desperate refugees fleeing the Islamic State and crowding Europe’s roads and train stations. The vast majority share the same fears Westerners do, and most fled dangers we can barely imagine. And yet the recent attacks in Paris, which understandably have left that nation, and the world, reeling, may lead to fresh waves of anti-Muslim violence and even anti-refugee legislation. Demonizing an entire group is never the answer, and that’s where Ebert’s empathy machine — and its failings — come to mind.

Aside from short-lived series like “Sleeper Cell” and “Aliens in America,” it’s hard to think of a scripted show in the past decade in which the core story was told from the perspective of a complex Muslim character. In this thickly settled TV landscape, telling that kind of story would be one way to occupy some relatively undisturbed territory — if anyone want to explore it, that is.