CBS's JAG: A few sanctimonious men.

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Aug. 15 2002 6:18 PM

A Few Sanctimonious Men

CBS's JAG preaches all that it can preach.

Bell and Elliott put on a show of mind-numbing patriotism
Bell and Elliott put on a show of mind-numbing patriotism

JAG is not a show about nothing. It is prime-time drama worthy of the name, a chronicle of the globe-trotting adventures of the military's Judge Advocate General's office—the lawyers who prosecute and defend military people accused of crimes. JAG (CBS, Tuesdays, 8 p.m. ET) doesn't stint on mutinies, courts-martial, deserters, treason, heroism, and newsworthy plots.

What the nightly news gives, JAG takes. A Navy spy plane is rammed by a Chinese MIG. A sergeant takes the veil and infiltrates the Islamic Jihad. Collateral damage is investigated in Afghanistan. JAG tries "Mustafa Atef," a high-ranking member of al-Qaida (guilty). A Russian submarine, with daffy radar issues, torpedoes itself. In JAG's first season, Oliver North appeared as a character named Ollie. In a later season, JAG's hero exchanged salutes with Bill Clinton, who was spliced in. Lately, characters on JAG watch Navy admirals on a familiar-looking network called ZNN for press conferences about imminent, inevitable terrorist attacks.

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For its decent storytelling and its firm convictions, JAG might deserve a salute of its own—and I would do it myself, if only I weren't so exhausted by the whole show that I can hardly raise my hand. JAG is ponderous, preachy, and, in spite of all the important-sounding world-stage action, deadly dull. What's in it that is so stultifying is almost like some black TV magic, an ingredient in the pixels that saps viewer energy.

But JAG contains nothing so exciting as black magic. Instead, JAG is garden-variety, mind-closing cant. As right-wing military propaganda JAG operates like socialist realist novels and the barking radio of G. Gordon Liddy: It pounds home its message at deafening volume, razing nuance and stranding viewers with nothing else to think. On this show—with which the Navy now collaborates—leaders are always valiant, civilians are always cowards, and war is always, always good. And unless your worldview matches JAG's exactly, you'll find that the show's dogmatism seems to contract your options to three: to watch in a semi-stupor of self-loathing and anti-Americanism; to turn it off and pretend it doesn't exist; or to spring off your sofa, shave your head, and enlist.

JAG started on NBC as a show exclusively about the attorneys of the Navy, but when it switched to CBS it broadened its scope. The show is now a blockbuster, attracting Frasier-caliber ratings in the patriotic 2001-02 season. These days the show's heroes are an inter-branch duo of Navy Cmdr. Harmon "Harm" Rabb Jr. (David James Elliott) and Marine Lt. Col. Sarah "Mac" MacKenzie (Catherine Bell). Elliott's performance as Harm is so erratic, evasive, and wooden that he seems to be a CIA agent working as an actor to fight a gay or Jewish mafia in Hollywood. Bell as Mac is fine. The character is cute and scrupulous, a recovering alcoholic; for a short time, she had a Southern accent. Both attorneys ordinarily wear a lot of khaki. Even on these two sun-kissed, square-shouldered actors, Band-Aid-colored short-sleeve shirts don't look good; new stylists seem to have recognized this, and they've lately found excuses to rotate their wardrobes.

As in other courtroom dramas, the focus on lawyers allows JAG to be half action, half analysis. Each episode of JAG delivers a be-all-that-you-can-be demonstration of military prowess followed by a spoon-fed lesson on the clichés of war, delivered during a deposition or court-martial ("Sometimes a hostage starts to identify with his captors. It's called the … Stockholm syndrome."). JAG typically opens with the suggestion that the military has done something terrible—and the officers in question do show signs of guilt (reticence). But in the end they reveal their absolute innocence and their higher purpose—and both the military and its reticence are exonerated.

Sometimes JAG alsotreats concerned Americans to a bald rewriting of military history, as when, just after the attack on the USS Cole, the Navy on JAG averted a would-be attack on the show's very own USS Vance. JAG dialogue: "The Navy did its job: the terrorists killed, the bombs defused."

In contrast to these brave armed forces, civilians on JAG are cynics and bigots. The former are an old bugbear of the military of television and movies—the freaks and peaceniks who complain about foreign policy but sleep easy because a few good men protect their borders. (They can't handle the truth.) Bigots, on the other hand, are a new enemy. JAG has efficiently seized for the military the mainstream ideas of racial and sexual parity that used to belong to the civilian left. On JAG, not only is the military feminist and color-blind—in fact, it's the only place in America in which a man or woman gets judged on solely the content of his or her character. Rousing stories about the valor of female and Latino service-people abound. When members of the press make an appearance, they are always stupid, traitorous fools who make cell-phone calls that get people killed.

Harm and Mac are meant to have a smoldering Scully-Mulder chemistry but the show is flaky on this matter. Episodes pass with little in the script or the performances to suggest that Harm and Mac are flirting; then, all of a sudden, they're kissing, then promptly forgetting about it. The men of action at JAG headquarters seem bored with the TV convention of long foreplay, so they invent gimmicks to sate viewer lust while nominally preserving the Harm-Mac tension. On one episode last season, Harm hit his head and suffered hallucinations. Thanks to his nonfatal and short-acting concussion, we got to see Mac in a strapless evening dress and Harm declaring his love in a fantasy sequence, but chastity was preserved.

Longtime viewers tell me that in JAG's early days (before the Navy gave its approval), the martial ideology was peddled more softly, and the show chugged along with good-enough stock plotlines. Before I watched it closely, I had the impression that it was a rousing-throwback show on which even the actors, with names like Jack Knight, Royce Applegate, Trevor Goddard, and Chuck Carrington, were exemplars of the Greatest Generation (or were named by Sam Goldwyn himself).

But it's hard to watch those old JAGs now, knowing what has come later—several seasons of speechifying, fanfare, loaded dice, plot cheats, twisted logic, and bad faith. There's not much pleasure in calling JAG propaganda or even being outraged about it; it's too obvious. I do, however, take some civic pride today in advising people who have never seen it to stay away, unless you feel your imagination has been running wild lately and needs to be curbed by a condescending, doctrinaire, and mind-numbing lesson about the perfection of sailors and soldiers.

Virginia Heffernan is a television critic for The New York Times. Her book, The Underminer, which she wrote with Mike Albo, comes out in February.