Like most people, I have my favorite TV programs which I try not to skip, and occasionally even set aside certain pressing obligations so I can channel in. And like many people, I ask only two things of a TV show, as criteria of admissibility into a crowded personal schedule: (1) if it reflects the world beyond the screen, it should strive to do so truthfully; and (2) if it creates its own autonomous realm, it should seek to render it interesting, coherent, and diverting, impervious to the driving concerns of a frenzied world.
A few years back, I was an enthusiastic fan of two programs in particular which, in their different ways, satisfied my twin touchstones. Star Trek: The Next Generation, with its memorable cast of characters — Data, Q, Mr. Worf — and the accomplished Patrick Stewart as the inimitable Captain Jean-Luc Picard, was a must-see. The other, I’m not ashamed to confess, was Count Duckula, starring a ketchup-blooded, Daffy Duckish vampire holed up in a mountaintop castle in Transylvania, attended by his faithful butler Igor and his devoted maid Nanny.
Sesame Street was good fun too, featuring its own genial vampire, the Count — until the parodic “gay issue” intruded, alleging Bert and Ernie as lovers, as in the Saturday Night Live skit or Peter Spears’ film Ernest and Bertram. But Count Duckula and Star Trek remained my TV cynosures, free of didactic or revisionist agitations.
Not that I was an unreformed junkie, but I was always tempted to model my behavior and speech patterns after Captain Picard. When someone knocked on my study door, I would utter an imperious “Come!” Issuing an instruction or request, I would add the tag “Make it so” or “Engage.” As for Count Duckula, I envied him his Igor, who would invariably respond to a summons or command in a reassuring and compliant baritone with “Yes, young master.” I’ve always wanted to have an Igor of my own, a “batman” as he used to be known, who would address me unfailingly as “young master.” It has a consoling ring to it.
Star Trek and Count Duckula have regrettably been decommissioned, but their place has been taken by NCIS, a de rigueur event every Tuesday evening at eight. As with Star Trek, the characters — Tony, Abby, McGee, Ziva — and their convoluted relationships are absolutely delightful, and Mark Harmon in the role of Leroy Jethro Gibbs of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, leader of the Major Crimes Response Team at the Washington Navy Yard, imbues his role with the same charisma and authority as did Patrick Stewart his. A paragon of reticence, courage, and loyalty, Gibbs too, like his fictional predecessor, furnishes a template for emulation. I’ve also been checking out the spin-off production, NCIS: Los Angeles, to see what bounties it has on offer, if any.
I regard these viewing practices of mine as harmless and insouciant, brief timeouts from the serious business of life and the exigencies of writing. They constitute a separate zone of artless indulgence on which reality does not impinge or, alternatively, in which reality is not mutilated. That is, until recently, when the awaited Tuesday arrived and I settled in to watch an episode of NCIS called “Faith.” I soon found myself growing increasingly uneasy as the plot developed. A Marine who had converted to Islam had been murdered at prayer; in the course of the investigation, it turned out the culprit was his younger brother, who committed the crime in order to salvage the family honor, for the father, a former military officer, was now a Christian minister. A curious inversion seemed to be occurring in which Muslim honor killing, usually targeting a daughter who is deemed to have violated the tenets of the faith, was now chiastically transposed into a Christian honor killing, targeting a son who had embarrassed his observant family.
Troubled in mind, I proceeded to watch NCIS: Los Angeles, which occupied the next hour slot. This episode was called “Brimstone” and, sure enough, a strangely similar story unfolded. A group of wounded soldiers recently returned from Iraq were being systematically eliminated by a mysterious serial killer. Suspicion fell on a Muslim soldier, a member of the unit who had been disfigured by a roadside bomb and who had gone into hiding. But as the investigation continued, it ultimately became clear that our suspect had been falsely accused and that the killer was a crazed Christian evangelist and fellow soldier, seeking redemption for an imagined battlefield atrocity by blowing up his comrades.
Perhaps this deviant “reading” of the world is now to be expected. Indeed, the anti-Christian animus has gone to such extremes that, just recently, an eight-year-old Massachusetts schoolboy was suspended from class and, according to the newspaper report, “ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation after drawing a figure of Jesus Christ nailed to the cross.” Christianity is obviously no longer the purported “religion of peace,” having been replaced in the Western imagination by a vigorous competitor. In the warped mentality of our multicultural age, it seems that violence is a property that accrues primarily to Christians.