The Changing Shape of Our Fears
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The Changing Shape of Our Fears

Fifteen years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, has anything changed in the ways we imagine terrorism and security on US television? If so, what is significant about these changes? Tackling these questions is the central aim of this essay, but the conclusion is fairly predictable: although the shape of our fears may have changed over time, the underlying politics associated with those visions has not. The media industries continue to prefer “defeatist narratives and spectacles of exception,” especially regarding issues of terrorism, security, and surveillance.1 Such narratives, as Steve Anderson argues, are more likely to engender political quiescence than promote political agency and reform. Still, there have been some noteworthy modifications since 9/11, and it is worth tracking these changes, if only to chart the full range of the ideological problematic that now shapes popular conceptions of the security state.

I focus specifically on what Yvonne Tasker calls “terror TV,” shows about political violence and the attempts to counter that violence by state security agencies.2 All such programs emphasize questions of fear—what there is to be afraid of, who should be afraid, and what can be done about this fear—but the answers they give have changed since 9/11. As Tasker describes, the first wave of such stories, including early 24 (Fox, 2001–2014), The Agency (CBS, 2001–2003), and Threat Matrix (ABC, 2003–2004), offered melodramatic narratives of US victimization, valor, and vengeance designed to reassure a nervous public that security could be guaranteed through strength. The extremity of the terrorist violence ensured that heroes like Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) of 24 could use any means necessary to defend the homeland and would never have to say they were sorry (which Bauer famously refused to do before a congressional committee investigating torture in season 7). After the invasion of Iraq turned disastrous, such celebratory narratives were replaced by a new wave of programs more suspicious of the government than of foreign agents and agencies. In later seasons of 24, Sleeper Cell (Showtime, 2005–2006), and the many sci-fi programs that addressed issues of political violence during this period (especially Invasion [ABC, 2005–2006], [End Page 124] Jericho [CBS, 2006–2008], and Battlestar Galactica [BSG, Sci-Fi/SyFy, 2004–2009]), the government either is behind the terrorist attacks or is responsible for overreacting to the threat in a way that causes more harm than good. Straight action heroes, like Bauer, become even more roguish and estranged from the government, to remove the taint of guilt by association, and different types of heroes emerge—heroes who use reason and compassion, rather than force, to counter terror (Russell Varone [Eddie Cibrian] and Sheriff Underlay [William Fichtner] on Invasion, Jake Green [Skeet Ulrich] on Jericho, and Laura Roslin [Mary McDonnell] on BSG). Most of these shows also call into question the utility (if not the morality) of counterterrorism techniques like racial profiling and torture. Thus, second-wave terror TV is marked by a desire to question, and complicate, post-9/11 security policies.3

The third wave might be dated from the premiere of Homeland (Showtime, 2011–present). With its exaggerated fixation on issues of surveillance and drone warfare, the program depicts the devolution of the War on Terror into a series of “overseas contingency operations” run less by politicians and military strategists than by intelligence agencies, data analysts, and computer technicians.4 Surveillance systems are more than mere iconography in this wave of programs: they have become objects of thematic obsession and even narrative actants. Series like Rubicon (AMC, 2010), Person of Interest (CBS, 2011–2016), Intelligence (CBS, 2014), 24: Live Another Day (Fox, 2015), and American Odyssey (NBC, 2015) all feature electronic and digital surveillance methods in their plots and offer data systems, analysts, and hackers as objects of identification or, more often, fear.

Person of Interest (POI) and American Odyssey (AO), in particular, seem built for a post–Edward Snowden, post-PRISM America, in which the public is aware of how extensively its digital interactions are being monitored but feels powerless to do anything about it.5 POI is a hybrid of science...