Threat Matrix, a new ABC drama about an elite task force created by the Department of Homeland Security to fight terrorism, is Hollywood trying to tap the psychic residue of 9/11. In that sense, as culture, it's fascinating.
As entertainment, however, it's nothing we haven't seen done before - and done better.
Any number of Tom Clancy movies or even The Agency, the drama CBS made last year in an effort to connect with what has come to be known as the war on terrorism, are good examples. The Agency has since been canceled, which is probably what will happen to this drama, too. Its central narrative is too improbable and confusing to leave viewers with the kind of simple but potent feel-good high it takes for such flag-waving productions to succeed.
The pilot tells us that every morning, the president of the United States receives a report identifying the greatest threats to the country. The report is called the Threat Matrix. The special unit at the heart of this series was created to respond instantly to those threats through its agents and the latest technology.
The leader of the unit is Special Agent John Kilmer (James Denton), a 42-year-old former FBI agent who is now authorized by the president to use any and all resources he needs from the CIA, FBI or National Security Agency to stop terrorists before they can strike again on U.S. soil. The star of his elite band of warriors is his ex-wife, Special Agent Frankie Ellroy-Kilmer (Kelly Rutherford), 35, an interrogation expert and profiler.
This relationship, a misguided attempt by creator Daniel Voll to inject the series with some sex appeal and heart, is so nuts it shatters any hope the series ever had of being believable. If this unit is all that stands between us and Osama bin Laden, is there anyone anywhere in the world who would want its decision-making abilities burdened by the baggage of the busted marriage of its two most important members?
Suspension of disbelief is always possible, of course. But that would require great writing and acting coming together to make us believe against all odds in the Kilmers' relationship and the government's acceptance of it. Threat Matrix has neither great writing nor great acting.
Instead of meaningful dialogue, the pilot is filled with quasi-military, tough-guy talk intended to make viewers feel as if they are behind closed doors at team headquarters in what is called "The Vault" at Fort Meade. Frankie refers to the CIA as "the Charlie brothers," while John calls al-Qaida "AQ." After a while, you can almost follow what they're saying.
There are two story lines running through the pilot. One features terrorists entering the United States in shipping containers; the other features Frankie Ellroy-Kilmer being ambushed while on assignment in Jakarta. As John Kilmer races against the clock to stop the terrorists before they can blow up the Chicago Commodities Exchange, he also frets over the fate of his ex-wife, for whom he still has deep feelings.
At one point, instead of taking care of the nation's business, he's sitting in a room surrounded by a dozen TV monitors, each of which is replaying tape of Frankie being interrogated by her captors. It's an interesting visual image, but everything it's trying to tell us about the character's state of mind already should have been said through the actor's performance.
Worse, the image ultimately serves as another vivid reminder of the improbability of the president letting this couple work out the issues of their failed marriage while running what the producers want us to believe is the most important task force in the nation's defense arsenal.
"Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts" makes for a nice start to a classic song. But it fails miserably as the bedrock of a weekly television series intended to make us think that with those folks on the ramparts, we can sleep more securely at night.
Where: WMAR (Channel 2)
When: Tonight at 8
In brief: If this is all that stands between us and Osama bin Laden, we're in big trouble.