Television

Fear and Loathing

ABC’s Threat Matrix is the most terrifying show on television.

Threat Matrix: Terrorism as horror show
Threat Matrix: Terrorism as horror show

What’s the movie producer’s favorite genre? Oscar-bait epics are prestigious, but way too expensive. Laughs can be cheap, but comedies rely on highly paid stars to draw crowds. Ah, but tell moviegoers that a new film will scare them witless, and they’ll pack the theater, even without celebrities and special effects.

It’s strange, then, that there’s no TV analog to the scary movie—at least since the days of The Twilight Zone. Sure, Twin Peaks and The X Files strayed into some exceedingly creepy territory, and series such as Tales From the Crypt turned horror into kitschy comedy, but until ABC launched Threat Matrix in fall 2003, there was nothing on the small screen that could be relied upon to give viewers nightmares.

Threat Matrix is all about that menace of the modern world, terrorism. (The title refers to a report the president receives each morning updating him on the most active threats against the United States.) Like terrorists, the show’s writers aim to create a climate of fear and uncertainty, and for the most part, they succeed all too well.

The show’s great strength lies in its terrifyingly credible scenarios. Recent plotlines have included a race to identify and intercept a car full of kids infected with the Ebola virus (caught from a cute Basenji puppy imported from Africa) before they reach Las Vegas, a plane full of radioactive waste that evades military intervention by disguising itself as an innocent commercial flight, a complicated conspiracy to stock ATMs with poisoned currency, a naturalized U.S. citizen using theories he developed at graduate school in the States to blow up an oil tanker moored in Los Angeles harbor, and al-Qaida operatives undergoing plastic surgery overseas in order to pass as American nuclear power plant workers. If Twin Peaks was about the devil inside dad, Threat Matrix is about the evil that lurks within Uncle Sam.

Every week, the team of elite agents (on loan from the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, and a host of other three-letter abbreviations) responds to the latest homeland security menace armed with their devilishly efficient “PPXs” (tiny Sony Clié-lookalike gizmos that can do anything from wirelessly sending and receiving audio/video to transmitting live polygraph tests for instant analysis thousands of miles away) and with access to so much information that even John Ashcroft would fret about the privacy implications.

The agents are unbelievably gifted. Holly, a deaf (and apparently psychic) analyst, can read lips even when her back’s turned to the speaker. Jelani, a hunky African-American computer whiz and a master of multitasking (played by the magnificently named Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), can recite obscure facts and figures and tap into the vast array of databases made available to the team, all while interpreting Holly’s sign language. In one show he explains to his boss how nuclear power plants work—complete with incredible dynamic graphics—while simultaneously navigating the plant’s computer system to prevent core meltdown (by two seconds). Honestly, though, it’s hard to focus on the actors and what they’re saying or doing because, if you’re anywhere near as neurotic as I am, you’ll be too distracted wondering, “Could that really happen?” and pledging never again to pet cute dogs unless you’re dressed in full haz-mat gear.

Controversy-averse network execs were no doubt skittish about green-lighting a show about terrorism, fearing protests from Arab-American groups if they constantly presented Arabs as villains. Threat Matrix finessed the issue of race by casting a diversity dream team as the good guys and by making ethnicity mutable. The show’s writers seem to be obsessed with what one agent calls “Michael Jackson morphing”: A Yemeni bleaches his skin to pass as a Caucasian commodities trader; and, thanks to the magic of plastic surgery, an Arab passes as a Latino and an African impersonates an African-American. The dissembling isn’t just physical, either: Viewers are trained to always be on the lookout for sleepers. In one episode, an Egyptian-born U.S. citizen who’s been in the country for over a decade reveals his true identity as a terrorist, telling his horrified American daughter, “I’m doing what I came to America to do.” As they used to say on The X Files, trust no one.

The show is currently on life support—although the network hasn’t yet killed it, the season has been reduced from 22 shows to just 16—and it has been dropped from the sweeps lineup altogether. Threat Matrix’s time slot—Thursday at 8 p.m. ET—sure doesn’t help: Perhaps by putting it up against Survivor and the final season of Friends, ABC is trying to reduce the chance that a terrorists will get ideas from watching the show.

But scheduling isn’t the only problem. The fact is, homeland security is an intrinsically gloomy topic: The mordant wisecracks of Law & Order’s homicide detectives prove that television can smile in the face of death, but casualty counts on the scale sketched out in Threat Matrix defy comedy. What’s more, using terrorism as the predominant plot device limits the element of suspense. Although every episode of Threat Matrix ends with a nail-biter—why prevent China Syndrome by three minutes when five seconds will do?—viewers know the terrorists can’t prevail. While courtroom dramas can occasionally allow a guilty man to beat the system, here failure is inconceivable. Jelani’s computer projections of thousands dead and economies ruined can’t come to pass in a weekly series—unless it morphs into a post-Apocalypse sci-fi show in future episodes.

In March, ABC will launch a more conventional horror series, Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital. Based on Lars Von Trier’s magnificent Danish series Riget (Kingdom), it’s the tale of a haunted hospital. How old-fashioned! These days, the most terrifying prospect isn’t what’s in the building, it’s what—and who—is heading for it.