But recently, I'm finding that the genre has been a rare sanctuary for moral ambiguity in absolutist times. You may have heard that the final Star Wars movie came out a couple months back. I know the last few haven't been that great, but the orignial movie came out when I was five and I sort of imprinted to it like a puppy to its new owner. Since that tender age, I had always wondered about the big guy in black, why he would have betrayed his old friends and been so mean to everyone. The new flick was supposed to finally give an answer to my questions.
Well, it turns out that once I knew his reasons, I felt like I would have done the same thing. Switch to the dark side in order to gain the power to stop my loved ones from dying and hold on to what I have and fear to lose? It sounds like a fair deal to me. Not the "right" thing necessarily, but understandable. It turns out Darth Vader was not a madman seeking to stamp out all that is good and right in the world, but a guy who did what he thought he had to do and got taken.
I'm not gonna tell you it's the greatest movie ever - some of the line deliveries are like high school students doing Shakespeare - but it made me think about matters of ultimate concern. And that's a lot more than you can say for most things these days.
Which brings me to what is absolutely, undisputably the best TV show out there. A show that you should really watch, and that means something coming from me because usually I'm gonna tell you that TV is a waste of valuable time where you could be doing something with your life. I hear that Americans on average watch five or six hours of TV a day and I can't understand how it's possible, although I guess it explains a lot. Ordinarily, almost anything is better than TV. TV makes you fat and stupid. Boxing is better for you than TV. Shoplifting, polka, even just sitting alone in the dark and drinking heavily is better than TV. Hell, even golf, if it's a nice enough day.
But you should probably watch this. No, it's not the freakin' West Wing. Nothing annoys me more than people who know more about what Josiah Bartlett is doing than what George Bush is doing. Such people deserve to be oppressed. No, I'm talking about the remake of Battlestar Galactica. Yes, like that cheesy show from the 70s with the hair and the King Tut helmets and the robot dog who was played by a monkey.
Go ahead, laugh. But it's still the best show on television. Not because it portrays deep and conflicted characters and relationships in the manner of the Supranos or Six Feet Under, although it does. Not because it's groundbreaking in the way it combines documentary-style cinematography with CGI to create a gritty, recognizable world, although it is.
The new model killer robots are way cooler.
It's the best thing out there because it takes our times seriously. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks we were all going to emerge from our soulless bimbo consumer culture and be a serious nation again. Remember that? It lasted about three weeks. Then we all decided to turn the videos back on, block out the world with iPod ear buds, stick a yellow ribbon magnet on our cars and stick our heads back in the sand. How noble.
In mainstream culture, the only impact the Age of Terror has had is to produce some TV dreck about heroic CIA agents and how they put their lives on the line to protect us even though sometimes they have to break the rules and go kick some ass to do it. Ah, fascist propaganda is so comforting!
And then there's Battlestar Galactica, with its religious fanatic suicide bombers, its senseless attack on the civilian population, it's wall of "Have You Seen Me?" pictures of the missing and presumed dead, its political prisoners dressed in orange and living in cages, its protagonists torturing and killing detainees, its paranoid understanding that the terrorists could be anyone in the room. On the one side, monotheistic fanatics who claim to know the will of God and are willing to sacrifice themselves to enforce it. On the other side, a faith-based administration led by a born-again President convinced that she's the one doing God's will. Yet both the Quaeda figures and the Bush administration stand-ins evoke a certain sympathy in me, which is quite an accomplishment since I'm not inclined to cut either party any slack here in the real world. When you find yourself watching an attempted coup and you don't know who to pull for, that's an accomplishment, too.
I'm not eggagerating when I say this is a space opera that can expand your moral imagination. When you know one of the characters is an enemy sabateur and you fear for her safety anyway, when you sympathize with traitors and warmongers and terrorists all, you know you're seeing a new classic being born. The key to its success is nothing more complicated than staying true to its premise. After genocide, innocence is lost.
In this country, our instinct has been to close our eyes to protect our innocence. To hide behind faith or ideology or outrage, but to look around, always, for the good guys crusadig to push back the forces of evil.
But there are not good guys in this life. Just people struggling to survive, and to get what they want. And the show is like that. It's not that they are dark anti-hero types. They're actually charming, funny, compassionate, lusty, normal people. But they're not embodying some ideal we should try to emulate. Mostly they're trying not to die, in trying times strikingly similar to our own.
If you think I'm reading too much into a TV show with spaceships, here's Mary McDonnell, who plays the embattled President Roslin on the show:
The thing I love most about "Battlestar" is the question it's raising – and this season, the question is more prominent – of how do we perceive ourselves in relation to 'the other'? That is the essential question to me of our planet. Until we understand that the other is us, we are going to be continually in these wars and do things that create divisiveness.
A lot of what I see in the world is us and them, the good guy and the bad guy. To begin to understand that there's a bit of projecting on the bad guy and that he's a part of us … That's kind of why this show is so compelling. Even when people don't quite get it, there is something in here that we need to evolved toward.
"Battlestar" airs at 9pm central time on Fridays on the Sci Fi Channel. The show's second season begins tonight, and you should watch it. And then turn off the damn tube before you get to the show with the dredlocked, life-sucking tick people. Boy is that not good.
Speaking of modern-day fears, coming back from a play last night I grew suspicious of a guy on the subway looking nervous and clutching a backpack. I told Trope about this and we got off the train and waited for another one. I know it's paranoid. If I really thought he had a bomb, shouldn't I have punched him in the face and grabbed the bag or something? But that would be rude and illegal, so I just got off and left the rest of the passengers to their non-fate. I know that's not the best or sanest way to deal with the situation we find ourselves in, but it made sense at the time. This is a truth about me, I plan on living through this whether the rest of y'all do or not.