“I had friends who were affected [by the World Trade Center attack] and the only way that I could deal with my anxiety was to work on a project.” So says executive producer Tracey Alexander in “Decoding The Grid,” one of three featurettes on the two-disc edition of Fox’s new DVD. For Alexander, researching the six-hour miniseries that imagines a post-9/11 plan to destroy Western oil enterprises with bombs and sarin nerve gas was “therapeutic.”
This TNT-BBC-Fox co-production attempts to confront terrorism and Western ignorance of Islamic culture head-on, as well as to give viewers insight into the home lives of counter terrorist agents. It does that, but not well enough to make the show feel like anything more than a 24 rehash, with Dylan McDermott in the Jack Bauer role, with a dead friend rather than a dead wife.
The Grid opens with an explosion in a London hotel that turns out to be a botched sarin attack on a Jewish-Muslim peace conference. In response to the attack, suspecting further incidents, American NSA agent Maren (Julianna Margulies) puts together an elite counter-terrorism group including herself, Intelligence analyst Raza (Piter Marek), FBI agent Max (Dylan McDermott), Derek (Bernard Hill) from London’s MI-5 and, eventually, MI-6 agent Emily (Jemma Redgrave). The group investigates a string of subsequent incidents, to discover an underground terrorist training camp in Nigeria headed up by Islamic fundamentalist named Muhammad (Alki David). He is recruiting anyone and everyone for his network, including Dr. Raghib (Silas Carson), who finds himself pulled in after U.S. aid to his Cairo hospital is cut, ex-con Akil (Emil Marwa), and American-bred Chechen Kaz (Barna Moricz). The network, Maren learns, is planning to bomb several key sites around the world, including Chicago.
The Grid is effective and even thrilling at times, with appealing if typical characters. But with 24, Alias, and even Tom Clancy’s Op-Center already exposing inner workings of terrorists and counter-terrorism agencies, The Grid doesn’t offer anything particularly new. It’s not especially surprising that terrorists do horrible things or that hard-assed agents struggle at times to hold their personal lives together while on the job.
Alexander says in “Decoding The Grid,” that her main concern was to “take a look at terrorism from many points of view.” She reiterates this idea in the “Hour Three” and “Hour Four” episode commentaries with director Mikael Salmon. Taking inspiration from the original BBC miniseries, Traffic (1999), and its “non-judgmental” treatment of groups involved in the drug wars, Alexander says she wanted to steer clear of finger-pointing and “document what was going on.”
And yet the series remains one-sided. “It was much easier for us to write the counter-terrorists than the terrorists,” Alexander states. At least she’s up front about it. Even the terrorists are more like lessons than full-bodied characters. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Kaz (the series’ John Walker Lindh) teaches that terrorists don’t always look the way we might expect. But because such “education” occurs routinely in mass-media coverage of the “war on terror,” The Grid tends to seem repetitive: Chechen Muslims are mostly white. American aid assists a variety of Muslim nations. Wayward teens looking for a place to belong often turn to fundamentalist groups.
In her commentary on “Hour Four,” Alexander admits it “was a challenge for us to look at the Koran and [first to] understand it, but [also] to try to make an argument for… the moderate point of view versus the extreme point of view.” To be fair, Alexander and company were hardly in a position to spend the same amount of time with extremist Muslims as with counter-terrorist agents who, McDermott reveals during a selected scenes commentary, allowed him into their offices and lives in preparation for his role.
But it’s not just the Muslim characters who feel forced. Max lets folks know whenever he can that he lost his best friend in the World Trade Center hit. It’s supposed to make him sympathetic, but considering the emotional reaction the attack elicits in just about everyone, he needn’t use it repeatedly to excuse his outrage and desire for retribution. “He has to resolve those demons, to exact some kind of revenge in his own life,” McDermott explains. Max isn’t so much stereotypical as obvious, using his anger and moral confusion as permission to beat up informants, yell at colleagues, and generally think himself more affected than anyone else.
Max’s superficiality does give The Grid a chance to challenge Western stereotypes of Muslims. In the series’ best scene, Maren takes her tough talking too far, telling Raza that to her, Islam is about fear: “You write that Islam is the religion of the oppressed. I say it appeals to oppressed men because it sanctions the oppression of women.” Raza puts her in her place: “I find it inexcusable that a woman of your standing can judge an entire religion by the actions of a fundamentalist faction. How would you feel if I judged all Christians by the actions of the KKK?”
It’s a perceptive, confrontational conversation that ends with Raza giving Maren a short lesson in Islamic history, which leaves one wondering how someone as misguided about Islam as Maren managed to reach such a position at the NSA. But she, like “American Taliban” Kaz, is an educational construct: here’s a point of view and here’s the counter. It happens between government agents (Maren and Emily on U.S. vs. U.K. agency tactics), terrorists (Muhammad and Raghib) and family conflicts (Kaz and his father, Max and Jane, Raza and his sister). Sometimes, as with Raza, the insight is meaningful, other times the motives behind what’s being said are horribly transparent — Maren following Raza’s above statement, for example: “When I’m wrong,” she says, all smiles after verbally obliterating his culture, “I expect you to set me right.”
The show might not finger-point, but it fails to offer fresh insight into terrorism and sometimes it’s outright silly — Maren’s “international” team consisting only of U.S. and UK agencies, for example. While we do learn something about Muslim ideals, we learn practically nothing about the fundamentalists, beyond their apparently fragile natures, hatred of American politics, and desire for oil control. The depth of emotion afforded a character like Max is not even attempted with Muhammad. Perhaps it’s true that there’s simply no way of for non-extremists — Muslim or not — to understand why he would act the way he does. Until direct lines into these worlds can be made and complete extremist objectives can be outlined and dramatized, efforts like The Grid can only guess.