'JAG' Could Teach Modern Shows How to Handle Hot-Button Issues

The hack job that TNT's "Rizzoli & Isles" recently did on fracking seems all too typical of the way Hollywood covers most political issues. One side is presented, and if data is used, it is usually of the junk science variety.

The data will often be delivered by a scientist type (in this case, Sasha Alexander’s Maura Isles), usually without question. If someone does question what amounts to progressive orthodoxy, they are usually shot down quickly.

This is not the only example.

On Fox's "Glee," when Santana expresses her desire to become a lawyer to fight for “marriage equality” in the “Saturday Night Glee-ver” episode, the support from her teacher, Will Schuster, is unequivocal.

Throughout the series, though, there’s been no discussion that there might even be another side to the gay marriage debate, even though a Heritage Foundation report could provide the basis for an episode on bullying.

But can discussing an issue on television be done right? To find a solid example of an issue being handled properly just look at the “Crossing the Line” episode from the military drama "JAG." The contrast between "JAG’s" handling of a controversial issue and the way "Rizzoli & Isles" and "Glee" did is worth noting– and it should lead to a greater appreciation of the former.

The "JAG" episode started out with a sexual harassment complaint being filed by a female navalaviator, Lt. Marilyn Isaaks, in response to a “Crossing the Line” ceremony (held to celebrate a ship’s crossing the equator).

However, things soon become far more complicated when Harmon Rabb, Sarah McKenzie, and Bud Roberts are sent to investigate. It turns out that 48 hours prior to filing the complaint, Isaaks had been pulled off flight status, raising doubts about whether the complaint was legitimate, or whether she had filed the complaint in retaliation for being grounded.

In one exchange, the CAG (played by Terry O’Quinn), who was charged with sexual harassment, explains an entry in the LSO log: “OSCB, Over Shot Came Back. EGAR, Eased Gun At Ramp.” Then, he explains a third term, DNKH: “That's the technical one, Major. Damn Near Killed Herself.”

Lieutenant Commander Harmon “Harm” Rabb (played by David James Elliot), the former naval aviator turned Navy lawyer, is quick to realize just how over her head Isaaks was. But it is not as simple as that, as his partner, Major Sarah “Mac” McKenzie (Catherine Bell), is clearly concerned about the “crossing the line” ceremony, even asking a senior RIO, LT Elizabeth “Skates” Hawkes, “Question is, why should she have to be one of the guys?”

The investigation is proceeding, but the resolution becomes thornier when a progressive Congresswoman intervenes. Isaaks is reinstated after the Congresswoman’s, and several RIOs refuse to fly with her, claiming they have the flu. Ultimately, the CAG has to ask Skates to fly with Isaaks. In the engagement, Isaaks shows some flashes of brilliance, ultimately, her failure to handle a nighttime carrier landing leads to a serious mishap that destroys a valuable fighter, and leads to Skates being injured when she and Isaaks have to eject.

Isaaks fares worse – she is killed when she lands in the middle of the burning Tomcat. 

This is where "JAG" shined in presenting the argument. It was obvious that Harm and Mac were coming to different conclusions about the incident, but they were still trying to get the facts, and both objected to the interference with their investigation. Furthermore, there was no vilification of anyone in the debate.

Similarly, while both the CAG and the Congresswoman had differing viewpoints on women in combat, neither were portrayed as bad people. On the contrary, they were seen as good people who disagreed about what was best for the Navy. At the same time, the show did make the point that good intentions were not good enough – and indeed, the Congresswoman’s good intentions clearly lead to a tragic end for LT Isaaks.

"JAG" caught heat for its positive portrayal of the military. In 2002, Slate called it “garden-variety,mind-closing cant” and “right-wing military propaganda.” And Jonathan Turley took on the show’s portrayal of military commissions in 2003, when much of Hollywood was starting a big-time anti-War on Terror push.

Me? I found it a very good show, own all ten seasons on DVD, and I wish it had not ended in 2004.

Hollywood could learn a lot from "JAG." I certainly did: When I decided I wanted to try to create a TV series centering on a wounded veteran of Operation Iraq Freedom, "JAG" was one of the biggest inspirations I had for the tone it would take towards the troops, and how it would handle controversial issues.


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