Hero worship: Reality TV that's worthy of respect
Published February 27, 2003
Reality television has evolved into a euphemism for virtually anything outside the conventional boxes of scripted comedy and drama, even though most of the outlandish competitions and date-and-mate teases have little grounding in the real world. Oh well -- sleeping together rarely connotes a shared good night's rest.
It might seem unlikely anything could give the reality genre a good name at this point. However, Profiles From the Front Line is an exception. It really is real, without embellishments or contrivances. The six-episode series, shot in the aftermath of the U.S. incursion into Afghanistan post-9/11, spotlights genuine bravery and heart-stopping survival situations. Tension is palpable and unrelenting. There are deaths.
"The whole country is armed to the teeth. From the age of 10 on, everyone carries AK-47's," co-executive producer Bertram van Munster said. "Loyalties change from day to day. You can get ambushed very easily."
The heroes and heroines are not show-business wannabes but U.S. troops dispatched to the region to pursue the Taliban and restore order. The series tracks the American forces from heart-wrenching stateside farewells through the return home of some of them. Sgt. Abraham Turner sets the mood as he rallies his troops: "How dare they fly an aircraft into the Pentagon. How dare they fly an aircraft into the World Trade Center. How dare they change the lives of Americans."
Cpl. Peter Sarvis didn't need a pep talk. He was living large as a stockbroker on Wall Street when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center. Friends and colleagues perished in the Twin Towers only a few blocks away. Although married only three days before Sept. 11, he decided, "[The service] is where I needed to be." In the movies, he would turn into another Rambo. In Profiles, he refuels helicopters while their blades are still whirring. "It helps to be short," he says with a laugh. He allows Profiles to eavesdrop during one of the two-minute calls to his bride he is allowed every 10 days.
Dozens of heroic, selfless individuals are depicted but several recur throughout, mainly Special Forces operatives, who have their own sets of rules. They are not required to wear uniforms and only their first names are used. A master sergeant named Mark leads a group that includes Staff Sgt. Mike, a father of three from a military family, and Staff Sgt. Drew, an Australian native and father of four, who enlisted to fight for the United States because he felt it was the right thing to do for the country he now calls home.
They're neither gung-ho nor trigger-happy, preferring low-profile successes so as not to alienate the locals, as the Russians did. In an exercise reminiscent of The Fugitive, they discreetly track down a one-armed man considered to be a key player for the enemy.
Pentagon approval was necessary for the extraordinary access Profiles was granted. This raises ethical questions, but van Munster said the Defense Department's only concern was that the show did not unintentionally give away classified material or show secret weapons systems. He says he was not asked to omit one frame in the series. It helped that his partner, TV and movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer, had made friends in the Defense Department during filming of Black Hawk Down.
As to the suggestion the U.S. government was accommodating because it is trying to build support for an invasion of Iraq, van Munster replied, "We had several people killed. That could stir anti-war feelings."
ABC's scheduling of Profiles, which runs through April 3, raises the possibility of it bumping into another armed conflict. Bruckheimer said there is no way of knowing whether this would increase interest in his series, or if it would be viewed as yesterday's news. "We hope people tune in whether there's a war or not."
Just in case, van Munster added, they have two crews standing by to cover whatever happens in Iraq.
Whether such a sequel ever sees the air depends upon ratings for this show. A similar series, American Fighter Pilots, did so poorly on CBS last spring that its run was cut short. If an inspiring, engrossing show such as Profiles tanks in the wake of the spectacular ratings for Joe Millionaire and The Bachelorette -- and odds are it will, opposite Friends and Survivor -- the audience will again have forfeited any right to ask why television is as lowbrow as it is.