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Traffic Jamming

The third version of Traffic, now a USA miniseries, continues exploring the violent world of narcotics; The L Word spends lots of time in bed.


Stashed away: Elias Koteas plays a DEA agent operating in Afghanistan, in USA Network's Traffic.  

While the third time isn’t exactly a charm, neither is it a sermonette. Traffic (Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, January 26, 27, and 28; 9 to 11 p.m.; USA), the frantic new six-hour mini-series inspired by Traffic, the hyperventilating Hollywood feature film which borrowed so shamelessly from the original Traffik, a British mini-series that somehow managed not to be mentioned at all during the Oscar hoopla over Steven Soderbergh and Benicio del Toro, is much too busy to moralize. Besides drugs, its contraband includes weapons and refugees.

If you saw the British series, you’ll recall that it followed a heroin trail from the poppy fields of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkey to the docks of Hamburg on the Elbe for North Sea shipping to addicts in London and Oxbridge. Hollywood’s version featured, instead, cocaine from Latin America smuggled into the United States. But both renditions had the same subsidiary plot and ironic subtext: A First World honcho charged with stopping the flow of drugs from Third World countries finds out that his own daughter is a user. In both cases, these honchos are thus persuaded to wonder whether a treatment program might be preferable to a military operation, although in neither case does it occur to them to contemplate decriminalization.

Personally, I thought the therapy tacked on in codas to both these productions was not only too convenient and too late but opportunistic on the verge of smarmy. After exploiting the holy-war analogy to keep us immured and mesmerized, after so much bloodletting and electroshock—all of a sudden, a twelve-step program! It’s the same ruse employed by the makers of movies in which women, usually alone in underground parking garages, are stalked, menaced, and assaulted, after which some protofeminist assures the victim that rape isn’t about sex, it’s about violence. This is always after a couple of pandering hours of sex and violence.

Traffic, the USA series, can’t be bothered to feel better about itself. Yes, in a warehouse in Seattle, someone we have come to care about will overdose, and an ambulance will not arrive in time. We are meant to understand that this is the end of a line that began in Afghanistan, where Elias Koteas, a DEA operative, is playing a clandestine game with warlords who all want the same secret stash of Taliban opium, which stash ends up on a fishing boat en route to Seattle with a cargo hold full of germs that are lethal and illegal aliens who are expendable. Those illegals include the wife of the equally illegal Cliff Curtis, a taxicab driver who insists on ascertaining how come everybody on that fishing boat wound up dead from either bullets or smallpox.

I must also mention Mary McCormack, who is surprisingly energetic in the thankless role of the frazzled wife who must wait around while the DEA decides if her husband has gone over to the Dark Side. In fact, somebody else has gone over to the Dark Side, and if you don’t know who by Tuesday, you must not watch much television. But this Traffic, produced and directed by the Stephen Hopkins who gave us Kiefer Sutherland in 24, aims mainly to rack our nerves and bust our chops.

During my own Monk marathon over the holidays, I learned that wall-to-wall neurotic twitching can be contagious. As much as I thought I was enjoying myself, before midnight I was counting adverbs and barking like Thurber or a seal. So when I advise you that Tony Shalhoub’s back for a third season of obsessive-compulsive detecting, I also recommend watching only once a week. The worst that can be said for too many Law & Order reruns is that we may decide life without Jill Hennessy isn’t worth living. Excessive Monking, on the other hand, not only encourages the development of what Freud called the narcissism of small differences, but also infantilizes. In the two new hours of Monk (Fridays, starting January 16; 10 to 11 p.m.; USA) I have seen so far, he must solve the murder of a paperboy, stop the publication of dirty pictures of a young Sharona (Bitty Schram) in a skin magazine, and reconcile with his long-lost brother (a flabbergasting John Turturro), who is nuttier than Monk and hasn’t left the family house in years.

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