Traffic Jamming

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

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.

In an omnibus review of new books about Sappho in the January 8 issue of the London Review of Books, Emily Wilson not only tells us that the Greek verb lesbiazein means “to fellate” but also suggests that, although John Donne may have written the first poem in English to describe what Sappho did with her girlfriend, “it is only a slight exaggeration to say that Baudelaire … invented modern lesbianism, and Swinburne brought it to England.” Whether this is true or not, I am struck with how fascinated men seem always to have been at what women get up to without them. It is prurient voyeurism that doesn’t seem to work any other way around. And Showtime may very well be counting on it to increase the audience for The L Word (Sunday, January 18, 10 p.m. to midnight; Sundays thereafter, 10 to 11 p.m.), its new series about a lesbian community in Los Angeles.

Thus, for the broadest possible demographic, many, many breast shots. While Jennifer Beals, Pam Grier, Holland Taylor, Ossie Davis, Anne Archer, and Julian Sands may be the closest to star power that The L Word gets, a dozen or so heretofore mostly unknown female actors are ingratiating and impressive. (I especially like Erin Daniels as a professional tennis player whose coming out could cost her a Subaru commercial. Mia Kirshner as a short-story writer who goes both ways but isn’t happy in either direction, and Leisha Hailey as a journalist who hasn’t entirely escaped an old abusive relationship and is forced to write an article on “vagina rejuvenation,” are also absorbing.) And the dilemmas they face—finding partners and/or jobs, having children, being African-American or Jewish, finding the time to read Borges on a beach—are real enough, even at times dramatic. But when in doubt, between Exercycles, cell phones, laptops, sperm banks, and spry ideas or even lame ones, The L Word goes to bed.

Make ’Em Dance (January 13; 10:30 to 11:30 p.m.; Channel 13) follows America’s oldest performing band, the Hackberry Ramblers, as the 90-year-old fiddler Luderin Darbone and the 93-year-old accordionist Edwin Duhon play Cajun, country, rockabilly, and swamp pop.

Growing Up Grizzly 2 (January 18; 8 to 9 p.m.; Animal Planet) lets us take a second look at the orphaned bear cubs Bart and Honey-Bump, as well as at Jennifer Aniston, who hugs and mugs.

Citizen King (January 19; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) celebrates the 75th birthday of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. with a special edition of American Experience focusing on his last five years, when he took on the war in Vietnam as well as poverty across the color line. Besides his widow, we hear from the likes of James Baldwin, Taylor Branch, David Halberstam, A. Philip Randolph, Dan Rather, and Roger Wilkins.

Barbarians (January 19 and 20; 9 to 11 p.m.; History Channel), with the usual scholars and hundreds of extras in full costume, explores 1,000 years of uninvited guests, with the Vikings and Goths up first on Monday, the Mongols and Huns following on Tuesday. You will notice that none of these people ever worked on a relationship.

Chasing Freedom (January 19; 9 to 11 p.m.; Court TV) stars Juliette Lewis as an ambitious corporate lawyer who, if she wants to make partner, must take on the pro bono case of an Afghan woman (Layla Alizada) seeking political asylum from the Taliban. They both end up taking on the INS. Think of this as a pro bono TV movie, and a pretty good one.

The Forgetting (January 21; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Channel 13) tells us almost everything we need to know about Alzheimer’s except why—unless it’s because so many more of us live so much longer these days—there are ten times as many victims of the amnesiac disease today as there were fifteen years ago—5 million and counting. To be followed by Alzheimer’s: The Help You Need, a half-hour panel discussion directing viewers to helpful organizations and resources.

Traffic Jamming