terror cell

Television is bad for you. Not only does it rot your teeth, it also fills you with a lot of wrong-headed ideas. I try not to watch it, but sometimes I do, especially when the neighbors are out of town or too drunk to be any fun.

And I’m glad I have. It’s clued me in to a brand new shiny phenomenon in American film: the cell-phone drama.

Now sure, I know what you’re saying. It’s not like cellphones are a new thing, especially not on TV cop shows, and I’m not saying they are—they’ve been around for years. So where’s the “drama” in “cell-phone drama”?

The cops actually know how they work.

Seriously. I don’t just mean they can dial calls, or even use speed dial. I don’t mean that they hang up by snapping the phone shut without saying “goodbye,” the way all TV cops do. I mean that they can actually patch one call into another, without looking at the keypad, while they’re driving. I mean that they can receive two calls at once and put one on hold and answer the other and switch back to the first one without getting confused. I mean that they can upload and download and transfer call histories and all sorts of things.

All sorts of things, that is, that I know my phone could probably do too, if I were smart enough to figure them out.

That’s what sets these cops apart from ordinary schmucks. I fancy myself a pretty tech-savvy kind of guy. The kind of guy who can fix his email more than half the time. The kind of guy who knows that “terminal prompt” is not a third-world airport shuttle. But that does not mean that I understand every instruction in the novella that came with my cellphone. It does not mean I know how to use call-waiting. These cops have obviously got it going on.

And a good thing too. Because TV cop phones may have gotten cooler, but “freeze” lines have come down in the world.

What is a freeze line? It’s what you say when you pull your gun out, kick down a door, and say “freeze!”

Why not just say “freeze!”? Well, things have gotten pretty tight in the cop market lately. Used to be, you were a cop. Nowadays, you are a highly specialized component part in an arcane, heavily-armored investigative unit housed deep within a relatively-unknown-yet-vital part of the Federal government. Chances are, your acronym has a C in it, probably an I and an S, possibly a T, an N, a U, or a D.

For example, say you’re a special agent belonging to the National Command Center Internal Subterfuge Investigation Squad. That is, you’re a cop whose job it is to investigate all the other cops in the command center, because as you know, no national security drama could be complete without some sort of conflicted loyalty or double-agentry.

Most of the time, you sit bathed in the cool glow of eleven different flat-panel computer screens, which display satellite imagery, live video feeds of gritty street scenes, and lines of random numbers. Your days are spent looking suspiciously at the other agents at their desks, as they whisper innuendos about each other and giddily tiptoe around workplace sexual harassment laws.

Like all good agents, though, your time eventually comes to strike. Armed with your cellphone (which, in honor of the occasion, you have fitted with a special earpiece), your bullet-proof vest, and your gun, you set out with your posse—sorry, “strike team”—to the heavily-secured room where your quarry has holed up. All seems quiet. You give the nod. An agent kicks the door open and you burst in, gun held rigidly before you.

“N.C.C.I.S.I.S!” you shout. Your quarry looks up, confused.

“What?” he says.

“N.C.C.I.S.I.S.!” you say again. What else can you do?

“I see,” says your quarry.

“NO. I said N.C.C.I.S.I.S.!” you say. Now, however, you’re just being silly.

There’s really no way to recover from a situation like this. In fact, the only way to restore your credibility, both with the villain and with the viewing audience, is to pull out your cellphone and execute a communications maneuver so amazing that it effaces all memory of your cumbersome abbreviation.

Ironically, the result of all this telephone-posturing is that the hero ends up talking to headquarters constantly. Gone are the days of the hotheaded individual cop going it alone. There are no more solitary high-speed chases, only multi-unit helicopter dragnets using satellite imagery and at least nine people on hold at the same time. Individual characters can have catastrophic emotional breakdowns, but when they do, their co-workers—er, teammates—inevitably take them out into the hall for a restorative discussion of feelings.

Perhaps the new American cop is a genuine team player. Perhaps the new American phallic symbol is actually a device intended for communicating with other people. (Ponder THAT!) And perhaps the new American bad guy is not identifiably bad, but rather exudes a more nuanced badness bound up in tortuous ethno-religious politics.

I don’t know. But with all their firepower and integrity, America’s TV cops have always been the ones to call when trouble strikes. Now they can call you too.

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3 Responses to “terror cell”


  1. 1 Joseph Shoer February 21, 2007 at 3:37 am

    I sure hope you haven’t been paying undue attention to the I.C.-S.T.U.D.S. unit. For your own sake.

  2. 2 Jen February 21, 2007 at 6:57 pm

    Oooh, I see an entry to “McSweeny’s Internet Tendency: Lists” right now.

    THINGS WHICH I SHOULD PONDER IF THE CELL PHONE IS THE NEW AMERICAN PHALLIC SYMBOL:

    1) Vibrate
    2) Three-way calling
    3) Possible links to brain cancer

  3. 3 Jen February 21, 2007 at 6:59 pm

    Also, if I entered it, it would be grammatically correct and say “that” instead of “which.”


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