If war upsets balances of power, it can also upset the balance of cool. On Sept. 10, fire fighters were not exactly at the epicenter of hip. Foreign news? Puh-leeze! Spying, learning Arabic, worrying about the public-health system? Uncool, uncool, uncool.
And by all prevailing standards the CBS military drama JAG (Tuesdays, 8 p.m. E.T.) was about the least-cool hit show on TV. It lauded the men and women of the Judge Advocate General corps, who investigate, prosecute and defend cases affecting military conduct. The twist was--well, that there was no twist. On JAG, the government really was good, save for a few bad apples. There were no systemic conspiracies. It was made with the cooperation of the Navy and the Marines. Its heroes, Lieut. Commander Harmon (Harm) Rabb Jr. (David James Elliott) and Lieut. Colonel Sarah (Mac) MacKenzie (Catherine Bell), were truth seekers, devoted to honor, duty and country. They could be partners or adversaries, and maintained an unresolved sexual tension. (Their dynamic made the show a kind of X-Files for people who trust authority.) He was a buff-bodied flying ace who packed a gun, a straight-arrow defense lawyer without the moral ambiguity of his counterparts on The Practice. She was a legal babe who didn't wear micro-minis or have sex with random men in car washes a la Ally McBeal.
In other words, watching JAG was like signing up for a permanent hitch in the Square Force. But now, suddenly, American flags are stitched into the logos of news broadcasts and the nation is abuzz about, of all things, the military justice system. As creator and executive producer Don Bellisario likes to say, "JAG didn't find its patriotism on Sept. 11." But America's renewed national pride has evidently found JAG. Ratings for the show, once known for appealing mainly to older viewers steeped in old-timey values, are up 39% this fall among 18-to-49-year-olds, and it has become a recurring fixture in the top 10. "JAG gives you permission to be patriotic," says CBS television president Leslie Moonves, "and everyone wants that."
They didn't always. Bellisario (Magnum, P.I.; Quantum Leap) conceived the drama as "Top Gun meets A Few Good Men" and sold it to NBC, where it debuted in 1995. But in 1995-96, its first season on the network of Seinfeldian cool, JAG finished 77th in the ratings. nbc wanted more shootouts and hardware; Bellisario wanted to retain the legal drama. The show was headed for a dishonorable discharge when Moonves, seeing a good fit for his network's older audience, snapped it up, rolling gunslinging action and courtroom drama into one star-spangled package.