Last week's BATTLESTAR GALACTICA ep, "Flesh and Bone", not only continued the show's steady trend toward becoming one of the best-written shows on television, but it upheld the long-standing dramatic tradition of "the interrogation episode." Sometimes it's the good guys under the spotlight; other times, they're the ones asking the questions. Either way, the conceit is as simple as it can be powerful: two people (give or take) in a room, one of whom knows something, the other of whom wants that knowledge. Toss in optional elements like a ticking-clock scenario or the threat of torture and let simmer for 44 minutes.
"Flesh and Bone" had all this and more, posing questions much more far ranging than the "is there or isn't there" of the supposed nuke hidden in the fleet. Starbuck's confrontation with the Cylon raised questions of theology and morality, of destiny and free will, and even of the very nature of consciousness and the soul. Not bad for a genre that the Powers That Be so seldom take seriously.
And so, in honor of such a knock-out episode, here's a look back at some of the finest small-screen examples of this tense little dramatic niche...call it "Great Moments in Televised Interrogation."
"The Box, Part 1" - ALIAS - 2002
Over the course of its three-plus seasons, damn near every member of the cast has found themselves on the business end of a tray of interrogator's tools. Spanning everything from drowning to non-elective dental surgery, the ALIAS writers could give lessons to Vlad the Impaler. But by far one of the most memorable of the lot was this fun little exchange between uber-baddie Arvin Sloane and cheesed-off former employee McKenas Cole (guest star Quentin Tarantino). It seems that ol' king Cole has neither forgiven nor forgotten an incident when Mr. Sloane's actions resulted in the death of Cole's teammates, and now the bitch known as payback has arranged a reunion between the two old friends, complete with a box full of needles. And no, Mr. Cole does not intend a course in acupuncture. This ep lacks the mind games or larger questions posed that some of the later entries on this list sport, but it gains points merely for being one of the first times we really saw the tables turned on love-to-hate-him Sloane.
"Day 2: 7:00 P.M.- 8:00 P.M." - 24 - 2003
If there's a show that gives ALIAS a run for its money in the torture-creativity department, it's 24. This is the show that had a dude meet the business end of a belt sander, after all. But 24's most arresting interrogation wasn't it's most inventively brutal; it was when Jack Bauer murdered the children of terrorist Syed Ali right before his eyes. Granted, it let us off the hook by soon revealing that their deaths had been staged, but for several intense minutes, we were left shaken and disturbed by just how far Jack--the hero we're supposed to be rooting for--would go in order to save the lives of his countrymen. It's a question that was timely then, and has only become more so since, and by simultaneously entertaining, unnerving, and forcing us to think, it was 24 at its finest.
"Intersections in Real Time" - BABYLON 5 - 1997
John Sheridan had been through it all. He'd led Babylon 5's secession from a corrupt Earth government. He'd fought a war between gods and finally kicked the lot of them out beyond the Rim. Hell, he'd even died and come back to life. But now, for all the worlds shaken and lives ceased or sustained on the weight of his decisions, he is reduced to just one man in a room, with nothing to carry him through but willpower and, in the end, his devotion to the woman he loves. In a bitter situation made all the more painful by the knowledge that the betrayal of a friend had landed him there, Sheridan nonetheless survives his long, dark night of the soul...but just barely.
"Chain of Command, Part 2" - STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION - 1992
Who can forget the line, "There...are...four lights!" Largely a two-character play between captive Picard and his Cardassian interrogator, Gul Madred, this episode was by turns disturbing and exhausting, and certainly unnaturally heady material for TREK (this was slightly before the often-darker themes of DEEP SPACE 9, after all). To be fair, the tables were stacked in its favor from the get-go: with the acting talents of Patrick Stewart and David Warner facing off across a table, they could practically have been arguing "tastes great/less filling" and it still would have made for arresting television. But it stood those talents atop a stellar script and a brilliantly simple point of contention: four lights or five?
"Three Men and Adena" - HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET - 1993
It's a peculiar truism for the writer that it's often difficult to properly describe an example of excellence, whereas explorations of the crappier end of the spectrum cause words to breed like rabbits in a Viagra factory. That being the case, there's not a damn thing I can say about this Emmy-winning episode that will come anywhere close to doing it justice. Detectives Pembleton and Bayliss have twelve hours to break the lead suspect in the murder of young Adena Watson. If they can't break him in that time, he goes free and Adena's murder goes unpunished. It's brutal, it's visceral, and, in the end, it's heartbreaking. But writer Tom Fontana had the wisdom to know that sometimes the most powerful stories are the ones without a happy ending, and he had the courage to force us to confront that terrible truth head on, wide-eyed and unflinching.
The Week Rerun
Out, Out, Damned Spot - Hindsight, as they say, is 20-20, and it was certainly interesting to reexamine that scene from LOST's "House of the Rising Sun" with Jin washing unexplained blood from his hands. Who'd have thought that the red stains were earned not in ending a life, but in saving one (albeit in a rather uncomfortable manner)?
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Lana - It's official: I don't have any idea what the hell the SMALLVILLE writers are smoking. And that's a doubly frustrating feeling, since I was singing their praises here only three weeks ago. But as I've said before, my relationship with SMALLVILLE is love-hate on the best day, with far too many days trending toward hate. The show can be, well, super, but this whole "Lana-meets-THE CRAFT" nonsense is trying my patience.
Their Tech May Be Advanced, but Their Tactics Suck - So last Saturday's Sci-Fi presentation ALIEN SIEGE posed an interesting question: if the far-inferior humans have built a device inside an observatory, one which is capable of destroying your most powerful offensive weapon and sending you spiraling into the humiliating arms of defeat, and if you have aircraft armed with sufficient firepower to blast large holes in the side of said observatory...wouldn't it make tactical sense to stay airborne and just keep pounding the building until there's naught left but smoking debris? Well, I guess it's a good thing I'm not an alien commander, since apparently the wiser course of action is to land, send in your ground troops, and then sit back and watch while a handful of poorly armed resistance fighters who can't act manage to completely destroy the machinations of an invincible interstellar empire.
So what brought you the televisual joy this week? Drop me a line at email@example.com. Keep your head and hands inside the television, folks...
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 28
KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER (7 PM CST, Trio) "The Zombie." There's a revamp of the show that inspired THE X-FILES in the offing for next season, but you can sample the original man in the rumpled blue suit right here on Trio. 24 (8 PM CST, Fox) Speaking of interrogations, Jack grills Audrey's estranged-and-creepy hubby; meanwhile, Driscoll's daughter takes up the remaining space the writers couldn't fill with anything interesting.
MEDIUM (9 PM CST, NBC) "Coded." Ariel's dream of a little girl being kidnapped by an ogre signals an ill-conceived sweeps SHREK crossover.
FACE/OFF (9 PM CST, Cinemax) I still haven't figured out how the bad guy managed to smoke with no lips.
NIGHTHAWKS (9:30 PM CST, AMC) So why do I mention this forgettable 1981 Stallone flick? Because how often to you get to see Rutger Hauer and Billy Dee Williams in the same movie?
TUESDAY, MARCH 1
GILMORE GIRLS (7 PM CST, WB) "So...Good Talk." Never mind what's happening tonight. I'm going to mentally travel back to Lauren Graham in BAD SANTA...happy place.
ERASER (7 PM CST, WGN) The screenwriters could have used one.
HOUSE (8 PM CST, Fox) "Cursed." Halfway through this week's medical mystery, Wes Craven bursts in, fires everyone, and reshoots the entire thing.
SCRUBS (8 PM CST, NBC) "My Best Laid Plans." Heather Graham's back, tossing J.D.'s love life into more turmoil than normal.
NYPD BLUE: A FINAL TRIBUTE (8 PM CST, ABC) Tonight sees the long-running show retire, so of course we need an hour-long special to remind us all of just how wonderful it was and how much we'll miss it once it's gone, ingrates that we are.
MAKING OF 'ROBOTS' (8:45 PM CST, HBO) If it's as funny in toto as the bits of ICE AGE with that squirrel-rat critter were, they might just have something.
LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT (9 PM CST, NBC) "Rage." A single suspect is interrogated for the rapes and murders of two girls, 14 years apart.
NYPD BLUE (9 PM CST, ABC) "Moving Day." Off it goes, into the wild blue yonder.
TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES (9 PM CST, Cinemax) Sure, it didn't have that old Cameron magic, but ya gotta love that bleak, inevitable ending.
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 2
LOST (7 PM CST, ABC) "Numbers." We finally learn about Hurley's backstory, including possibly what he was doing on that Korean television in last week's episode.
SMALLVILLE (7 PM CST, WB) "Lucy." Another woman with the initials L.L. enters Clark's life, but this time it's Lois' sister, Lucy (no sign of Lori Lemaris yet).
THE WEST WING (8 PM CST, NBC) "A Good Day." Is not nearly as hard to find as a good man, so I'm told.
ALIAS (8 PM CST, ABC) "A Man of His Word." Sloane is forced to negotiate with Sark in order to learn more about Anna Espinoza's plans. And Rambaldi is right back where he should be: front and center.
JACK & BOBBY (8 PM CST, WB) "Querida Grace." Bobby's research into his family tree uncovers a dark secret: that Darth Vader did not in fact betray and murder his father, as Obi Wan insisted.
LAW & ORDER (9 PM CST, NBC) "Dining Out." A food network executive's death casts suspicion on the celebrity chef with whom she was having an affair. Bam!
CSI: NY (9 PM CST, CBS) "The Fall." A prominent movie producer goes splat beneath his Chelsea apartment terrace. Maybe it has something to do with that dead network exec one entry up.
THURSDAY, MARCH 3
CROP CIRCLES: IN SEARCH OF A SIGN (7 PM CST, TLC) I've got a sign for you. It says, "STOP," and it was planted in front of M. Night Shyamalan's house after SIGNS and before he started writing THE VILLAGE.
THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (7 PM CST, TCM) The exploits have never been more daring, the men more merry, the tights more...er...tight, than in this 1938 classic.
AREA 51: FACT OR FICTION (8 PM CST, TLC) They were going to do a follow-up on Area 43, but it turns out that's just a U.S. Army motor pool in Duluth.
BLACK BOOKS (8:30 PM CST, BBC America) "Cooking the Books." After several weeks of airing, BBC America now presents...the series premiere?
FRIDAY, MARCH 4
ASSEMBLING 'ROBOTS': THE MAGIC, THE MUSIC AND THE COMEDY (7 PM CST, Fox) Because one making-of special per week just isn't enough.
JOAN OF ARCADIA (7 PM CST, CBS) "Secret Service." God frames Joan for egging some dude's car. Joan responds by toilet-papering Jerusalem.
STARGATE SG-1 (7 PM CST, Sci-Fi) "Reckoning." The team searches for a weapon against the Replicators, not to be confused with the Regulators (because Stephen King will sue).
THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE (7 PM CST, HBO) In the Museum of Horrific Keanu Reeves Movie Accents, this film shares top honors with BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA.
JONNY ZERO (8 PM CST, Fox) "To Serve & Protect." I'd just like to point out that this show is still on. That means that somebody out there is watching it. Please stop.
STARGATE ATLANTIS (8 PM CST, Sci-Fi) "Letters from Pegasus." The team sends videos home to their friends and families, none of whom happens to be a mythical winged horse.
LAW & ORDER: TRIAL BY JURY (9 PM CST, NBC) "41 Shots." If CSI and LAW & ORDER keep adding spin-offs, they will soon own every slot on network television.
MONK (9 PM CST, USA) "Mr. Monk and the Kid." Monk takes care of a 2-year-old witness to a kidnapping. (Season finale)
BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (9 PM CST, Sci-Fi) "Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down." Alright, that title-pun is venturing into FARSCAPE territory. At any rate, tonight, Tigh's estranged wife visits Galactica, while President Roslin wants Adama to take the Cylon-detector test.
SATURDAY, MARCH 5
JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED (7:30 PM CST, Cartoon Network) "Ultimatum." If you missed last season's far-too-clever tip of the hat to SUPERFRIENDS, here's your chance to catch it again. (Repeat)
MAGNOLIA (7:45 PM CST, IFC) Best use of raining frogs since the X-FILES episode "Die Hand Die Verletzt".
SUNDAY, MARCH 6
MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE (6:30 PM CST, Fox) "Living Will." Hal gets into trouble involving a comatose neighbor, while the boys teach Craig to fight dirty prior to a reunion with his bully dad.
THE SIMPSONS (7 PM CST, Fox) "On a Clear Day I Can't See My Sister." Lisa takes out a restraining order against Bart, and somehow guest-voice Gary Busey factors into the equation.
ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (7:30 PM CST, Fox) "Out on a Limb." Julia Louis-Dreyfus returns with an eight-and-a-half-month-old bun in her oven, which should make Michael nervous since he last saw her after their one-nighter eight and a half months ago.
ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (8 PM CST, Fox) "Hand to God." Hey, it's a second episode in one night! That almost makes up for all the postponements and preemptions...well, not really.
THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD (8 PM CST, ABC) You know, they made me read this in high school, and I don't remember it being nearly as steamy as the promos make this version look. Still, at least Halle Berry has taken a step up from CATWOMAN.
DEADWOOD (8 PM CST, HBO) "A Lie Agreed Upon, Part 1" Al Swearengen doesn't react well to news of the formation of the Dakota Territory, and he takes his frustrations out on Sheriff Bullock. (Season premiere)
CARNIVALE (9 PM CST, HBO) "Lincoln Highway." Lila's still searching for Lodz, and Justin's powers manage to calm a chaotic gathering as the show shifts to a later timeslot. This concludes our broadcast.