If artists depend on angst and unrest to fuel their creative fire, then at least in one sense the 43rd presidency has been a blessing. Eight years is an eternity in the life of a culture, and when we look back on an era, we do it through pinholes: a movie here, a book there. What will stand out, decades from now, as the singular emblems of this moment in history? NEWSWEEK asked its cultural critics to pick the one work in their field that they believe exemplifies what it was like to be alive in the age of George W. Bush.
By Joshua Alston
An orchestrated terrorist attack. An inexorable march to war. An enemy capable of disappearing among its targets, armed with an indifference to its own mortality. It sounds like a PBS special on Al Qaeda. In fact, it's a synopsis of the Sci Fi Channel series "Battlestar Galactica," which—for anyone who manages to get past the goofy name—captures better than any other TV drama of the past eight years the fear, uncertainty and moral ambiguity of the post-9/11 world. Yes, even better than "24," with its neocon fantasies of terrorists who get chatty if Jack Bauer pokes the right pressure point. Of the two shows, "Battlestar" has been more honest about the psychological toll of the war on terror. It confronts the thorny issues that crop up in a society's battle to preserve its way of life: the efficacy of torture, the curtailing of personal rights, the meaning of patriotism in a nation under siege. It also doesn't flinch from one question that "24" wouldn't dare raise: is our way of life even worth saving?
"Battlestar Galactica" always finds ways to challenge the audience's beliefs—it is no more an ode to pacifism than "24" is to "bring 'em on" warmongering. In the pilot, humanity is nearly eradicated by the Cylons, a race of robots that revolt against their human creators. The only survivors are stationed on a spacecraft called Battlestar Galactica; they're spared because the ship's commander, William Adama (Edward James Olmos), had refused to relax any wartime restrictions. Adama is a hard-liner, willing to sacrifice personal freedoms in order to provide safety from an abstract threat. And he was right: the moment the human race let its guard down, the Cylons attacked. As the show unfolds, though, the survivors must constantly reflect on the price of keeping their enemies at bay, and whether it's worth paying. The show's futuristic setting—hushed and grimy, not the metallic cool of stereotypical sci-fi—helps ground the writers' ruminations in a nail-biting drama series. "Battlestar Galactica" achieves the ultimate in sci-fi: it presents a world that looks nothing like our own, and yet evokes it with chilling accuracy.