Action (definition)

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In television terms, action is a command given by a director to the cast and crew, a story element, a literary term and a genre.

  1. Command: The signal most commonly used by directors (including assistant directors) that filming has begun, the cameras are rolling, and the actors should begin performing the scene or shot, whether that involves dialogue or movement. (The cliched phrase "Lights! Camera! Action!"—rarely heard on contemporary film and television sets—is shorthand for, "Turn on the lights, sound and other secondary equipment. Start rolling the cameras. Begin performing.")
  2. Story element: Any element of a story in which the plot is advanced or situation set through what characters do rather than through what they say (dialogue) or through their body language or through the static elements of the set and background. An action need not be violent or exciting in nature and may include anything from riding a bicycle to making a sandwich to firing a gun.
  3. Literary term: Those events of a story which advance the plot, including actions and dialogue. In film or television, the action we the audience see for ourselves is referred to as "on-screen action," while action which we do not see, but which is described by characters or through other expository devices (narration, for instance) is called "off-screen action." For example, in Season One of 24, Jack Bauer's mission in Serbia and the death of Victor Drazen's family is off-screen action, but Drazen's final battle with Bauer and his own death are part of the on-screen action.
  4. Genre: A type of story in which the plot is advanced almost primarily through actions rather than through dialogue. Further, as distinguished from many slapstick comedies, action almost invariably involves some level of significant violence, danger or destruction, be it violence by or against humans, nature or objects. Contemporary action stories may involve explosions, gun fights, fistfights, car chases or natural disasters.

Contents

Historical Background

As a genre, action is one of the oldest types of storytelling, if not the oldest. Primitive mythology—including epics such as The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Aenead or The Niebelunglied, the Biblical Book of Exodus (and much of Genesis), Beowulf and the stories of Gilgamesh and Hercules are action stories. Many of Shakespeare's plays—particularly such tragedies as Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus—are also examples of the action genre, as is much of Arthurian and Carolingian legend.

Thrilling Tales and Amazing Stories: Early 20th Century Action

As the 20th century dawned and brought with it our modern pop culture, action became the most successful and popular genre. Most pulp stories of any genre—science fiction, westerns, even the hard-boiled mystery stories of the era (the 1920s through the 1940s)—were action stories, although none of those genres are necessarily and by definition action. Action was so intrinsic an element of the pulp depictions of those genres that the term "action" was rarely used by itself and was instead combined with a related but distinct genre as "action-adventure"—a genre of pulps set more or less in the present day (although often in exotic locations—which, in that era, meant pretty much anywhere that was distinct from the continental United States). Due to action's popularity in the pulps, the format's pop culture prodigies—comic books, movie serials and radio dramas—also displayed a marked tendency towards action. In comic books, the first comic book superhero (a type of character who would later become synonymous in the minds of many with the format itself), Superman, debuted in the first issue of a comic book entitled Action Comics. Movie serials were almost exclusively devoted to action, and in radio, even more sedate comic strip characters such as Annie would find themselves transformed into action heroes.

Up, Up and Away: The Dawn of Television

As the era of the pulps, comic books, movie serials and radio dramas waned after World War II, action also briefly waned in film, but in the new medium of television, it became an important genre almost from the beginning. However, many of the earliest action series were aimed at children as much or more than as at adults, and many of them were adaptations of radio dramas. Most of these early action dramas were also entrenched in the genres of the pulps and comic books, including Adventures of Superman (superhero) and The Lone Ranger (western). Into the 1960s, many action series continued to be geared towards all ages, both in live action (Batman) and animated formats (Jonny Quest).

However, in 1952—as the adventures of the more traditional heroes Superman and the Lone Ranger were airing—a new breed of action heroes was being born in print. This new hero would have a seismic impact on the action hero as a character, and that impact would expand across all genres and media and resonate even through the present day.

From Goldeneye, with Love: The New Breed

Although bestsellers in the United Kingdom, the new hero would have limited influence there and would go largely unnoticed in America through the 1950s. Then in 1961, a profile piece in Life Magazine asked President John F. Kennedy to list his ten favorite books. Kennedy listed only one work of fiction, and a contemporary one at that.

Kennedys' favorite novel, according to the piece, was From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming. Quite that simply, James Bond almost literally exploded onto the American and British pop culture scenes.

Handsome, boyishly charming, intellectual and idealistic, the public image of President Kennedy was in perfect synch with this new breed of heroes. The times, too, had created the need for Fleming's archetype. Since President Harry S. Truman announced his policy of containment of the Soviet Union in 1947, America, the United Kingdom and the rest of Western Europe had found itself in a new type of war, a "Cold War." Unlike the war against the Nazis and Japanese Imperialists, this war had no combat and very few troop movements. With nuclear annihilation as a possible outcome, this war of ideology simply could not be fought in the open. However, due to the increased sophistication of military intelligence during World War II, open war was no longer necessary. During World War II, Britain's crude, primitive SIS would become the lean, cunning agency more commonly known as MI6 today, and the United States would invent the OSS, which eventually became the CIA. For this Cold War, the globe-trotting adventurers of the pulps, radio dramas and serials—the Shadow, Doc Savage, Terry and the Pirates, et al.—were too narrow in their focus, and the brightly-colored superheroes of the comic books were too garish and blunt to be effective in a war which had to happen "off the books," as it were. Inspired by the real-life agents of British Naval Intelligence (of which Fleming had been a member) and MI6, as well as the American CIA, Bond combined the globe-trotting scope of the pulp adventurers with a shadowy, secretive milieu more appropriate to the global threat of the time.

He was the first popular spy in fiction, but by no means would he be the last. Throughout the 1960s, the spy genre was one of the most popular genres of fiction. British and American television would see an explosion of the new genre—The Avengers, Danger Man, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, Mission: Impossible. By 1965—a mere four years after the Life Magazine piece and three years after Bond made his film debut in Dr. No—the genre had become so popular and recognizable that it could be effectively parodied with Get Smart. It was, in fact, so popular that the same year, the police drama Burke's Law was renamed Amos Burke, Secret Agent to cash in on the hot genre. The spy genre and variations on it continue to be popular into the 21st century, and it is almost certainly no coincidence that both Jack Bauer and Sydney Bristow's super-spy father Jack share the same initials as Fleming's seminal protagonist.

Had James Bond merely heralded a new action subgenre, he would be a significant enough character. However, Bond also reinvented portrayals of the most significant character in action, the action hero. This reworking would cut across all subgenres and overlapping genres, and it is because of this new understanding that James Bond can truly be seen as the progenitor of almost every action hero to follow.

The Action Hero

From Gilgamesh to Superman to James Bond to Jack Bauer, almost every action story has at its center a character who is more than a protagonist. He or she is a hero (or heroine) in the classical sense of the term. Both in mythology and in literary fiction, the hero is the character who has received far and away the most examination from critics and scholars. Perhaps the most famous scholarly work which focuses almost exclusively on the figure of the hero is Joseph Campbell's classic study The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Although other scholars have debated many of Campbell's assertions, the definition and central premise of the Campbellian hero story remain largely undisputed. Campbell's complex definition of the action hero can be summed up roughly as a figure upon whose shoulders rest the fate of the greater good—be it the good of a tribe or the village of the Universe itself. The hero opposes an evil or inhuman threat to the greater good and, after a series of trials and tribulations, overcomes it. Frequently, the hero redeems himself in the process, but in any event, the hero almost always redeems others beyond himself. This broad definition encompasses everything from Jesus Christ's salvation of humanity through crucifixion through Jack Bauer's salvation of America by stopping a terrorist threat against its borders.

It should be noted that the hero is not solely found in the action genre. The detective, for instance, is an example of a true heroic figure in fiction who may or may not also be an action hero. However, the action genre encompasses a high percentage of heroes in contemporary fiction, and James Bond's influence as a hero would be seen even outside the action genre. That notwithstanding, Bond had his greatest impact within the genre, and it is there where most of the heroes who are the children of Bond can be found.

Bond's greatest influence can be seen in two crucial aspects of the action hero: His morality and (perhaps related) his sexuality.

License to Kill: Ethics, Morality and the Action Hero

Since the days of its mythic origins, the action genre has had at its heart the concepts of "good" and "evil." However, the division of these two polar opposites is not always (is, in fact, rarely) simple. Such heroic figures as Odysseus, Achilles, Jason, Gilgamesh, Hercules and Lancelot frequently performed actions which were less than noble. Hercules, for instance, murdered his own family, while Moses sinned against God and was thus forbidden from entering Israel after forty years of wandering in the desert.

However, in mythology, the hero was presumed to be essentially "good" because he was the hero. Even as Jason lied to Medea and broke his vow, he was still the savior of his people and thus the hero and thus good. Even as King Arthur had an unnatural relationship with his sister Morgana, he was, again, still the King of the Britons, thus the hero, thus good. In myth, God or the gods typically chose the hero, for all his failings, to be a savior, and therefore, by definition, whatever opposed him was evil.

Early 20th-century pop culture recast this classic battle in new terms. Into the late 19th century, such heroes as Sherlock Holmes (a detective, but not usually an action hero) were portrayed in mythic terms: Tragically flawed, but as a representative of the law—a human institution which redeems others—he must, by definition, be "good." Therefore, those whom he opposed were evil. (Later detectives such as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple would exchange quirks for character flaws. For a more thorough and specific examination of the development of the detective character in fiction, see the Glossary entry for Detective.) Similarly, in the western legends of the era, men such as Wyatt Earp and Jesse James—flawed figures in history and in fiction—were heroes for having "tamed the West." They were thus, for all their failings, "good."

As the pulps and comic books of the 20th century grew in prominence, however, the hero diverged along two fascinating paths. In the first path, hero and villain became almost indistinguishable. From this path grew such heroes as Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade, protagonist of the novel and film The Maltese Falcon. Although he is hardly portrayed in the film as purely heroic, the famed 1941 film adaptation omits scenes from the novel which portray even worse ethical failings in Spade. Hammett's Spade is deceitful, sadistic and cynical. There is, in fact, very little ethically which separates him from the antagonists—that very small distinction being represented by Spade's code of honor, which is summed up in his speech to femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy near the end of the novel:

Spade pulled his hand out of hers. He no longer either smiled or grimaced. His wet yellow face was set hard and deeply lined. His eyes burned madly. He said: "Listen. This isn't a damned bit of good. You'll never understand me, but I'll try once more and then we'll give it up. Listen. When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it. Then it happens that we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it's bad business to let the killer get away with it. ... Third, I'm a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it's not the natural thing."

In this pulpy take on the hero, the hero does not define good. Rather, both hero and villain contain elements of good and evil. The hero is defined as the one whose scales tip the most towards good—no matter how slightly that tipping may be, as is indicated in Spade's statement, "When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him." This mild sense of nobility redeems Spade and sets him off as the hero in the novel. These shades of grey are evidenced in other pulp heroes of the era, including Doc Savage and the Shadow.

The second diversion of the hero in early 20th century pop culture was to make him extremely noble, particularly in an ignoble world. Even in his earliest days, long before he became the superhero nicknamed "The Big Blue Boy Scout," Superman may have, at times, been sadistic and mocking, but he was only sadistic and mocking to very bad people. To average citizens—even young boys suckered into a life of crime—the Superman of the pre-World War II era was nothing but generous and forgiving. As World War II broke out and the unfathomable evil of the Nazis and fascists could be seen in the world, the action hero reacted by becoming even more noble, to the extent that even Batman and Superman lost their ignoble habits. Outside of film noir and some pulps, the typical action hero of the 1940s and 1950s was a straight arrow—polite, respectful, altruistic, free of vice. He became more like Captain America and less like Doc Savage.

However, the seeds of James Bond's take on good and evil would be sown in World War II. The war itself pitted democracy (presumably a "good" ideal) against fascism (certainly, as portrayed by the Nazis and Imperialist Japan, an "evil" one). However, the war ended with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the name of ending clear evil, an unimaginable horror had been visited upon innocent men, women and children. In the minds of many, the ends justified the means, but the means were unspeakably terrible.

James Bond would cast the question of "good" and "evil" in a brand new light. Although the films would avoid the question as much as possible, interestingly enough, Fleming would cut directly to the heart of the conflict at the core of Bond's character in the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, in a chapter entitled, appropriately enough, "The Nature of Evil":

"You see," [Bond] said, ... "when one's young, it seems very easy to distinguish between right and wrong, but as one gets older it becomes more difficult. At school it's easy to pick out one's own villains and heroes and one grows up wanting to be a hero and kill the villains. ...
"Now," he looked up again at Mathis, "that's all very fine. The hero kills two villains, but when the hero Le Chiffre starts to kill the villain Bond and the villain Bond knows he isn't a villain at all, you see the other side of the medal. The villains and the heroes get all mixed up. ...
"All right," he said. "Take our friend Le Chiffre. It's simple enough to say he was an evil man, at least it's simple enough for me because he did evil things to me. If he was here now, I wouldn't hesitate to kill him, but out of personal revenge and not, I'm afraid, for some high moral reason or for the sake of my country. ...
"Now, in order to tell the difference between good and evil, we have manufactured two images representing the extremes—representing the deepest black and the purest white—and we call them God and the Devil. But in doing so we have cheated a bit. God is a clear image, you can see every hair on His beard. But the Devil. What does he look like?" Bond looked triumphantly at Mathis.
... "I've been thinking about these things and I'm wondering whose side I ought to be on. I'm getting very sorry for the Devil and his disciples such as the good Le Chiffre. The Devil has a rotten time and I always like to be on the side of the underdog. ... There's a Good Book about goodness and how to be good and so forth, but there's no Evil Book about evil and how to be bad. The Devil has no prophets to write his Ten Commandments and no team of authors to write his biography. His case has gone completely by default. ...
"So," continued Bond, warming to his argument, "Le Chiffre was serving a wonderful purpose, a really vital purpose, perhaps the best and highest purpose of all. By his evil existence, which foolishly I have helped to destroy, he was creating a norm of badness by which, and by which alone, an opposite norm of goodness could exist. We were privileged, in our short knowledge of him, to see and estimate his wickedness and we emerge from the acquaintaceship better and more virtuous men."
"Bravo," said Mathis. "I'm proud of you. You ought to be tortured every day. ..."
He rose to his feet laughing.
"That was most enjoyable, my dear James. You really ought to go on the halls. Now about that little problem of yours, this business of not knowing good men from bad men and villains from heroes, and so forth. It is, of course, a difficult problem in the abstract. The secret lies in personal experience, whether you're a Chinaman or an Englishman."
He paused at the door.
"You admit that Le Chiffre did you personal evil and that you would kill him if he appeared in front of you now?
"Well, when you get back to London you will find there are other Le Chiffres seeking to destroy you and your friends and your country. M will tell you about them. And now that you have seen a really evil man, you will know how evil they can be and you will go after them to destroy them in order to protect yourself and the people you love. You won't wait to argue about it. You know what they look like now and what they can do to people. You may be a bit more chooosy about the jobs you take on. You may want to be certain that the target really is black, but there are plenty of really black targets around. There's still plenty for you to do. And you'll do it. And when you fall in love and have a mistress or a wife and children to look after, it will seem all the easier."
Mathis opened the door and stopped on the threshold.
"Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles."
He laughed. "But don't let me down and become human yourself. We would lose such a wonderful machine."

James Bond is no Captain America. He is no straight arrow. He is cruel, mechanical, a cold-blooded killer. By his own admission, he is himself unsure whether he is a hero or a villain. In the ancient myths, good is defined by its results. In Sam Spade's world, good is defined by its slightly more noble variations from evil. In Captain America's world, good is clearly defined, and any deviation is evil.

In James Bond's world, evil is clearly defined. It is defined by Bond's Le Chiffre—a Russian spy who has tortured Bond. It is defined by Adolf Hitler and by the Imperialist Japanese upon whom the United States dropped two atomic bombs. It is defined by Josef Stalin or by Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on the podium of the United Nations and shouting, "We will bury you!" It is defined, in the post-9/11 world, by the face of Osama bin Laden.

Since James Bond, the action hero has been a hero not because he is intrinsically good, but because he opposes that which is intrinsically evil. Even as Jack Bauer tortures ordinary businessmen, he does so because the evil he opposes is pure evil, and anything he therefore does in opposing this evil must be good by definition. James Bond introduced this new heroic ethic to pop culture, and this ethic would be seen in television as well as films and novels.

Kiss! Kiss! Bang! Bang!: Sex and the Action Hero

Throughout the early half of the 20th century, the action hero—although handsome—was largely sexless. This does not mean that the pulps and comic books were themselves sexless. In point of fact, one of the more remarkable aspects of the pulps and 1940s comic books is the high number of them which featured on the cover images of scantily clad, voluptuous women in bondage and/or physical danger—a genre of pop art so prevalent that several terms were coined to describe it: "good girl art," "headlight covers," etc.

In the pulps, women were broken into two classes. The first was the good girl, the heroine, the damsel in distress. Often blonde, her role was typically to be endangered, threatened or victimized by the villain. In many instances (such as the Shadow's Margot or Supergirl to Superman), the good girl may also have helped the hero. In these cases, she was often portrayed as, in the words of Roger Ebert, an "honorary boy." While voluptuous, she was usually portrayed as essentially virginal. Margot may have been Lamont Cranston's love interest, but it's a stretch to imagine her and Cranston ever sleeping together. It's impossible to imagine Wonder Woman ever having slept with Col. Steve Trevor. Even in her early, feistier days, Lois Lane's relationship with Superman was purely platonic. The fantasy stories of the 1950s sometimes portrayed her as having children by Superman in some futuristic hypothetical world, but then always within the bounds of marriage. And Lois certainly could never be imagined as having slept with any other man.

(It's interesting to note that, post-James Bond, this image of Lois Lane the Virgin quickly disappeared. In the 1970s film series, in Superman II, one of the first actions the de-powered Superman takes is to sleep with Lois. Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman certainly brought the sexual tension between the two characters to the fore—the most famous promotional image for the series was of actress Teri Hatcher as Lois pictured naked and wrapped in the iconic red cape. Smallville did little to subvert the sexual tension between young Clark Kent and his high school sweetheart Lana Lang. Even Superman: The Animated Series would depict a level of implied sexual tension between Lois and Clark which would have been unheard of in Adventures of Superman, the Fleischer cartoons of the 1940s or the comic books, radio show, movie serials of the era.)

The second type of woman in the pulps and comic books was the femme fatale. She was more often a brunette, a redhead or "exotic" (in the pop consciousness of the era, a code word for "foreign and/or non-Caucasian"). Not only was the femme fatale more overtly sexual than her good girl counterpart, she frequently used her sexuality as a weapon against ordinary men. Her oozing sexuality was dangerousTerry and the Pirates' Dragon Lady, Batman's Catwoman, Brigid O'Shaughnessy all acted as Black Widows luring men to their deaths, just as the Sirens of mythology had done.

Key to the portrayal of the hero in the pulps and comic books, however, was that while he may have been surrounded by sexuality, he himself did not take part in it. Pulps and movie serials may have had an occasional kiss, but rarely did the sexual action progress much beyond that. Very often, the femme fatale's fascination with the action hero came from the fact that he was the one man who was able to resist her. Even Raymond Chandler's hero Philip Marlowe's relationship with good girl Anne Riordan in Chandler's most complex novel, Farewell, My Lovely, is surprisingly innocent for jaded, cynical Marlowe.

With the arrival of James Bond, all that changed. Chandler himself—one of Fleming's earliest fans and advocates—described Bond as "what every man would like to be and what every woman would like to have between her sheets." And, as opposed to previous action heroes, have him between her sheets she did. The women Bond slept with would become so significant to the mythology of his stories that they themselves became a new archetype in fiction, the "Bond girl."

Interestingly, the Bond girl deviated little from the good girl/femme fatale archetypes of previous action fiction. Some notable deviations did exist, however. The good girl was just as likely to be exotic as the femme fatale was. More to the point, she slept with Bond in almost every novel and film. As with previous fiction, the femme fatale was frequently redeemed and transformed into a good girl (Pussy Galore in Goldfinger being the most notable example of this), but Bond was not impervious to her sexual advances.

Bond entwined sex with the action hero, and the two have not been separated since. So complete was the association post-Bond that many critics and scholars—particularly feminist theorists—have described sex (even, in the minds of some, misogyny) as important an element of the action genre as explosions and fistfights. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, few action heroes and heroines would be portrayed as virginal, and those who were more often appeared in parodies (the Batman TV series, Get Smart) than in action played straight.

Capt. Kirk to Jack Bauer: Action Since James Bond

Television was at the forefront of branching out the "new breed" of post-Bond action stories into genres beyond the spy genre. Captain James T. Kirk of Star Trek was clearly a Kennedy-era, post-Bond hero, as was Jim West on The Wild Wild West. (Creator Michael Garrison pitched the latter series as "James Bond on horseback.")

Action Comedies

James Bond had added another element to the action genre, which is clearly on display in The Wild Wild West: A sense of humor. Fleming's novels were rather serious, but the films had made frequent use of clever one-liners and dry wit. As the 1970s and 1980s progressed, such TV shows as The Dukes of Hazzard, Remington Steele and The A-Team (as well as I Spy and The Wild Wild West) represented examples of a new genre which were unique to the post-Bond world—action comedies which were not parodies.

The Outlaws

The Dukes of Hazzard and The A-Team also demonstrated another offshoot of James Bond's reinvention of the action genre. With his ethical ambiguity, Bond often operated outside the law. The action heroes who succeeded him moved further and further away from law-abiding citizens. In the 1970s, films such as Death Wish and Dirty Harry portrayed action heroes who were either vigilantes or cops who broke the rules. In other words, they openly flaunted their violation of the law. Previously, outlaws were sometimes heroes, but outlaw heroes were almost invariably either wrongly accused (as in The Fugitive or Branded), or they violated a law set in the past—usually under a foreign dictatorship—which was carefully painted as corrupt (as with Zorro or most pirates). This was not entirely new. In the 1920s and 1930s, heroes frequently found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Both Batman and Superman had been portrayed as vigilantes who were opposed as much by the police as they were by villains, but by the 1940s, both were regularly assisted by the police. Also, vigilantism was their only crime, and in all other ways, they upheld the law. Those protagonists who were truly outlaws and criminals (such as the characters played by James Cagney in the 1930s Warner Bros. gangster movies) were not heroes so much as tragic heroes who met violent endings as punishment for their transgressions.

In the 1940s and 1950s and most of the 1960s, the good guys upheld the law—especially American, especially contemporary American law. From the 1960s through the 1980s (perhaps inspired as much by the jading effects of the Vietnam War and Watergate as much as the influence of James Bond), even American law could be seen as corrupt and undeserved. Thus, the true heroes were often not the police, but the criminals. Outlaw heroes appeared on such diverse shows as Alias Smith and Jones, The Incredible Hulk and the afore-mentioned The Dukes of Hazzard and The A-Team.

This fascination with heroes who operated outside or above the law reached its peak in the 1980s with the film work of such stars as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Steven Seagal. Some critics even described the 1980s fascination with outlaw cops and unchecked violence as reactionary, even bordering on fascist. Even when the heroes were not outlaws, there was great concern in the Reagan Era of the military-based violence portrayed even in children's cartoons such as G.I. Joe and Rambo and the Forces of Freedom. In many ways, such action TV shows as MacGyver—in which the hero deplored gunplay and promoted leftist politics—or the eco-friendly, non-violent Captain Planet and the Planeteers could be seen as a reaction against this trend in pop culture.

Genre in Eclipse

As the Reagan Era ended and became the Clinton Era of the 1990s, the action genre fell largely out of favor compared to its 1980s peak. In films, even Schwarzenegger and Stallone became more sedate. In one of the largest hit action films of the 1990s, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Schwarzenegger as a killing machine cyborg is ordered by his young charge, "No killing." Stallone would appear in Cop Land, in which he played an emasculated, aging cop.

On television, action receded as a genre greatly. Many of the action series of the decade were cult hit, low-budget productions such as Xena: Warrior Princess or La Femme Nikita. What little action was on primetime networks usually took a backseat to romance or comedy, as with Lois & Clark. Even in the standards, Star Trek: The Next Generation portrayed a much less violent Enterprise crew than its predecessor.

Return of the Action Hero

On September 11, 2001, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon thrust the United States into wartime. Perhaps it is no accident that, at the same time, the action genre made a big return on television.

Both 24 and Alias had been in production prior to the attacks of September 11, but both debuted after that date. (In fact, 24 changed its pilot to eliminate images of an exploding airplane in deference to the attacks.) Perhaps the success of the series was the result of the national mood after the attacks. Regardless, their runaway success led to a new renaissance of the genre on American television. Within a few years, action and heroes would again dominate primetime television.

As with the 1960s, flawed heroes were intrinsic to the genre. In fact, heroes of the 2000s were more complex than at any point since perhaps the 1940s. The storytelling also became much more complex, and serialized stories were more common than ever before.

As of the middle of the 2000s, the action genre is one of the most popular on television. In 2006, 24 won Emmys for direction, lead actor (Kiefer Sutherland) and Outstanding Drama Series. New action series in the 2006-07 season include Kidnapped, Smith and Heroes.