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1. The Republican president and the first lady are having a last-minute chat inside the presidential limo. Outside the car doors is a throng of people waiting for them to emerge and get the president's big, gala 50th-birthday party started. “Let's not go” says the pregnant first lady, suddenly smothering his hand with hers and preventing his exit.

To understate, this isn't ordinary behavior for these two. Her pregnancy was politically strategic, and their relationship has been arctic since his long-standing affair with his canniest adviser became obvious. But now she suddenly wants to blow off the one party virtually impossible for anyone to blow off, much less a president of the United States.

They emerge from the limo, anyway, and walk into the party. A shot rings out. He falls. …

2. The hawkish and inordinately powerful vice president – a fan of Middle Eastern drone strikes – is elsewhere in his home having a long sit-down with the Israeli ambassador. A congressman and war hero – a survivor of eight years imprisonment in Afghanistan – has rummaged through the veep's study meanwhile and discovered the code number for the vice president's cardiac pacemaker. He has called it into a major terrorist named Abu Nazir. The vice president then finds his friend, the congressman, in his study.

Elsewhere, one of Nazir's terrorists, at a computer, enters the proper coding for the pacemaker and, by remote control, wrecks its ability to perform properly. Monster chest pains drop the vice president to the floor. He tries to grab a telephone to call his aides. The congressman then moves it out of reach and informs him that because he deplores everything the vice president stands for, he's happy to be killing him.

No. 1 is how “Scandal” on ABC ended Thursday night. No. 2 is how Showtime's marvelous “Homeland” ended on Sunday.

Assassination attempts on a president and vice president within four days of prime-time television seem unusual, especially since the latter was a fictional success. (The veep, played by Jamey Sheridan, is a certain goner from “Homeland.” The president, played by Tony Goldwyn on “Scandal,” seemed to have been hit in the right shoulder and is certain to survive and be seen Thursday.)

Those who watched the past season of Starz Network's “Boss” starring Kelsey Grammer saw an assassination attempt on Chicago's mayor that missed but took down his wife, inches away, with nonfatal wounds.

What gives here? Why are our dream factories suddenly dreaming of political assassinations in bulk?

Both “Scandal's” fantasy president and “Homeland's” veep are Republican, despite the former's Clintonesque White House behavior. That the president is a liberal Republican is openly declared by the show itself. The veep, despite his apparent middle-aged vigor, seems Cheneyesque by implication given his hawkishness, unusual vice presidential power and his major cardiac problems.

The White House team in neither show resembles in the slightest the current occupants of the White House and the vice presidential mansion.

“Scandal” is loosely based on the real-life exploits of Washington fixer Judy Smith, who once worked in the administration of George H.W. Bush (“I know what. Let's make the president sexually viable and her and the president lovers. …”) “Homeland” is based on an Israeli television series and is obviously a modern Middle Eastern update of “The Manchurian Candidate,” Richard Condon's wild and woolly assassination fantasy, which preceded both Kennedy assassinations and was made by John Frankenheimer in 1962 into one of the most brilliant satiric fantasies in all of American movies.

Frankenheimer once admitted to me in an interview that he had a nervous breakdown after John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas a matter of mere months after his movie was released, despite the lack of all correlation.

What I'm wondering at the moment is whether the TV fantasies of the past week have proven something extraordinarily strange about the relationship of historical drama and Hollywood fantasy of the past 50 years.

To wit: the Kennedy assassination in Dallas – which seemed to set off others in the '60s – remains the ever-present primal trauma of our era, not 9/11, despite its vastly greater loss of life.

Insane as it now seems, we Americans have been entertained for 15 years by movies that blithely destroy national landmarks (for the primary example, see “Independence Day”). There was nothing remotely abstract about the evil of 9/11. But in its aftermath, filmmaker Robert Altman actually blamed the quality of Hollywood's apocalyptic fantasies for being irresponsible enough to inspire the 9/11 conspirators.

It seems now, weirdly, that to truly chill the hearts of Americans, you still have to show them elected officials suddenly brought down by assassins.

What makes “Scandal” so rich and fascinating at this moment is the unavoidable intimation that the pregnant first lady knew what was coming –and had second thoughts – which puts the show's fantasies into a whole different level of malevolence.

What happens to our assassinating congressman on “Homeland” is now less interesting than what happens to his CIA investigator/lover, Carrie, up to her chiseled Claire Danes cheekbones in black ops.

On “Dexter,” meanwhile, in the Showtime time slot before “Homeland,” America's favorite serial killer who knocks off other serial killers has finally accepted that his murders are acts of moral will and not compulsions driven by a “dark passenger” who cannot be denied.

That, too, happened on Sunday and, as current TV is constituted, was momentous.

I regard these three shows – “Dexter,” “Homeland” and “Scandal” – as the cream of contemporary television. I know people aware of “Homeland's” large import of the “24” brain trust who insist that the similarities of “Homeland” and “24” undercut “Homeland's” primacy.

To which I say, with all due politesse, “Hooey.” Yes, both shows contain infuriating teens whose myopic, adolescent self-absorption interferes with averting geopolitical apocalypse, but on “24” freelance torturer Jack Bauer's mission seemed evenly divided between saving America and bringing Guantanamo prison interrogations to American neighborhoods.

“Homeland” goes so deeply into moral and political ambiguity that it is one of the greatest nightmares ever to be trusted to prime time.

Add the lighter weight of “The Good Wife,” “Elementary,” “The Mentalist” and “Castle,” and it seems to me that anyone who doesn't at least suspect this is a new Golden Age of American Television needs a remedial course in just how godawful TV used to be.

Or they could just watch a few sitcoms.



email: jsimon@buffnews.com