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3 Anti-Authoritarian TV Shows that Grapple with America's Security State

Three new shows examine ways the USA Patriot Act can play out in our daily lives.

When the horrific events of 9/11 led the Bush administration to hastily sign the USA Patriot Act, which granted the government broad powers that many believe tread on Americans’ constitutional rights, it was barely reported in the mainstream news media. In 2003, when John Ashcroft drafted a follow-up broadening the bill, the coverage was so scant that media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) was compelled to write a lengthy condemnation, observing:

The fact that the DOJ has secretly prepared legislation that would fundamentally alter the protections afforded Americans by the Constitution is, by any measure, a huge story. The first USA Patriot Act was rushed through Congress in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks with very little media coverage or public debate. (See "Are You a Terrorist?", Extra! 11-12/01, Media must not let this happen a second time-- there is too much at stake.

And yet, in May 2011, when President Obama signed a four-year extension of the bill, it did happen a third time.

Fortunately, while the mainstream media may be turning a blind eye to the breadth and unconstitutionality of the Patriot Act, mainstream television, it seems, is picking up the slack. Two new programs, "Person of Interest" and "Homeland," as well as the older "Fringe," hinge their plots on provisions of the law. And while shows like "24" and "Alias," already in progress during 9/11, dealt with some of its aftermath, they didn’t do it like these shows, which present a progressive, anti-authoritarian message that actually seems like they’re trying to teach us something. It sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it does—there’s no preachiness, just integral points and intrigue woven in with the most terrifying, Orwellian truths about what the government calls “Homeland Security.”

"Person of Interest" is the new show created by JJ Abrams, and its plot is straight out of a Philip K. Dick novel (a specific one: The Minority Report). The gist: a billionaire computer genius (played by "Lost" fan fave Michael Emerson) was commissioned to develop an elaborate program for the government that detects and identifies people who will be involved in a murder in the future. The database collects their Social Security numbers and uses ubiquitous surveillance cameras to track their movements, but does not reveal whether they are the perps or the victims, setting the stage for interesting stereotype challenges in the future. The program was built to prevent another 9/11 using provisions of USA Patriot—which Emerson’s character details in full in the pilot—but, feeling strange about the monster he’s created, he fakes his own death and disappears. That is, until he recruits a downtrodden ex-CIA agent (who also faked his death to defect, obviously) to help him prevent everyday murders.

The pilot was rife with cop drama grit and just enough science fiction to please us nerds, but most of all it presented a show that will examine how far Americans will go for the illusion of safety—and how much we’ve already given up. Shot with movie-grade cameras and interspersed with surveillance camera shots (like "The Wire," which also touched upon the Patriot Act), it looks slick, too. The cast is loaded with talent, including the ever-radiant Taraji P. Henson as a good cop with suspicions about the CIA agent’s identity. The only complaint with "Person of Interest" is with the media campaign promoting it: Henson has been summarily excluded, despite being one of the best actresses working. (Luckily, TV Guide’s era is quite over, while Henson’s star is just beginning its rise.)

"Person of Interest" is JJ Abrams’ second show to focus on post-9/11 laws and agencies; the first was "Fringe," which began in 2008 and focuses on a secret division of FBI agents working under the supervision of Homeland Security to explore mysteries that allude to the presence of parallel universes. Much like "The X-Files" portrayed the corrupt nature of the FBI and the CIA through the existence of a shadow government, Fringe’s protagonists encounter rogue characters around the world who may control things from behind the scenes. And while its premise is more science fiction-leaning that that of "Person of Interest" (at least so far), it too has its dalliances with USA Patriot. Clearly, JJ Abrams is enthralled with the ways the government controls us, and his interest has only become more acute. This quote from "Person of Interest" co-writer Jonathan Nolan ( The Dark Knight), however, emphasizes how normalized this surveillance existence has become: “What 9/11 did is irrevocably change the characters’ lives, and we’re dealing with that fallout,” he told the LA Times. “Just as we do in everyday life.”