News & Politics

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, http://www.fair.org/extra/0111/usa-patriot.html.) 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.”

"Homeland" is on Showtime, so the risks are there for the taking if the writers want them—and based on the pilot, now viewable online, it seems they do. CIA agent Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Danes) begins to suspect that a Marine POW just released by Al Qaeda has developed a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, defecting to the other side. The pilot already touches upon some of the uncomfortable truths of our government: Mathison is reassigned after participating in a rogue, unapproved operation in Iraq (wouldn’t be the first time that happened!), and heads to the counterterrorism unit. When Marine Nicholas Brody is rescued from Iraq after being considered missing in action since 2003, he’s viewed as a war hero—but Mathison believes he’s actually working to attack America.

Not only is the pilot premise a critique of unchecked jingoism, it illuminates the nuances of our post-9/11 reality, the fine line that must be tread between actual threats and intense paranoia. Mathison is an analogy for the latter; her PTSD has left her heavily medicated, and the show seems to allude to the idea that her suspicions about Brody could in fact be rooted in her trauma. Then again, if you buy the line that gross negligence in the Bush administration led to the actual carrying out of 9/11, you could easily believe our country’s desire to honor a POW would be blind to that POW’s new allegiances. "Homeland" underscores that terrorism really is about terror; where it comes from, and how it manifests, depends on your point of view.

Even as most media conducts its political coverage (or lack of it) with a complete lack of critique of US policy, it’s heartening that new well-funded, prime-time shows with recognizable stars seem to want to open up the debate about the past 10 years. Not all of them have worked so well--one show seems to have decided to just go nuclear. In a recent episode of "CSI: NY," commemorating the decade anniversary of 9/11, the show actually recreated the events of that day to suit its plot, which centered on the flashbacks of lead detective Mac Taylor, whose wife perished in the attacks. While they didn’t re-air the images of the planes smashing into the towers, there were full reenactments of the dust tsunami as the towers collapsed. Even though the media was saturated with the 10-year-old footage leading up to and on the anniversary, the "CSI" episode was rather jarring—not quite a “too soon” moment, but it certainly seems like something no one would take any joy in acting out.

Mostly, though, it provided a stark reminder of how far the political tenor of pop culture has changed since that day. In the wake of the attacks, much art was sanitized: television shows like "Sex in the City" and "Friends" wrung their hands over whether to discuss the attacks or reference terrorism, while big budget films like Collateral Damage were delayed for rewrites. Hip-hop act the Coup had to pull its uncanny album cover, which featured the two members with a remote control and the towers aflame behind them (they replaced it with a portrait of a flaming Manhattan in a martini glass).

Reenacting the attacks then would have been unfathomable, heretical to even mention. Reenacting them now feels slightly cheap, but not like blasphemy. And it underscored how finally, the mainstream is beginning to be daring about 9/11 and its aftermath, seeking answers to some of our most complicated questions. Most of all, by providing fictional context to real-life laws, they might connect with viewers whose knowledge of our eroding boundaries has been shortchanged by a media meant to protect us. And if good art is made in the process, even better.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.