Homeland Security Show Misses the Real Drama

After months of anticipated debate on the politics of airing a Homeland Security reality show on primetime on ABC, the Jan. 6 premiere may have ended the argument before it even could get started.

I would like to say that the inclusive nature of our country found the notion of celebrating a branch of the government that detains immigrant families, raids homes, and tears apart communities an abhorrent use of a mass media outlet. But really, "Homeland Security USA" just sucked – politics or not -- and television critics have almost universally denounced it after its first episode. The show was boring, devoid of drama, and, not surprisingly, it turns out that following a large bureaucratic agency in its daily grind is not quite as riveting as an episode of "24."

I first heard about the show after getting repeated bulletins on Facebook, where a mounting online movement called for a boycott. The sizable Facebook group, called "Take 'Homeland Security USA' reality show off the Air!" wrote, "Rather than revealing the myriad human rights abuses committed by DHS in their day-to-day operations, this show only serves to glamorize DHS and further the misconception that immigrants are criminals."

After watching the show, however, the use of the word "glamorize" might be a bit of a stretch -- but the show was clearly designed to paint the agency and its employees as mere civil servants doing a thankless, civic duty. While promoting the launch of the show, producer Arnold Shapiro promised that the program would "make you feel good about these people who are doing their best to protect us."

The premiere episode featured stories of Customs and Border Protection officers at the U.S.-Mexico border crossing in San Ysidro, Calif., the U.S.-Canada border post in Blaine, Wash., and an international mail center at the Los Angeles International Airport. Viewers watched as DHS found border crossers, turned away a Swiss belly dancer, and cut dope out of the tire of a drug dealer’s car.

The program seemed to perfectly target that rare KQED/Fox News crossover viewing audience.

The show is going to have to do better than that. In a couple of weeks, primetime ratings stars "The Biggest Loser" and "American Idol," which will occupy the same slot on competing networks, will come back on the air.

The truth is, a Homeland Security reality show -- if truly real, raw, and not contrived into an government infomercial -- would be a show from which no one could turn away. Today's authentic American drama -- the one that goes on everyday -- is the moving, thrilling, inspiring and heart-breaking epic of immigrants coming to the country, and struggling to survive in a nation that both needs them and rejects them at the same time.

The program “Homeland Security USA” fails because it only shows part of the reality. Why not give a camera to a family crossing the border, to capture the horror of being chased down in the desert, surviving only through the desperation of an imagined American life? Or a workplace raid at a meatpacking plant in the Midwest, where workers flee agents who are armed like they are entering a war zone? Why not go to Eloy, Ariz., where sprung up out of the dirt in the middle of nowhere, like a mirage, is one the largest detention centers in the country -- where detainees ask for deportation because the conditions are subhuman, and elderly men die of dehydration?

The point of reality TV is to allow the audience to view a life through another perspective. And while it is true that most Americans do not have the experience of being DHS agents, it is not where the true American drama lies.

While the program clearly shows the enormity and omnipresence of the mega-security agency, all this does is beg the more interesting question: How do ordinary civilians stay out of their clutches? How does an undocumented immigrant carve out an American life -- work, go to school, build a family, plant roots -- all while this multi-million dollar machinery called Homeland Security is stalking them every moment of the day?

Drama is with the rebels, not the empire.

The real show about the Department of Homeland Security would truly capture the American audience. It would be jaw-dropping, and would eclipse water-cooler conversations about American Idol hairstyles. Whatever their political stripe, viewers would tune in. Perhaps it would even lead to a more authentic debate on immigration and security policy.

But what aired on ABC was not that. it was a training manual for DHS employees about to start their first day of work.


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