Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 15, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Homeland Security TV

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Humor — by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan on April 15, 2010

Every time a lawyer show comes on television, my husband likes to remind that there are no shows that focus on engineers, his chosen profession.  He concedes that there are a number of shows on channels like Discovery, History, and Science, but argues that those are not the same as being featured as a wheeler and dealer or hero on prime time. Phil Palin’s post yesterday, Farewell Jack. Welcome to Treme, got me thinking about what my husband has said about engineer-hero shows and whether, beyond 24 and Jack Bauer, any shows exist out there that show the best and worst of homeland security.

The result: a list of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Homeland Security-inspired television.  In compiling this list, I have left out made-for-TV movies or mini-series.  A few reality shows sneaked on the list, but not in a good way.  I did not limit the possible candidates to contemporary programs or programs focused on counterterrorism, choosing instead to include programs that date back more than 40 years and focus on homeland security as broadly defined.  I have also included series that have significantly dealt with homeland security issues but may not be solely focused on them.

The Good – 10 Shows That Matter

Fringe – A show that features “mad” scientist Walter Bishop, civilian DHS consultant Peter Bishop, FBI agent Olivia Dunham, and DHS Special-Agent-in Charge Phillip Broyles, and their investigations into fringe science occurrences and an alternate universe.   The show has featured the pseudo-terrorist organization ZFT, aka Zerstörung durch Fortschritte der Technologie (Destruction Through Technological Progress), which has cells throughout the globe that trade science and technology secrets.  In the first episode, Broyles makes the proclamation Although this is a joint task force, you are all reporting to the Department of Homeland Security.”

The  Law And Order Franchise- The three NY-based shows making up the franchise, Law & Order, Law & Order: Criminal Intent,  and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, have all addressed terrorism and homeland security in significant ways.  Law & Order features Detective Cyrus Lupo, who previously worked in the intelligence division of the NYPD.  In addition, it routinely addresses terrorism, privacy, and issues relating to Muslim civil rights.  In one episode, it even attempted to put on trial a lawyer/scholar who had written memos while employed at the Justice Department that were used to justify torture in the Middle East. Special Victims had a series of episodes in Season 8 revolving around Detective Olivia Benson and ecoterrorists  and several of its episodes have featured Immigration & Customs Enforcement, though usually in a manner that is interfering with the NYPD’s investigations.  In its latest episodes, Criminal Intent focused on piracy, Somalia, and attempts to arm possible terrorist cells in Africa.

Lie to Me – Featuring the Lightman Group, the program focuses on a consulting firm that uses microexpressions and body language to determine whether people are telling the truth.  Granted, the series is more of a police drama, but it makes the list because it features  Ria Torres, who honed her skills at perceiving deception while working as a TSA agent.  Her natural ability to tell the good from the bad travelers led to her being recruited to join the mostly high-brow intellectual types at the firm.

Third Watch – Running from 1999 to 2005, the show featured first responders and preventers in New York City who worked the “third watch” shift (3pm-11pm).  Unlike many programs that featured only one type of first responder, the program had the triumvirate –  police, EMTs, and firefighters.  The show received wide acclaim for its programming portraying the 9/11 attacks and how it affected the  NY first responder/preventer community.

The Agency – Airing from 2001-2003, the program featured real footage of the CIA and focused on the agency’s mission in modern times.  Terrorism, Anthrax,  Assassinations, Leaked Classified Information, Congressional Inquiries – the show featured many of the same issues that Washington D.C. has tackled post-9/11.

Rescue Me – A series on the FX network, Rescue Me focuses on the Ladder 62/Engine 99 firehouse in New York City.  In its early days, the show dealt with the emotional effects of the 9/11 attacks on the firefighters at the firehouse.  The show is scheduled to end next year, around the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Emergency! – Reaching back into the archives, I would be remiss to not include Emergency!, the first program (that I know of it) to feature paramedics and their work. Airing from 1972 to 1977, the show featured firefighters and hospital emergency room staff in Los Angeles.  The show featured its first responders doing their thing with a number of real-world disasters, including the 1971 Sylmar earthquake and the 1973 Palos Verdes fire.

Mission: Impossible –   Before there was Jack Bauer, there was Jim Phelps and the Impossible Mission Forces.  While very Cold War-influenced, the show features secret agents taking covert assignments against global bad guys, including corrupt dictators and evil organizations.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. –  Another early spy program, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. looked to the remnants of the Nazi empire for its bad guy.  U.N.C.L.E. (the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) is a global international law-enforcement agency (Interpol, anyone?) fighting against THRUSH (the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity) and its efforts to take over the world. The series makes the list as it is a favorite of the government.  Allegedly, the show has a spot at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and the CIA’s museum.

Tiger Team – This short-lived (2 episode) series from TruTV (better known as Court TV) probably is better classified as a mini-series or special but there has been constant chatter about its possible re-birth so I decided to include it on my list.  The show followed a team that is hired to test the IT security of various organizations.  The ethical hackers demonstrated weaknesses in security using social engineering, hard core hacking, and breaking into buildings physically.  The show allowed geeks around the world to be proud of their own kind.

The Bad – 3 Shows That We Could Have Done Without

Homeland Security USA –  Only 13 episodes of this reality tv show featuring DHS employees doing their job to protect the nation aired.  The show featured real employees from CBP, ICE, TSA, and the Coast Guard and was shot in coordination with DHS.  Low ratings and claims that the show was no more than propaganda led to its demise.  A good premise – highlighting those on the front line – but bad execution.

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero – Some may be surprised that I’ve put one of American’s favorite children icons on the list of bad tv.   G.I. Joe is as American as apple pie and how could anyone be against an animated series that began each episode with:

G.I. Joe is the code name for America’s daring, highly-trained, Special Mission force. Its purpose: To defend human freedom against Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.

Like almost every kid out there, I played with my share of G.I. Joe action figures, borrowing them from my brother’s collection. That said, a television show designed mostly if not solely to peddle children’s toys rightly deserves a spot on the bad list.

A Man Called Sloane–   Since the “good” list featured some classics, I had to dig back to find a show from earlier eras that could made the not-so-good list.  A Man Called Sloane, which aired in 1979-80 and was canceled after a few episodes seemed to fit in well with this category.  The show attempted to be a combination of every spy show that preceded it and featured Thomas R. Sloane III, a spy who kind of worked for UNIT, a secret American intelligence operation run by someone called the Director.  As with all spy shows, the UNIT had an evil counterpart – the KARTEL. The show just never took off, though a made-for-tv movie called Death Ray 2000, featuring the never-aired  pilot of the show did make it on the air a year or two later.

The Ugly – Who Could Have Possibly Thought This Was A Good Idea?

Gana la Verde or Win the Green – The winner of the ugly homeland security-inspired program award goes hands down to this program.  A reality show that aired on Spanish television stations in the Southwest in 2004-2005, Gana featured immigrants competing in “Fear Factor” inspired contests in the hopes of gaining immigration advice. At one point, the show suggested that the winner would receive a green card, a claim that led ICE to point out that the program is not sanctioned by or connected to the agency.  Among the challenges given to contestants – eating cockroaches and worms, being attacked by dogs, cleaning the windows of a high-rise building, and running in between semi-trucks.  The show was largely criticized by immigration groups, who argued that the program was humiliating and gave false hopes of citizenship to contestants.

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Comment by Craig

April 16, 2010 @ 7:25 am

How could you forget ‘Get Smart’ in all of its incarnations?

Or for that matter, ‘McGyver’, who got to be the engineer-spy? (The closest there’s ever been to an ‘engineer hero’).

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 16, 2010 @ 7:29 am

What a list! If media is a mirror of our culture, what does this list tell us of our culture’s attitudes toward threat, vulnerability, and consequence?

I am told Craig Fugate has exorcised “victim” from the FEMA lexicon. “Survivor” is the accepted term. Should the reality show of the same name have a place on your list. What a collection of case studies in community resilience and the tension between “Jack Bauers” and the rest of us.

How about adding the inestimable Oprah to your list? At the core of her multi-billion dollar enterprise is the question of what defines the difference between a suffering victim and a thriving survivor.

For some readers such analysis of popular culture will seem a foolish indulgence. But an old mentor of mine said the key to success in anything that matters is to “command the context.” This media context matters a great deal to how we conceive and practice risk readiness in our media-suffused culture.

Comment by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan

April 16, 2010 @ 8:15 am

Craig- good point on both shows, esp MacGyver, which has created its own cult following and lead to the vocabulary entry “MacGyverisms.” Phil – maybe MacGyver represents the missing link between the Bauers of the world as explored above and the survivors, as portrayed by Survivor and Oprah. MacGyver survives not with the weapons, badges, or tools of heroes but with a swiss army knive and duct tape, two items that should be in every citizen’s preparedness kit (so the government tells us).

BTW, as an American Studies major way back when, I find that the mix of popular culture with history and politics a natural fit/extension. There is actually a very interesting article by Lynn Spiegel on how the television industry reacted to 9/11 entitled “Entertainment Wars: Television Culture after 9/11 that was published in 2004 by American Quarterly that explores the gathering of audiences as “citizen publics.” In that piece, Spiegel explores how in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the industry perceived the event had changed U.S. culture permanently. The reaction across the board was to turn to “nationalist myths” and make stars into “celebrity citizens.” A month later, television was business as usual. Though, as the list above and all the additional suggestions imply, television does not leave the real world (or our perceptions of how we would like the real world to be) behind…

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 16, 2010 @ 9:08 am

Well TV is an important medium. The medium being the message. Did 9/11/2001 change the deeprooted culture of the US from optimism to pessimism? From hope to dispair? From belief in a better future to memories of a better past?

I believe there was a show called the “Threat Matrix” which briefly ran on TV. Also did any of the Superhero Shows like Christopher Reeve or whomever was on the tv version take on terrorism?

Nice post. And probably should be the subject of someone’s thesis.

Comment by bellavita

April 16, 2010 @ 11:47 am

Bill — you may not be surprised to learn someone has already written a thesis on the topic of today’s blog. The thesis — written by Judith Boyd — is available here: http://bit.ly/a5ifpk. It is a remarkable piece of scholarship.

Here’s the abstract:

Introducing the Future Now: Using Memetics and Popular Culture to Identify the Post 9/11 Homeland Security Zeitgeist

“What effect did the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 have on American culture? One outcome was the emergence of ‘homeland security’ as a new institution, concept, and method. But what does this mean as part of a broader historical narrative of cultural change following 9/11? This thesis uses a combination of both classic and contemporary theories to gain perspective on how the public perceives homeland security–Zeitgeist theory and memetics. By examining small clues found within American popular culture, called memes, the reader is able to see how ideas related to homeland security have been transmitted, varied, or faded away. What may appear to be random events found in American popular culture can be considered part of a larger dynamic at work called the ‘Zeitgeist’ and may provide the first glimpse into a future that ‘currently exists, but is just not widely distributed yet.’ The themes found within the homeland security Zeitgeist–patriotism, victimization, fear, and absurdity–provide insight into how Americans perceive homeland security and awareness of emerging cultural patterns that affect their lives. Opportunities for further research are suggested related to cultural evolution, memetics, popular culture analysis, strategic communications, and homeland security.”

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 16, 2010 @ 2:15 pm

Thanks Chris! And now on to the HS movie review?

Comment by Arnold Bogis

April 16, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

In defense of G.I. Joe (and countless childhood memories of my own…), they did end each show with a serious PSA aimed at children. I can imagine that if the show was still running, we would be hoping they wouldn’t merely tell kids about fire safety but would include other preparedness tips as well.

Because “now you know, and knowing is half the battle”…

Comment by Christopher Bellavita

April 16, 2010 @ 5:40 pm

Bill — Funny you should mention the homeland security movie review. The same person who wrote the thesis I mentioned earlier also wrote a move review a few months later. The review is at this link: http://www.hsaj.org/?article=4.3.7

Here is the abstract:
[The author] reviews the film Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay and suggests the way in which this film satirizes our response to the war on terror may be an indication of the change in broader cultural attitudes toward terrorism.

Comment by Federale

April 22, 2010 @ 7:50 pm

What does Homeland Security have to do with “Muslim civil rights?” Homeland Security USA was a much better and accurate show in dealing with DHS issues than Law and Order. They never dealt with the real issue of Islamic terrorism other than to deny it exists and to propogandize on the radical agenda of unindicted co-conspirators such as CAIR and ISNA with perpetual whining about the civil rights of Muslim terrorists and their sympathizers and funders. In fact the legacy INS and ICE never interfer with local investigations, much less those of significant issue. And don’t tell me that an District Attorney has jurisdiction over federal law enforcement policy. Just ask Ron Horiuchi.

Comment by Aramis

July 14, 2010 @ 4:54 am

subribe all newsletters please

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