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Are Bureaucrats TV's New Heroes?

Trends* The new interest in the role of government, and those who make it work, is reflected in recent programs that focus on Washington, D.C.

April 08, 2002|PHILIP KENNICOTT | WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — On "This Week With Sam Donaldson & Cokie Roberts," the latter has an idea, Sam is clucking approval, and even the saturnine face of George Will is registering a slight smile. The idea: The '60s are finally over. The proof: Polls show that Americans trust the government again (though it's not clear from the polls whether that trust extends beyond the prosecution of the war on terrorism).

They certainly seem infatuated with government out in the Great Wasteland. Following the multiple-Emmy success of "The West Wing," there are now two TV entertainment series devoted to the inner workings of the Supreme Court ("First Monday" and "The Court"), and one to the CIA ("The Agency"). An attempt to apply the same formula to the diplomatic corps ("The American Embassy") came and went, but "JAG," a look at the judge adjutant general, has proved popular. Network television never loved bureaucrats as much as it does now.

By and large, these shows seem aimed at a relatively literate audience and steer clear of the twin demons of television violence and prurience. Despite their grandiose settings, they mostly revolve around the petty dramas of everyday people just doing their best to get on getting on.

On balance, it seems a positive trend. Several of the programs place a premium on intelligence and dedication. A current leitmotif of "The West Wing" is the problem of the president's brainpower: Should he hide it from an electorate suspicious of intellectuals or celebrate it as a strength? Plot twists revolve around clever, well-studied underlings who think their way out of jams. And far from the faceless bureaucrats villainized by the budget-cutting, outside-the-Beltway crowd, today's television bureaucrats are hip young urbanites, devoted to public service and solving the nation's problems. They all put in very long hours.

These are the perfect shows for what historians would call "post-industrial" America. We've come a long way from the agrarian society of 1970s television, the little houses on prairies, the fur-wearing, muskrat-trapping Grizzly Adams and his hunter-gatherer ilk. Today's TV workers don't actually grow or make anything; they provide administrative services, interact with each other, talk and write and push papers around offices with no natural light.

Cynics might note that these are basically the same dramas that used to happen in hospitals, or law firms, simply transferred to government settings. Throw up some columns, roll out some marble, drape a few flags, and "The West Wing" is basically "L.A. Law" in D.C. But that underestimates the power of setting. The government is not incidental to these programs, it is essential.

The fascination with government as TV subject has so far been limited to areas of the bureaucracy that have a cult of secrecy: the imperial remove of the executive mansion, the cloak-and-dagger hush of the CIA, the arcane hidden traditions of the Supreme Court.

Perhaps the most secretive new addition to the roster of government powers, the military tribunals proposed for trying terrorism suspects, is the subject of an upcoming episode of "JAG," written with some input from the Pentagon.

Is it merely a coincidence that television is obsessed with showing the inner workings of government at a time when the inner workings of government are becoming more and more opaque? Energy policy is decided behind closed doors with oil executives--a fact that comes out only after the government grudgingly releases records riddled with deletions and excisions. Terrorist suspects are rounded up and held for questioning, and the government doesn't even release their names. And the Bush administration invokes executive privilege and refuses to allow top-level lieutenants in the war on terrorism, such as Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, to testify before Congress.

Less than half a year after the election was decided, by the Supreme Court, the camera takes us there in camera . And as the government orders all of its agencies to review and expunge from the Internet any weapons information that may be of use to potential terrorists, "The Agency" appears as a behind-the-scenes fantasy of the spook technology that we so desperately hope is being used to protect us.

It's not clear whether all of this is driven by a newfound love of the government, or simply wish fulfillment--please let our government be as benign as it seems to be on television. One can't, for instance, explain the public's love of medical dramas through any particular love of spending time in a hospital, or lawyer dramas through any profound affection for the legal profession. Television may play on our fears, but it also soothes them by making our dependence--on doctors, lawyers or bureaucrats--feel more human.

When it comes to the things that are most troubling about television--violence and exploitative sex--we mostly fall back on two very old theories: Either it is setting us a bad example and leading us to ruin, or it is a catharsis, a pressure valve, that dissipates toxic impulses in a fantasy world before they mess up the real one.

Let's apply the same theories to the seemingly positive things about the new crop of government dramas--the positive vision of hard-working, dedicated, intelligent civil servants. Is this setting us a good example, leading young people, perhaps, to contemplate careers as policy wonks? Or does fantasy government become a kind of substitute, a reassuring bromide, that deflects attention and energy away from thinking too much about the problems of the real one?

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