The Boob Tube Does Surveillance Porn

Person of Interest and Homeland

by , October 11, 2011

Author Aldous Huxley once wrote, “Government-through-terror works, on the whole, less well than government through nonviolent manipulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of individual men, women, and children.”

Writing this in 1958, Huxley hadn’t seen nothin’ yet.

But the eerily perceptive futurist, who in 1932 published the ultimate government-through-nonviolent manipulation nightmare, Brave New World, nonetheless pegged television as the medium through which his dystopian vision would be realized in the Western world. He was right: Television for decades has been the velvet whip with which powerful social, political, and commercial forces — the so-called establishment — have relentlessly endeavored to keep us all in a conformist stupor.

Well, he would have been really ratified by this pair of new dramas debuting on television this fall. Showtime’s Homeland and CBS’s Person of Interest are nothing less than post-9/11 government propaganda wrapped in slick, modern cinematography, fronted by pretty people and delivered with supposedly “complicated” plots and characters. Think 24 3.0 — except that now, we don’t cheer the government breaking every law of war and man to bag foreign terrorists. Instead, we countenance the suspension of the Constitution as it applies to us, the American citizen, in the interest of national security (Homeland) and law & order (Person of Interest).

One might be tempted to say “Who cares?” — television is an ancient medium that must compete with the Internet and every other social-entertainment device for attention. But TV is still one of the great equalizers and the hearth of the home. It’s where most people continue to get their news, and according to the A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American still watches four hours of programming a day, or 28 hours a week. The average household has at least two television sets. Total annual TV hours watched in America: 260 billion.

Don’t forget, you can watch TV online now too (that’s how I came across these “hot” new series), and let’s be serious, Huxley would be impressed at how deftly the Net itself has been corporatized and manipulated into the next-gen conformist tool: Millions of people a day spend millions of dollars and that many hours cultivating fake online farms and simulated friendships, producing nothing but profits for big game and social media moguls like Zynga, Facebook, and Google. “Time wasters” are the road to passivity and ignorance, and they don’t just come in the form of silly sitcoms and game shows.

But Homeland and Person of Interest are far from time wasters. They’re indoctrination. And here’s why.

Let’s start with Person of Interest, because it is has the less sophisticated agenda of the two. Plot: hot-headed former CIA agent with mysterious past teams up with equally opaque geek genius “to prevent violent crimes by using their own brand of vigilante justice.” It’s more Death Wish than Star Chamber, however, because stripped down, there’s a lot of shooting and fists flying and the vigilantes are the good guys who save at least one person per episode.

Person of Interest

So what makes this different? Genius is also a billionaire who has “invented a program that uses pattern recognition to identify people about to be involved in violent crimes.” More specifically, he was tasked by the government after 9/11 to create a massive data mining tool that could collect, watch, and analyze the whereabouts and goings-on of every person in the United States (think Total Information Awareness on steroids). Genius (a.k.a. Mr. Finch) laments the machine is only authorized to ferret out terrorists, because he knows it could be programmed not only to track regular criminals but also to anticipate and thwart violent crimes like kidnapping and murder.

Frustrated he can’t use his invention as a complete force for good, our techie strikes out on his own and enlists a resourceful strong arm (Reese, played by a former Jesus, Jim Caviezel) to help carry out justice à la Charles Bronson. Conveniently, one “number” (the Social Security kind) pops out from the machine every episode based on an unexplained series of connections generated by the all-seeing Eye of Sauron — sorry, wrong fairy tale — the machine.

It’s then the job of Mr. Finch and Reese to track down this person and solve the impending violent crime. Reese largely assumes the physical responsibilities for this, knocking in doors, beating the tar out of people, shooting so-called “suspects” dead in the street or in public places like Laundromats, while Mr. Finch taps into cell phones, voice mail, computer files, bank records, whatever.

Though Jack Bauer first paved this road almost 10 years ago, it’s still amazing how so-called liberal Hollywood can advance what amounts to surveillance porn for the state — visualizing the ability to electronically spy on everyone in the country at all times without warrant, and actually, as Tim Gunn says in Project Runway, “make it work” — call it “security,” and then promote it as some sort of acceptable development in law enforcement.

The message: The state has the ability to protect you. But the state lacks imagination and often won’t use the tools it has to their fullest potential. So sometimes brave people (vigilantes) must come forward to do the job, even if that means breaking those silly laws that come between the police and saving the little girl from the murderous thug in Washington Square Park.

Unfortunately for the propagandists, Person of Interest soon falls victim to formula. The writers make sure to explain that the machine only spits out numbers, not whether the people attached to them are victims or perpetrators or how the violent acts will go down. So our heroes must spend the hour engaged in good old-fashioned detective work, utilizing what we scarcely remember to be human intelligence. It’s not long before we realize that on its own, the multi-million-dollar, super-duper invasive gadgetry won’t cut it. You need capable people to put the pieces together, and that puts us back at square one — Sept. 10, 2001, in fact. Outcomes are still determined by whether you get Sherlock Holmes or Inspector Clouseau on the case, and no amount of algorithmic hocus pocus is ever going to save the world.

But the show does reach for and perhaps is successful at driving one point home, that we’re not that far from the All-Seeing Eye, or at least an attempt at one. The government every day has new ways of “keeping us safe” and “getting the bad guys” through better IT. Individual privacy is rapidly becoming a quaint and obsolete concept, no doubt disappearing for good sometime in the early 21st century, much like the idea of the police being your city’s “finest,” or government officials “servants of the people.” Soon we’ll be okay with the Eye, too — as long as it’s for our own good.

Now we segue to Homeland, which, not surprisingly, is brought to us by the same executive producers as 24. Fantastic. Jack Bauer is reborn in Carrie Mathison, who is just like the girl next door — if your neighbor is a bipolar (she’s taking drugs for that) CIA agent who has gone rogue and is wound so tight you half expect her to become a human RPG at any moment, single-handedly taking out an entire al-Qaeda cell in a single round.

Homeland

But her sights are set on an American — Nicholas Brody, a Marine, who was found by Delta Force after eight years of captivity in Afghanistan. Brody comes home to a hero’s welcome, but Mathison, who the writers assure us was a CIA “case worker” in Iraq before getting demoted while overreaching and causing “a national incident,” is convinced he was “turned” by his al-Qaeda captors and sets out to expose him.

So, unlike the novel and 1962 adaptation of The Manchurian Candidate, where the former POWs themselves solve the mystery of their brainwashing by Chinese Communists, it’s up to the power of the state (i.e., Agent Mathison and friends) by any means necessary to identify and neutralize the enemy, who’s even scarier than al-Qaeda — he’s the returning war veteran.

This calls for, quite literally, conducting extreme surveillance on Brody and his family and anyone they come into contact with. This includes cameras pointed at the bed while Brody is making love to his wife, scars on his naked back. Why does his wife look anxious while in the coital embrace? Does she feel her husband is not the “same” man? Mathison unselfishly struggles through these and other uncomfortable stakeouts to her get man.

But is all what it seems? Homeland quickly falls into formulaic step with Person of Interest. In this case, it must keep viewers guessing so they’ll come back each week. Is Brody really a bad guy? Or is Mathison just crazy like a Fox Mulder on anti-psychotics barking up the wrong Washington monument? Homeland wants it both ways, though we know something’s going on with Brody, considering the flashbacks where he’s seen pummeling — at the behest of his captors — his partner and buddy, Cpl. Walker, who never returned from their shared imprisonment. And, oh no, Brody has a prayer rug and knows how to face Mecca!

Throughout, Homeland perpetuates the Washington myth that al-Qaeda is more powerful and capable than it likely ever was. Next, it implies that the insurgents are the only ones kidnapping, torturing, and “turning” people in captivity, when we know they face much broader, state-sanctioned competition on that front.

A favorite line in the premiere episode is when Mathison is debriefing Brody on his return and she asserts with the best sense of authority she can muster that the first 72 hours of interrogation are “the most critical” when it comes to getting any real information from a suspect. “Yet he was kept alive for eight years,” she says incredulously, “and I want to ask him why.”

Hey, sister, why don’t you get out of your camera cave for one minute, take a staff flight to Gitmo, and ask your colleagues there that very same question?

When did Hollywood become such a casual promoter of fascism? When it became politically and profitably convenient to do so. Otherwise, it would be jamming these post-9/11 PATRIOT Act realities through a more cautionary lens, attempting, at least, a clarion call to all the zombies and sleepwalkers predominant in our pathetically passive American culture.

Instead, with rare exception, most crime dramas today reassure us that despite a few rotten tomatoes in his garden and a lot of stumbling and bumbling through parenthood, Big Papa Government is a benevolent guardian with only our best interests in mind.

The sorriest aspect of it all is that not one reviewer questions this agenda. The conditioning has long set in. The Los Angeles Times calls Homeland “the first telling of a post-9/11 story that is all the things it should be: politically resonant, emotionally wrenching, and plain old thrilling to watch.”

We are guessing that “truthful” doesn’t make the list of “all things it should be.”

On the other hand, Entertainment Weekly says Person of Interest can “simultaneously unsettle, comfort, excite, and amuse — something for everyone, if, like Mr. Finch, you like to watch.”

Those reviewers who want us to know that they know this is surveillance porn cleverly explain it away as illustrative of post-9/11 “paranoia.” Baloney. That implies we still think we are being watched and can’t prove it. Both Person of Interest and Homeland confirm that Big Brother is watching. In fact, they normalize it. Homeland at least attempts to create a gray area, but only in the suggestion that Agent Mathison might be wrong about Brody, not whether the invasive tactics she uses are disproportionate to the threat the man actually poses.

But there’s the rub: If Brody is indeed a sleeper agent about to wage another spectacular domestic attack, are a few cameras, bugs, and GPS tracking devices even that unreasonable?

What was it that Huxley said about “manipulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of individual men, women, and children”?

Let’s hope the reviewers are wrong and like many of today’s best-hyped TV premiers, these stinkers eventually land in pilot purgatory.

If not, they may be useful to watch, like looking into a crystal ball into our future.

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos