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The TV Shows That Prepared Us for the NSA Scandal

Assessing a decade of surveillance television


If the details of the NSA scandal have seemed eerily familiar, perhaps it’s because TV drama has been playing out similar scenarios for years. The past decade has seen a flood of national-security related TV shows that refract our anxieties du jour and offer different spins on the hazards of big data and the assorted ways we justify privacy invasion in the name of national security. In recent years technology has morphed from a snazzy instrument in the game of taking out enemies, as it was in most Cold-War-era spy shows, into a threat in and of itself. Elsewhere, PRISM-esque technology serves as a deus ex machina, a quick and justified way to solve crimes and thwart terrorism. If you want to fuel your paranoia about the national security apparatus, here’s what to watch—and how they stack up against the real thing.

SCANDAL: In the third episode of season two, “Scandal” had a weirdly prophetic plot about a top-secret NSA program called Thorngate that has the ability to spy—literally—on any American citizen for reasons described as “anti-terrorism.” The show, which generally distrusts all of its government officials, portrayed Thorngate as a nefarious, Big Brotherish violation rather than a way to protect American citizens. And just as the NSA data-mining story quickly become a conversation about personality—what kind of human is a whistleblower or a spy, whether we should dub that person a hero or a narcissist or a lunatic and whether we should care that he once made $200,000 a year or that his girlfriend is an acrobat—“Scandal,” too, interrogated the motivations and the background of its whistleblower. In the case of “Scandal,” the leaker was a nutty loner working in data entry who ultimately wanted to use the program for his own gain, not an apparently assimilated private contractor a la Snowden. “Scandal” also featured a “Homeland”-ish plotline later in the season, in which the president orders a friend at the Pentagon to plant video cameras in political fixer Olivia Pope’s apartment so he can spy on her—not for purposes of national security, of course, but as a jealous ex.

24: The show became best known for its normalization of torture, but surveillance has never looked so starkly essential as it did in “24,” with all those satellites and fiber optics and flashing screens. Jack Bauer’s Counter-Terrorism Unit is crammed full of government-funded spy gadgetry that, we are repeatedly shown, is key to combating vast cells of stealthy, well-funded terrorists. At one point Bauer cuts off a dead man’s finger and instantly sends a scan of the fingerprint to the CTU headquarters. He hijacks a satellite to broadcast a terrorist operation directly to his screen. Surveillance technology is our sole consolation in “24”’s scary, uncertain landscape. And when "24" returns as a miniseries next summer, it will have the chance to update its spy formula for a new political age.

THE WIRE: Clearly, “The Wire” is a series about local cops and drug dealers rather than the anxieties wrought by big government and big data. But creator David Simon recently jumped into the NSA fray with a screed on his personal blog, comparing NSA data collection to police monitoring of Baltimore payphones, a process painstakingly depicted in the HBO series. In “The Wire,” the most notable feature of surveillance is its dinginess: all yellowish security-camera footage and long stretches of boring nothingness. The show methodically lays bare the whole complicated, tedious process of surveillance—the search for probable cause, the parsing of insidery lingo, the rigmarole of prosecution. Wiretapping is littered with legal and administrative hurdles. There is no romantic view of the power of technology to accomplish invisible, terrifying feats of invasion. And the scene in which Bodie hurls a rock at a security camera—the perspective of which we, as viewers, are occupying—is a small, iconic triumph. 

HOMELAND: In "Homeland," surveillance is usually extra-legal, low-tech, and dubiously useful. It involves a couple of guys sitting in a van filled with dinky little screens, after manually rigging cameras inside Brody’s house. The unease at play is not the all-powerfulness of government hardware, or the atmospheric anxiety that the CIA could potentially be doing this to anyone; what’s discomfiting is just how personal and targeted the surveillance is. It’s not just a broad intrusion but a form of highly specific intimacy: Even the sight of an empty living room can feel pornographic when we see Carrie watching it alone on her couch, so it feels only marginally more queasy when Brody and his wife begin having sex as Carrie looks silently on. The series plays with the murky intentions and potential misuse of government surveillance without fully condemning it.

PERSON OF INTEREST: The CBS drama “Person of Interest” is about a giant computer system called “The Machine” that the government uses to predict terrorist attacks, and two vigilantes—the billionaire who developed the technology and a gruff former CIA agent—who take it into their own hands to prevent regular, smaller scale crimes. Like “The Wire,” “Person of Interest," which was one of the most-watched network shows this past season, relies heavily on grainy closed-circuit footage as a way to show us just how mundane this kind of surveillance can be. But its premise is far more pervasive and technically elaborate: The Machine monitors America’s whole web of surveillance cameras and microphones. The idea of the technology itself is enormously threatening, even though the show’s protagonists use it for good. In some heavy-handed symbolism, The Machine is unable to differentiate between victims and perpetrators, so everyone captured on video is from the outset equally incriminated.

INTELLIGENCE (Upcoming): This CBS drama, set to premiere in mid-season 2013, looks like it might be a bit ill-timed in its representation of our culture of data anxiety. Its lantern-jawed protagonist is Gabriel, a former CIA agent and a kind of human robot who, implanted with a government-created data chip, can alternately create elaborate 3-D hologram renderings of terrorist events or impress an attractive colleague with the observation that she's changed her hair color. The technology seems designed more to dazzle and exhilarate than intimidate. “That is a great party trick,” one character tells Gabriel. CBS's promotional materials announce that “he can hack into any data center and access key intel in the fight to protect the United States from its enemies." It is exactly the sort of big-data system we have been debating this week, only—instead of in a giant computer—it's all inside one man's head.