Homeland Security USA
A show about the brave agents defending America from Swiss belly dancers.
Most people are not so politically engaged as the readers of those blogs, and to them the show eagerly introduces sultry Nora, a 20-year-old who flies into LAX with a Swiss passport in her white purse and transparent falsehoods about a tourist's stay on her lips. The frolicsome cut of Nora's neckline hints that she'd counted on flirting her way through customs. "Something seems amiss with this Swiss miss," nudges the voice-over. "What is your occupation?" asks an officer. "Belly dancer," says Nora. "Boom chicka wah wah," goes the music as the officer searching Nora's bags fingers her gauzy costumes through his regulation-issue blue gloves. They take her in for a talk about her lack of a work visa. Pause here to smirk at the Orientalist implications of this show—predicated, to a degree, on exploiting popular anxieties about Middle Eastern cultures—zooming in on a practitioner of the art associated with Little Egypt, Shakira, and Mata Hari, "temptress of the secret service." Check out the friction between the officer's all-business attempt to "determine whether she's good or bad" and the narrator's weird-uncle leering. "Nora's belly might be her livelihood, but right now it's a little empty," he mocks a few hours into her detainment. It's adorable how she wrinkles her nose at the plastic-wrapped cheeseburger the authorities provide, fare the voice-over IDs as "traditional American cuisine."
Thanks in no small part to Nora's contribution, Homeland Security USA rises almost to a passable level of brainless amusement. When she is on-screen, the show is only about two-thirds less entertaining than the November Atlantic article in which Jeffrey Goldberg wrote of his adventures counterfeiting boarding passes and sliding through TSA checkpoints with knives, boxcutters, forbidden liquids, and Jihadist souvenirs on his person. Goldberg wryly demonstrated the extent to which airport security is " 'security theater' designed to make travelers feel better." This program is the natural extension of that sham: Security Theater Theatre. On ABC, the men and women of DHS are unstoppable action figures who "keep us safe at home," where we can enjoy the freedom to sit on the couch and check out Nora's rack in high definition.
The most telling moment of Homeland Security USA's debut comes at its misty-eyed end. Returning to LAX, whence Nora has been cast out to shake her moneymaker on other shores, the narrator reports that "many travelers become frustrated by post-9/11 security measures." We watch passengers gripe about being relieved of bottled water and dry ice and beauty cream—pettiness that gets drowned in sap as a piano goes dribbling over the scene and an earnest TSA agent addresses an off-screen interviewer. "There are families every day that come through here," he says. Ah, yes, but what about the children? Cue the footage of the children, with their pudgy little legs and cute little transitional objects. "My kids fly," the agent continues through a lump in his throat. "That's the best point. When these people come in here, they're my responsibility. When my kids fly, they're my responsibility. I'm gonna protect my own."
Which means nothing beyond its raw paternalism. In another recent article about DHS, the New Republic's Jeffrey Rosen makes a case that the department, centered as it is on "showy prevention measures" like color-coded terror-threat levels, is in the main a marketing venture. He calls it "a more-than-$40-billion-dollar-a-year pacifier," a metaphor that takes on a special aptness in light of the TSA agent's episode-capping speech about treating the public like children. As presented here, Homeland Security is on a mission to keep the USA infantilized.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Still from Homeland Security USA by Ron Tom/ABC. All rights reserved.