Homeland Security USA
A show about the brave agents defending America from Swiss belly dancers.
On the bright side, the new reality show about the Department of Homeland Security is not a game show. Though the world of 2009 is, as the existence of this program confirms, an absurd place, there are still some limits. For now we can only daydream about a Survivor-style competition in which civilians struggle with paperwork marathons and loose-nuke challenges in vying to become, say, director of FEMA. Nor is this show the exercise in fishbowl living that a hard-bitten voyeur might hope to peep— The Real Big Brother World or some such, where after a sweaty night of lassoing illegals, a Border Patrol agent lopes back to the hot tub to help a debauched air marshal practice her frisking skills. And you'd have to be right off the boat to think that producers granted "unprecedented access" to DHS would explore controversy, corruption, or mismanagement.
No, Homeland Security USA (ABC, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET) is a gung-ho feel-good docuseries on the model of Border Security: Australia's Frontline; yes, American network executives are, in their idealessness, so dependent on concepts from abroad that they're importing shows about xenophobia.
Rolling the wars on terror, drugs, and illegal immigration into one rhetorical package, Homeland Security USA plays partly like a pumped-up recruiting film, partly like a public-affairs outreach video for hard-core video gamers. In the first of this season's 13 episodes, the action kicks off at a border crossing in San Ysidro, Calif. "Along with daily commuters and tourists come drug smugglers and human traffickers," says the narrator. Cue the K-9 unit at the inspection station and the drum machine on the agitated soundtrack.
The authorities in San Ysidro dismantle a pickup truck stuffed with marijuana, intercept a van groaning with human cargo, and—glamorously erring on the side of valorous caution—draw their weapons on a driver who shares his name and DOB with a wanted man. Teasing viewers along, these scenes burst by in increments, interspersed with excitements from other "points of entry." Up in Blaine, Wash., officers seize cocaine, reject forged passports, and examine a gent who is practically glowing with medical radiation. At a mail-handling facility in Carson, Calif., inspectors confiscate a funky package of contraband meat. What looks to the untrained eye like a litter of freeze-dried dachshund puppies is revealed as a colony of barbecued bats.
Down in Arizona, we track footprints in the desert sand, where a tarantula makes a predictable cameo for the night-vision lens and Border Patrol agents start talking like the public-relations kind. Noting the gang tattoos on his Mexican quarry, one arresting officer says, "This isn't a father coming over to provide for his family—not these guys." But why should he care at that moment whether a suspect is Jean Valjean or Pablo Escobar? The producers play to the court of public opinion, trying to placate the right-wingers who anticipate that the "liberal media" intend Homeland Security USA as an infomercial for the "open-borders agenda" and also the leftists and libertarians already convinced that the show represents a slick pitch for a police state. That Michelle Malkin and Daily Kos have come together in prejudging the show as propaganda might be a sign of the very apocalypse that DHS is supposed to thwart.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Still from Homeland Security USA by Ron Tom/ABC. All rights reserved.