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.
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.