How intelligent are American intelligence agencies? Judging by a new wave of TV series, not very — but what many lack in IQ points, they try to make up for in laughs.
It wasn't always this way: sober Mulder and Scully would courageously defeat paranormal menaces on "The X-Files" and Jack Bauer valiantly saved America every season on "24."
Then came USA Network's cheeky action comedy "Burn Notice," in which a former spy had to protect himself from the very agency that had hired him. FX's anarchic animated comedy "Archer" concerns a spy agency whose fatuous employees make "Get Smart's" Maxwell Smart look like a towering intellect — they can barely tear themselves away from bickering and pranking long enough to save the world.
Two new series continue that trend. CBS' action comedy "Chaos," which debuted last week, stars Freddy Rodriguez as a green CIA operative whose rogue team defends the country despite widespread malaise ("Inaction has become the battle cry of the agency," he opines) and supported by a computer system that uses Windows 97. Meanwhile, Fox's "Breaking In," which premieres Wednesday, is a workplace comedy about a high-tech security company run by a charismatic eccentric named Oz (Christian Slater), who routinely boasts of his top-level government ties and clandestine work overthrowing enemy nations.
"There's been a change in portraying the intelligence communities more comically than in the past," said "White Collar" creator Jeff Eastin, who points out that his show's FBI agent, Peter Burke (Tim DeKay), is portrayed as a "Boy Scout." But, he added, "People are not taking intelligence as seriously. With the government failures from 2000 on, the luster came off what people really respected from these institutions. We're living in a world where intelligence failures are pretty prevalent.
"We're thinking, maybe they don't know everything," Eastin continued. "People started questioning them, and that leads naturally to laughing at them. That's allowed show runners to create shows that poke fun at intelligence agencies. In the past, that would be a tough sell."
On USA's "White Collar," and a story arc in TNT's "Leverage," the government enlists bad guys to catch other bad guys, suggesting that good guys aren't quite good enough.
"Every trend can only last so long — we've had plenty of serious, squinty-eyed, devoted intelligence workers," said Bruce Campbell, who plays ex-spook Sam Axe on "Burn Notice" and stars in a prequel telefilm, "Burn Notice: The Fall of Sam Axe," airing April 17. "You've got to put a spin on it."
Many point to a comedic turn after a slate of somber, stone-faced movie hits such as the "Bourne" and "Mission: Impossible" movies. Even the once ready wit of James Bond (when Daniel Craig assumed the role) became deadly serious — and the British secret agent became far more prone to judo chops than quips.
"It gets so oppressive," said "Archer" co-creator Matt Thompson. "The public just wants a break."
Thompson insists his show has no social agenda. "It's a workplace comedy, it just happens to be the International Secret Intelligence Service," he said. "Using spies allows us to do more outrageous things, like having an episode in a blimp over Gstaad. We can do cooler stuff than accountants in Toledo, but the show would work there too."
On the other hand, "Chaos" creator Tom Spezialy — who admits his Clandestine Administration and Oversight Services group is a tip of the hat to "Get Smart's" KAOS — has done his homework on the intelligence world.
"The term used to describe what happened to the CIA is 'mission drift,'" said Spezialy. "The agency was formed during the Cold War but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, those threats lost their meaning and the CIA looked for a new purpose for many years. It's a government-run agency, not a house of superspies with gizmos."
Hence, "Chaos" is not gadget-heavy — "If a spy was caught with one, they'd get executed," Spezialy said — but other shows in the genre luxuriate in their lavish technology, due to the proliferation of cyber-crime.
"Leverage" co-creator John Rogers — who calls his characters "my lovable rogues" — recalls research turning up a website where one can buy pieces of an Eastern-bloc ATM that helps steal people's banking information. "Technology is, effectively, magic, it's fantasy to a lot of people" he said. "How much fraud like this occurred in pre-computer days?"
"Breaking In" executive producer Adam F. Goldberg explained the inspiration for his show was a documentary by Seth Gordon (who directed the pilot and serves as an executive producer on the show) about Internet security and identity theft. He added that his wife was recently contacted via email by a British scam artist asking her to wire money for a home she wanted to rent for her parents. Goldberg and his writers took over from there.
"I had a room full of comedy writers attacking this person," Goldberg recalled. "We got him to OK a sex swing in the living room. We got him to agree that a helper monkey named Maurice would be allowed to live there. Once we asked him for a date, he stopped emailing. He knew we were [fooling] with him."