Kevin Drum mocks Hugh Hewitt for his ‘it was in a PDF file that we were only able to read after downloading a new version of Adobe’ defense. But the proper pop cult reference is not Perry Mason. Allow me. Look to the man’s own site: "Hugh Hewitt is the Jack Bauer of talk radio and the blogosphere." This is actually a good idea for a show. ‘In the next 24 hours, terrorists will make a major strike against an American city. The only thing between all of us, and just a few of them … is a complacent, partisan hack.’ In 90 minutes or less you could play it strictly for Man Who Knew Too Little laughs. Subtler and ultimately more satisfying would be a genuine, 24-karat gold-plated imitation 24. In the first episode, "Download PDF For Murder", terrorists have encrypted their plans in an email attachment that can only be read using the latest version of Adobe Reader. Sweaty ‘which wire do I cut?’ tension as the heroes race against time to crack the main Adobe site. ‘This mouse has TWO buttons!’ ‘Just PICK one!’ [Adobe Acrobat Reader starts dowloading, to the "Hackers"-inspired strains of The Prodigy’s "Firestarter".] But then it all goes crazy. In the end they confront a nail-biting moral dilemma. Should they torture the Adobe executive, kidnapped in a daring, extra-judicial raid. He’s screaming "Just DOUBLE-click!" The agents scream back: “You’re lying“
I have an idea for a TV series. I’m not the one to write it, so if you steal my idea and make a million dollars, at least give me credit. I thought of this months ago, talking to a friend – let’s call him John Smith – who, post 9/11, wanted to put his mathematics Ph.D. to work for his country. He applied for a job with an agency, a job that would have required a high level of security clearance. That’s where the trouble began. He’s nervous; been prescribed stuff for panic attacks. As a result, apparently he can foil any lie detector. The questioners were soon asking, ‘Are you SURE your name is John Smith?’ What struck him was the mix of competence and incompetence he encountered on his odyssey of not getting clearance. His impression was that one of the people he would have been working with was brilliant, the others were mediocrities who flunked out of academia into government work. Likewise, those nosing into every inch of his life were a mixed bunch: a shrewd, avuncular P.I. gives him sage advice about the process. Another outside contractor, retired cop doing background checks, tries to visit him without an appointment in his academic office – finds he isn’t there, finds that his neighbors hardly know him – and gets a bee in his bonnet that this is some kind of front. Just because he doesn’t know it’s normal for academics to not be at their desks. Best were the interviews: he had lived in Vienna for two years. ‘What’s Vienna?’ asks the interviewer. Later she tries to play both good cop and bad cop. Another interviewer tries to ingratiate himself with the subject by speaking math – that is, mixing lots of mathematical gibberish into his questions.
Who knows whether my friend is a serial exaggerator. Not I. Anyway, the conceit of my show is that it refuses to be a romance of competence. As a rule, the spy/cop hero genre hinges on a fundamentally romantic conception of the protagonist’s nature – and the villain is the same. And this conception expresses itself as omnicompetence, due to all sorts of implausible physical attributes; but, in a moral sense, due to the ability to see, then step outside, petty bounds of institutions, laws, conventional morals and manners. Spies and action heroes – and villains – are attractively free and clear-sighted. I could go on. Point is: we aren’t going to play it that way.
The story has two main lines. A terrorist group forming up and making plans. An anti-terrorist agency. The point is: they are both para-competent at best. It’s like 24 meets The Office, but you don’t play it for big laughs. More of a Coen brothers screwball tragedy; where you realize that the problem with the plan isn’t that some one crucial bit of clockwork won’t tick; rather the problem is that the whole clock is a lurid, Daliesque mess. Somehow everyone had gotten so used to it that they don’t notice it’s melted. But the series can still be relatively low-key, because you are spreading it out over a whole season.
You have some competent characters, no Jack Bauers. You have a few characters who are bizarrely incompetent. The hero tells them that the terrorists are on a plane to Vienna and they say, ‘what’s Vienna?’ Also, there are characters who are not competent enough to do their jobs, because their jobs are such that you would have to be a resourceful genius to do them well. Secrecy breeds confusion. You have politicians, ass-coverers, time-servers and cranks. You have whole elaborate sub-plots devoted to low-level corruption and fraud and dereliction of duty. There is too much money sloshing around; naturally, some isn’t ending up where it should. Serious hardball politics is being played, with compromises made. Sweetheart deals are being cut on the side, but the characters are also likeable – the very worst not as bad as Tony Soprano. We warm up to these scamps after several episodes. They work hard, are under stress, were probably screwed up by their parents, and don’t think of themselves as effectively neglecting, if not sabotaging, the patriotic duties they are charged with performing.
Few of the characters are really focused on what the show is really about, namely the real possibility of a major terrorist strike on American soil. Mostly the show does focus on the anti-terrorist agency’s internal doings, but the terrorists make occasional appearances, in which they prove themselves similiarly incapable of keeping their eye on the ball. Example: you could have an episode, ripped from the headlines, in which a member of an antiterrorist unit – who has managed to slice his sports car in two at high speed – tries to play up his agency association to get off the hook. A couple of his friends, who are worried about his drinking but want to help, agree to help him mock-up some bogus scenario to shake loose the cops who are investigating. They call in favors from local officials and businessmen who have benefited from the agency’s lavish funding, then from politicians who have gotten solid support from these businessmen in exchange for supporting funding, all of whom think of this incessant mutual backscratching as peripheral to their sincere support for the agency and its noble efforts. There’s a blogger who is trying to expose them all; but the blogger has the wrong conspiracy story about it all. The episode has a hazy sort of ‘it all just got so fucked up’ ambience. Meanwhile, the terrorists are trying to buy a backpack nuke, but they get ripped off by some Russian mafia-types.
You would need to tell the story so that episodes devoted to office politics, incidental corruption and incompetence, would have a sort of train-wreck fascination. You infect the audience with the same disease the characters suffer from: namely, they don’t mind forgetting about how serious the big picture is, because the soap opera business of our little lives is potentially so preoccupying. Then in the final episode, LA blows up; or it doesn’t.
I could go back through this post and put in some Amazon links. I’ll just point out that The Man Who Knew Too Little is only $6.99. "Please don’t call me by my real name, it destroys the reality I’m trying to create." I thought it was pretty funny. Not great, but good.