The Men Who Knew Too Little

by John Holbo on March 4, 2006

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.



abb1 03.04.06 at 11:29 am

Man named “Dietrich” has gotta be in it somehow.


Jonathan 03.04.06 at 11:33 am

One episode, surely, would be set in a sleepy Northwestern town, where a former FBI agent would be investigated for his links to terror. Paranormal terror.


Raw Data 03.04.06 at 11:33 am

I’d suggest that first you need a plot that makes sense. A post that is immediately clear would also be nice.


Walt Pohl 03.04.06 at 11:58 am

In a morally just universe, raw data’s comments would be instantly deleted by a loving an omnibenevolent God.


James 03.04.06 at 12:16 pm

I would kill to see this series. I’d suggest that ‘The Wire’ has some similarities, though – the mixture of petty bureaucracy, incompetence, and office politics, though not played for laughs most of the time.


Ted 03.04.06 at 12:27 pm

I think s/he was being ironic (?)


Common Sense 03.04.06 at 12:36 pm

Between Adobe’s 7.0 and 7.05 update reminders and the AcroExch never quitting out of the browser properly, perhaps Adobe IS the productivity-sapping terrorist organization we should all be worried about.

Jut generically speaking from a show-prop point of view, how out of date did Hewitt’s computer have to be to have an Acrobat version not backwards compatible with the file he was sent? I can see our hero huddled over a green-screen CRT with a big floppy drive sitting off to the side amid a sea of cables.

Maybe a sub-plot can be how the government has funneled so much money into corrupt earmarks that the anti-terrorist agents have to share computers and instead of super high tech competence, they are always downloading viruses with their slutty screen savers. This is a rich vein…


Kip Manley 03.04.06 at 12:43 pm

Tut tut, raw data. It’s a poor craftsman who blames his tools.


Greg 03.04.06 at 1:14 pm

I don’t know that sounds a lot like some of the episodes of 24 I’ve seen. Particularly the last two.


Andrew Reeves 03.04.06 at 1:14 pm

John Holbo, you are awesome. Even though you’re mostly joking/conducting a thought experiment, I think that such a show *would* be genuinely compelling. Though rather incompetent terrorists could also figure fairly prominently as well. After all, most terrorists (both Islamic and our home-grown Nazis) generally fail in their nefarious plots, 9/11 Oklahoma City, and the first WTC bombing being the exceptions that proves the rule.In fact, you could have an episode that involves a series of cascading errors by both terrorists and counter-terrorists, with the audience watching in kind of a morbid fascination as to who will have the lowest level of incompetence.


PZ Myers 03.04.06 at 1:19 pm

I’d watch it.

I wonder if Hewitt is available to play the role of one of the incompetents? He wouldn’t need to act.


Hollywood Gothique 03.04.06 at 1:24 pm

Didn’t Stanley Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE do something similar — with lots of characters screwing up and missing the “Big Picture”?


Aaron S. Veenstra 03.04.06 at 1:28 pm

The problem with this scenario is that 24 is already an office sitcom.


Raw Data 03.04.06 at 1:39 pm

Touche Walt Pohl. I admire your clever riposte. You are indeed a reader ideally suited to CT.


M. Gordon 03.04.06 at 1:48 pm

I think the show idea sounds great. The only problem I see is this: the reason we love hearing about incompetent government buffoons is so that we can excoriate them, and feel better about ourselves. If the characters are lovable, this makes it harder to really get the full flavor of it.

On the other hand, you can probably get about as much of this as you want by just having the agency people interact with other government buffons every so often, not ones within the agency, but people who show up only once. Like the agency needing to get info from somebody at the DMV. THAT would provide hours of entertainment right there.


paul 03.04.06 at 2:14 pm

In the terrifying sad course of events, some of the intelligence agency’s work would no doubt increase the risk of a successful attack, either by raiding the apartment next to the terrorists (who had been procrastinating on getting their bombs built) or by throwing barriers up around all manner of complex targets and leaving simple ones unguarded…


larala 03.04.06 at 2:15 pm

that’s a terrific setup. I love movies/shows where the urgency of the main character’s mission is enhanced by the utter ineptitude of everyone around him, especially when they’re supposed to be in charge. kind of like Brazil.


rollo 03.04.06 at 2:35 pm

#4- An omnibenevolent God would be nice to r. data.
What form that niceness would take is not ours to know, however.* This is Vienna.
As, in its way, is this.I want LA to blow up only like New Orleans with advance enough notice everyone important is evacuated and hunkered down watching it on video feeds that are periodically being expertly hacked with seamless fakery so there’s no certainty that what’s unfolding isn’t just SFX.
Like NOLA when the lines were down and the long streams of evacuees were the last images the news services carried til the aftermath. No one wants to get close enough to verify transmission.


fargo north, decoder 03.04.06 at 2:43 pm

Lovin’ it. Chekhov meets classic action-schlocko cliche with leitmotif of gun hanging on wall waiting to go off…in Vice President’s office. Tension builds inexorably over the season as the VP makes at least one appearance per installment, calling in to security agency with new directives based on latest brainwave inspired by whatever’s on that night on History Channel (cf. the “You don’t want to end up like McClellan” episode).

Other key elements: Callow speechwriters who compose–and post on government Web sites–speeches for the president to deliver in New Delhi spelling Gandhi as “Ghandi” and identifying Pakistan as an Arab country;

and (possibly the same characters) Heritage Foundation interns sent as colonial proconsuls to Iraq who refer to occupation guidelines so hastily converted from documents issued to the post-WWII American Military Government of Germany that they refer to “Iraqi Reichsmarks.”

Come to think of it, can we also have a German intelligence officer who liaises with the Department of Homeland Security, which he refers to as the “Heimatssicherheitsdienst”?


gfw 03.04.06 at 3:07 pm

Check out Sleeper Cell on Showtime. It has many of the elements you describe here: incompetent terrorists, bungling LAPD, a protagonist who is flawed. It’s not perfect (and lacks humor) but it’s about half way there. You can buy it on iTunes.

Peace, and great post!


John G. 03.04.06 at 3:23 pm

Or just read “Our Man in Havana.” Graham Greene did it best, of course.


Doctor Memory 03.04.06 at 4:02 pm

For the record, not only would I watch this, I’d pre-order the Season 1 DVD set by the time episode 3 aired. (And in all seriousness, the contrast between high-minded missions and the all-too-human agents and institutions charged with carrying them out is one of the reasons that I adore The Wire above just about everything else on TV right now.)


mss 03.04.06 at 4:20 pm

Shades of the 1980s police comedy Sledgehammer—incompetence, dumb luck, and the city nuked in the last episode.


Maynard Handley 03.04.06 at 4:23 pm

Hmm, maybe we can call it _Brazil: The Series_?
The youngsters here have probably never heard of us, but surely to the people my age (late 30s) this is the first thing that sprang to mind?


Matt McIrvin 03.04.06 at 4:28 pm

“Bloody typical! They’ve gone back to metric without telling us!”


Nagual Haven 03.04.06 at 4:35 pm

Hmm, maybe we can call it Brazil: The Series?

That was my reaction, too.


Nagual Haven 03.04.06 at 4:43 pm

I think the key to this show is casting. Should the main character be played by Giblets or Fafnir?


Thumb 03.04.06 at 6:54 pm

What a coincidence. I just happened to write one of the potential scenes last month when I was describing two terrorists plotting to hijack an airliner with their shoes (it was topical at the time, and reality provides the best unlikely plots, doesn’t it?)


John Holbo 03.04.06 at 9:16 pm

Thanks for comments. I maybe should have made clearer – starting with the Hewitt parody like I did – that I think a series that played it pretty straight could be quite fascinating. Keep it sub-“Brazil”. Don’t attempt to exaggerate the level of incompetence and confusion beyond what we’ve probably got. It would be interesting, and positively educational, to get the audience really engaged with the problem of how it’s hard to guard the country effectively. It’s a hard job, people are only moderately competent, on average, and are easily distractable and deformable.

Of course “Brazil” the series would be great as well. (Thanks for you version of the parody, Thumb.)


Nemo Ignotus 03.04.06 at 9:33 pm

You realize that this would be awful close to the reality at many intelligence agencies?


Martin Wisse 03.04.06 at 9:42 pm

There’s a genuine sitcom proposal floating around the interwebs that fits your territory, called somethin like Sleeper Cell about a bunch of terrorists holed up in America somewhere who get seduced by the decadent west.

Quite funny apparantely but unsellable…


John Holbo 03.04.06 at 10:23 pm

Martin, that’s a better idea than mine for the terrorist half of the show.


jet 03.04.06 at 11:35 pm

John Holbo,
You’re on a roll of great posts.

Be is Secret Service agents starting bar fights while on duty or how the CIA did such a great job investigating the African yellow cake, your show has already been created, only we get to watch it in shorter clips in the news.


Greg 03.05.06 at 1:21 am

The youngsters here have probably never heard of us… (it?)

Watch what you’re saying, bud. I’m 25 and Brazil is my all-time favorite movie.

But I don’t think Brazil should necessarily be the whole model. I think there could be 3 characters in the series–could be the main characters–who are, in fact, genuinely heroic; you could base them on John O’Neill (The Man Who Warned America), Sibel Edmonds, and Richard Clarke. (Sandy Berger was also apparently obsessed with Al-Qaeda back when he was National Security Adviser, see “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.”) You’d have to play “what if O’Neill had lived?” but it’d be fun to follow. Of our heroes, gets disgusted & burnt out, one uncovers a conspiracy and tries to sue the government but is blocked at every turn, and one is deliberately slimed. Hell, you could throw in Valerie Plame.

Hmm. This is starting to sound like something good. Possibly like “Angel Season 5” without the whole supernatural element.


ArC 03.05.06 at 2:52 am

I would /totally/ buy a DVD of the “24 crossed with The Office”, except I would prefer it played for laughs.


Ray 03.05.06 at 7:26 am

One element of your story reminds me of this (very funny) short by Magnus Mills,,1194727,00.html


Dan Hardie 03.05.06 at 7:33 am

Shorter John Holbo: Those who haven’t read ‘The Secret Agent’ are doomed to rewrite it. At length.


Oskar Shapley 03.05.06 at 8:17 am

You gotta pitch that beauty to the Coen brothers.


Oskar Shapley 03.05.06 at 8:22 am

fargo north,

This reminds me of “Allo, Allo”.


Matt McIrvin 03.05.06 at 8:56 am

There was a British sitcom in the early 1990s called “The Piglet Files” that had the potential to be something like this, but wasn’t; I think part of the problem was that it took place in more a parody of spy-novel reality than in a more realistic universe, and it pulled too many satirical punches.

It was also made at the wrong time, immediately post-Cold War and pre-War on Terror, so they had to try to get humor from the fact that there was no great external boogeyman and the spies were reduced to spying on the French and the Swedes. It made the whole thing seem very safe.


hoi Polloi 03.05.06 at 9:03 am

Just showing people using actual computer programs the way people actually use computer programs would be worth the watch.

Remember in the early-mid 90s when all the drug-dealer’s/terrorist’s/bad dude’s data could be downloaded onto a 1.4 meg floppy? Those were the days!


Simstim 03.05.06 at 9:15 am

I’m always disappointed when I don’t get “ACCESS DENIED” in big flashing red letters on my PC.


brooksfoe 03.05.06 at 9:53 am

Those who haven’t read ‘The Secret Agent’ are doomed to rewrite it. At length.

Ouch. Too true.


John Emerson 03.05.06 at 10:10 am

My version would have a remote of Mr. Gates and Mr. Adobe sitting together — drinking 40s, monitoring the download, and sabotaging it from time to time as only they can do.


Barry 03.05.06 at 10:22 am

“… or how the CIA did such a great job investigating the African yellow cake, your show has already been created, only we get to watch it in shorter clips in the news.”

Posted by jet ·

Truth and jet live on opposite ends of the universe.


Luke Francl 03.05.06 at 10:44 am

I recently read the book “Blowing My Cover” by Lindsay Moran about her years at the CIA. It has some humorous/frightening scenes of incompetence at the CIA. The polygraph investigation sounds similar to this post (though without the anti-anxiety meds). And after 9/11, she tries to recruit an agent in the Balkans who had been associated with some jihadis there. Headquarters tells her no — because he’s got terrorist ties!


jet 03.05.06 at 11:12 am

Are you actually saying that CIA did a good job investigating the African yellowcake? They sent the fric and frac team, got reamed by Congress, and gave an answer so ambiguous both sides of the debate used their reports. And yet here you are defending them. Figures.


Chris Lightfoot 03.05.06 at 11:12 am

On the subject of “lie-detector” tests, Too Hot of a Potato: A Citizen Soldier’s Encounter With the Polygraph is also interesting.


digamma 03.05.06 at 11:57 am

24 already IS crossed with The Office. You just have to watch it in the right frame of mind. My 24-watching companion and I have learned to laugh out loud every time CTU (which we call AMIGO) does something stupid, just as we would at a sitcom.


Daniel 03.05.06 at 5:20 pm

I always wanted to pitch an episode of the X-Files where it turned out that there was actually a perfectly rational explanation for everything.


Walt Pohl 03.05.06 at 7:13 pm

Daniel: Before I watched the X-Files, my impression was that they alternated, and that one week Mulder would be right with an occult explanation, and the next week Sculley would be right with a normal explanation. Otherwise, it seemed too implausible that Sculley would be wrong every week and yet never learn…


Rich Puchalsky 03.06.06 at 9:22 am

I have the only imaginary cop show to be given a name by Michael Berube — PSI: Protest Scene Investigation. I quote myself:

”They should have a TV cop show just for this [i.e. the cops who infiltrate protest groups]. First episode: a novice agent must do a dangerous PETA infiltration, and she forgets and wears leather shoes. Will she have pig’s blood thrown on her, or will she get away? Second episode: she must infiltrate Critical Mass cycling, and gets severe blisters. Third: sent to be an agent provacateur at a Quaker meeting, she loudly says that they should go out and break some heads. Oops! She is caught and must listen to a long lecture by a kindly 50-year-old. Fourth: the vegan potluck. Will be it the brown lentils, the mysterious tureen, or the yellow stew? Cut to commercial as she stares, transfixed by a set of bad choices.”


Ginger Yellow 03.06.06 at 9:42 am

British animation sketchshow Monkeydust featured a pair of half-hearted and incompetent Brummie terrorists. What you propose sounds like The Thick of It transposed to the Home Office/Special Branch.


Ed Drone 03.06.06 at 12:24 pm

You could even incorporate parts of the sitcom — turned down by the networks, but real — where a sleeper cell of would-be bombers gets entangled with everyday life, including one of them with a crush on the Jewish neighbor girl. Seriously, there is enough comedic material here for two, maybe three seasons.

Like, one of the good guys goes undercover with a fake identity, which identity then gets put on the no-fly list, preventing him from going to the aid of another agent on the other coast. When they get the no-fly list straightened out, the real terrorist with a similar name is then allowed to fly, escaping the country when they wanted him “pinned down” in Indiana. Only he’s flown off to the Bahamas to spend the dough he’s skimmed off the terror-network’s funds, with the result that agents of “the agency” and the “terror group” both end up looking for him, cooperating as they do (while claiming to their upper management that they are not doing any such thing). When they find him and attempt to return him to the States, the no-fly list status has been reinstated, and no one can fly.

Man, this could go on forever. We could post an episode-idea per week for years! Or just post the daily news. Same thing.


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