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The new capitol gang

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Once a prime-time pariah, government is hot. But will viewers vote with their remotes?

As far as TV was concerned, there were once three branches of government: lawyers, judges and hard-nosed cops who played by their own set of rules. Otherwise, government was ratings death. "The feeling was, once you got into Washington and politics," says Aaron Sorkin, creator-writer of The West Wing, "you knew your audience was going to be cut in half."

Then in 1999, nine months after President Clinton's impeachment, Sorkin's White House drama debuted on NBC. The aides were sexy, honorable and smart. The President was a folksy Nobel laureate with touches of F.D.R., Stephen Hawking, Will Rogers and the Buddha. The series was a hit, and in the glow of the characters' thousand-megawatt halos, TV's view of Washington--once typified by the evil FBI conspiracists on The X-Files--started to shift.

Now a new field of candidates has emerged. Two new dramas, CBS's First Monday and ABC's The Court, are set at the Supreme Court; Fox's 24, CBS's The Agency and ABC's Alias, in the once maligned CIA. Fox's The American Embassy follows cute young diplomats in London. Dramas like Fox's Boston Public and CBS's The Guardian and JAG spotlight public school teachers, family-law workers and the military, respectively. In the works for next season: dramas about the Senate and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The possibilities are endless. The Mint! USPS Blue! CSI, meet GAO!

But if The West Wing was Clinton-era wish fulfillment--that the White House could have a moral compass--the new series are post-Bush-vs.-Gore, post-9/11 wish fulfillment: that young people can love public service, that a divided government can set aside politics and that the CIA can get the bad guys.

For Embassy, the post-9/11 shift was pronounced. Executive producer James D. Parriott initially conceived the show as Emma Brody, a story about the life and loves of a young American woman (Arija Bareikis) who takes a job at the U.S. embassy in London after her fiance cheats on her. Yes, hard reality sometimes intruded--a terrorist bomb exploded outside the embassy--but the pilot hewed closely to the coming-of-age-drama mantra: It's All About My Feelings.

After 9/11, though, the producers decided the Zeitgeist required less Emma and more embassy. "Self-involvement doesn't really wash since 9/11," says Parriott. "Emma needed to be more involved with the Americans she dealt with and in service of the citizens." The show got a new name, newsy story lines (will Emma approve a suspicious Algerian's visa?) and promos decked out in enough stars and stripes to choke a bald eagle. (Of course, just as in real life, 9/11 didn't change everything: Episode 2 finds Emma dealing with posttraumatic stress--not from the bombing but from her breakup.)

Embassy exemplifies one lesson of The West Wing: the masses may distrust Washington, yet they want TV Washington to give them earnest--and attractive--characters to love. It's the old truism about voters: they hate Congress in general and love their representative in particular. Just so, the new government shows pit outsiders against "the system"--the forces of Beltway cynicism. After 9/11 The Agency introduced CIA Director Tom Gage (Beau Bridges), a war hero who butts heads with the realpolitik-practicing director of Homeland Security (Daniel Benzali). "We had to show the gray areas," says executive producer Gail Katz. Both First Monday and The Court, for example, focus on justices who are the swing votes on ideologically divided courts.

Embassy, Agency and The Court, in fact, are surprisingly apolitical. Whereas Sorkin, a Democrat, made his White House Democratic, most of these series are ruled by a doctrine of militant on-the-other-handism. Only on First Monday is the President's party even identified--Republican--but executive producer Donald P. Bellisario, a rare Hollywood conservative, says, "I keep my politics out of it better than West Wing keeps Sorkin's out."

In TV Washington, passion is good, politics--horse trading, partisanship--is bad. Put too much politics in a series, the thinking goes, and you lose viewers. But take the politics out of government, and you've got the Department of Motor Vehicles. The Court's focal character, Justice Kate Nolan (Sally Field), is conveniently a middle-of-the-road political enigma, the better to avoid alienating Senators (who vote on her confirmation) or viewers (who vote in the Nielsens). The show waits to make sure we like Field--really like her!--before it tests that affection by having her take divisive positions. In one episode, the court ducks having to make a ruling in an abortion case; instead, the justices make a feel-good discovery that enables them, unanimously, to restore pensions to the employees of a failed company. "Everyone focuses on the landmark decisions," says one justice, "but most of our work is sifting through footnotes and fine print."

Yeah, and cops fill out a lot of forms, but if we're going to watch them on TV, somebody had better pull a gun sooner or later. The challenge of a court show is mining telegenic drama from a dignified institution whose aura, Court creator Carol Flint says, is "between a theater and a temple." Both shows surround their black-robed gray hairs with cute young clerks. When First Monday debates shutting down a hate-spewing antiabortion site, an agitator slips a fetus into the backpack of a justice's horrified teen daughter.

But the shows also have to make us believe we're getting an authentic peek inside a cloistered world. Embassy's producers consult with the government on such details as the plastic boxes embassies use for holding passports. The Agency pays former CIA agents to find inaccuracies; one script had Gage making a direct call, something a CIA director would never do.

The poll returns on TV Washington are still coming in. None of the new shows have become out-and-out hits yet (The Court debuts this week). But they already have one set of dedicated fans: public servants, happy to see their jobs valorized. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Wayne Griffith even screened the Embassy pilot for foreign-service classes. "They were all wondering if they were going to get their royal love interest in their first tour, of course," he says. One person's dramatic license is another's recruitment poster.


Cover Date: April 1, 2002


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