*Although I admit that two of my favorite shows of all time – Top Gear (the UK version) and Doctor Who – are current. Neither, however, is on network television and both are British series, which may or may not mean something.
If you’re still with me, we’ll proceed. A show that I do catch (albeit involuntarily) from time to time is NCIS, and I’ve also seen the other police procedurals, CSI, Law & Order, etc. And there’s something about NCIS that disturbs me quite a bit – namely, the seeming disregard for civil liberties.
Now, politically I’m no civil libertarian, but it troubles me that series like NCIS are so cavalier with these basic rights. Of course, television shows aren't quite as encumbered by the Constitution as real life tends to be, and they tend to draw a much clearer line between the good guys and the bad guys. Every week we’re supposed to be amazed at how quickly the agents can find the information that points the finger of judgment at the guilty. We’re properly satisfied when incriminating evidence is uncovered through means that most likely would be tossed by the trial judge. We chuckle appreciatively when strong-arm interrogation techniques are used, and smirk knowingly every time a wisecrack is tossed out.
As I said, NCIS is just a television show. Its portrayal of government agents in search of criminals and terrorists may or may not be accurate, and it may exaggerate things from time to time for dramatic effect (as has been the case since TV began). We shouldn't take it as a documentary on how the real-life NCIS is run.
But it's because NCIS is a TV show that I worry. Like most TV cop shows (though not all, particularly in this day and age), we're supposed to root for the good guys against the bad guys. And in the pursuit of justice, we're taught that it's allowable for certain corners to be cut. Like files copied from a computer without a warrant. Like agents looking in a house without probable cause. Like evidence being shared without permission. Knowing what we do of the fictional criminal, and being witness to the virtues of the fictional agent, we trust that in this case the end justifies the means.
And we know how influential television can be. We know about the so-called CSI effect, in which real-life jurors have increasingly come to expect the same kind of forensic evidence from the prosecution as they are accustomed to seeing every week on TV. I've written in the past about the relationship between television and the Cold War – how series such as Mission: Impossible made it easier for an American audience to accept the idea of covert government action in the affairs of foreign nations. I fear the same type of effect is at work in today’s procedurals.
After all, we’re much less likely to be troubled about enhanced interrogation when it’s used against someone who’s clearly planning a terrorist attack. We’re grateful for the surveillance cameras that catch the murderer in the act, the bank records that show the trail of illegal payments, the face recognition software, the cellphone tracking devices, the instantaneous access to all kinds of private information, mostly pertaining to private citizens.
Yes, it’s always very simple to appreciate the powers of the government when they’re clearly used against the guilty. After all, we want the guilty caught and punished; so what if we happen to trample against their civil liberties by questioning them without an attorney, by entrapping them into making a confession, by intimidating them with threats of dire consequences to come. And in doing so, television may be playing its part in training the rest of us to accept the curbing of individual liberties - an increase in surveillance cameras, a broadening of the government's right to tap your phone and read your email - all in the name of security. We've seen how effective this can be in catching the bad guys on TV, and it may well transfer to our regarding them as necessities in real life.