Everything old is new again
The CIA in many viewers’ minds may be very different from the one in CBS’ new series, The Agency. We might think of the CIA consisting of assassins working under the tacit approval of the U.S. government, basically killing for money, much like John Malkovich’s assassin, Mitch Leary, in the 1993 film In the line of Fire, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, one of The Agency‘s producers. After the events of September 11, however, the American public appears willing to justify any behavior to destroy its enemies, just so long as we don’t have to hear all of the gory details. If only guys like Mitch Leary had been on the CIA payroll, maybe we would’ve found the bad guys before they attacked.
It’s in this climate that The Agency promises to deliver an “authentic” portrayal of the CIA (only its agents are not soulless monsters). To achieve this realness, the series producers are working with a technical consultant, CIA official Chase Brandon and have unprecedented access to the department, including shooting some scenes in the Agency’s Virginia offices. But this cooperation comes with a price: the CIA gets to see the show’s scripts, and if it doesn’t like one, it doesn’t cooperate that week. This raises some tough questions for viewers looking for a real CIA show. Is The Agency propaganda? And, would the show be more exciting if the CIA hated it? Indeed, The Agency‘s approach to the CIA seems shaped by such caveats. In the series, the CIA is righteous; the first few episodes appeal to our newly heightened patriotic sensibilities.
Is The Agency propaganda? Probably not. But what are we to think when field agent Matt Callan (Gil Bellows) moans, “Every day we’re not in the news is a day we’ve won”? Or when a burned-out official facing budget cuts exclaims, “People think the world has changed. Some even believe that this is an antiquated organization. But you and I know better”? Gee, I wonder if the CIA approved that dialogue? Are we to assume that when an episode appears without the CIA’s involvement, it’s “real,” and when an episode does have the CIA’s approval, it’s sanitized?
The Agency has gotten more publicity than most new shows, when its original pilot episode was pulled following the terrorist attacks of September 11. The aborted pilot centered on a plot by Middle Eastern terrorists, led by Osama bin Laden (mentioned four times by name), to blow up Harrod’s Department Store in London. Even more disturbingly, the pilot opened with an agent in Cairo bound to a chair with a red, white, and blue gag, with a booby trap designed to explode when it’s pulled out of his mouth. Since the pilot introduced The Agency‘s main characters, clips from it were inserted into the replacement episode, “Viva Fidel,” in which the CIA agents discover a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro during his (fictional) visit to the United States. Surprise: they discover the assassins were trained by the CIA for the same job, 30 years ago.
The Agency‘s cast, unlike most other new shows, is not overpopulated by refugees from stalled film careers. Still, The Agency‘s cinematic pedigree (producers Petersen and Gail Katz) might incline viewers to think it’s a big screen concept disguised as a TV show (it certainly has a “big screen” look). Now it needs to set up a platform from which to develop conflicts and stories with legs. So far, some are mildly promising. Take Matt, just returned to action after grieving the murder of his field agent brother, whose fiancee just happened to be Lisa Fabrizzi (Gloria Reuben, who replaced Andrea Roth, a white actor, from the pilot episode), an agency bureaucrat who’s now trying to get over her loss by working all the time. The death is resolved in the November 15 episode, “Closure,” in which Matt receives some stunning news: his brother accepted a dangerous assignment to Kosovo only after Lisa turned down his proposal. Will Lisa get over her guilt?
It’s in this episode that we spend time with the series’ main asset—Will Patton. He plays Jackson Haisley, a mild-mannered intelligence officer and widowed father who will seemingly do anything for an overseas posting. That makes him look dangerous. A potential villain? Would he kill or sabotage someone to get what he wants? Like the best villains in espionage thrillers, Haisley’s amiability makes him suspicious. (Don’t we assume they all take lessons in lying and smiling at the same time?)
The other actors offer less in the way of pleasant diversion. Bellows is off-key as a small screen James Bond, and Reuben, as his (potential) love interest, lacks the authority to pull off her role as a top boss at the Agency, much less a colleague of the other vets on the show. Regarding the death of her fiance, Lisa seems cold, not because of the way her scenes are written, but because of Reuben’s performance. She doesn’t project what we need to know, the extent of her feelings for the man, for instance.
The show’s direction is already predictable: 1) Matt and Lisa will eventually become romantically involved because they’re the only two characters who seem suitable for mating, and the show doesn’t allow for much personal time. 2) The agents will, from time to time, get caught up in a series of “white lies” and “suspicious circumstances” (read: let people die), but nothing so serious as to bring shame to the CIA. They’re human: I’m sure there’ll be a scene where some low level operative is told to clean out his desk, but then that’ll followed by a scene where the CIA Director (Ronny Cox) slams his fist on the desk, teary-eyed, and says, “You see why we need the CIA?” 3) There will never, ever, be an attack on the CIA itself, because, quite simply, that would be bad for the (real) CIA.
Unless I’m mistaken, The Agency wants to ask how far governmental agencies should go to fight evil (many of us ask that question every day). But it is unwilling to explore the CIA’s more unsavory activities. Instead, The Agency substitutes hardware for nuance (there’s lots of people typing on computers on this show) and omits moral complexities inside the CIA itself. Everything bad takes place outside the building.
And yet, for all its flag-waving, The Agency aims higher than the other “think tank” shows on TV. But it also achieves less. There’s no problem with showing the CIA as human (as in the tense relationship between an agent and his psychotherapist, who must be a security threat), and The Agency works in enough detail about characters’ “private lives” to make them seem like “real people.” And there’s nothing wrong with affirming our confidence in the CIA’s existence, but what we get is all surface, edited (in more ways than one) for our consumption: smart men and women, “suits,” fighting wars with modern technology, negotiating a sea of lies. We’ve been here before, in JAG, The Hunt for Red October, and The West Wing, to name a few. What’s new? And what are they typing anyway? We’d really like to know.