By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Homeland security may not be a laughing matter, but ABC's new "Homeland Security USA" has a certain fitful risibility -- like when border agents capture a cache of sinister plastic toys, or discover that one of the items seized as "confiscated food" and initially identified as "a prohibited meat item of unknown origin" turns out to be barbecued bat from Thailand. Eeeuuww.
While the series -- an upscale "Cops" with an international air -- oozes with praise for the "thousands of dedicated men and women" whose job it is to keep saboteurs from gaining entry into the United States, nary a single solitary terrorist is nabbed in the opening episode. Instead, the agents make drug bust after drug bust, at one point confiscating a set of glass pipes even though their owner has no illegal substances in his possession.
The Young Man With a Bong does have a good, if cheeky, question for the Border Patrol: Will he be reimbursed for the pinched pipes? Answer: just a snicker from an agent.
ABC's cameras join homeland security forces at San Ysidro, Calif., on the Mexican-American border; at Los Angeles International Airport, familiarly identified with the appropriate abbreviation, LAX; and in Blaine, Wash., site of a crossing on the Canadian-American line. Wait -- wasn't Blaine the hapless little hamlet in Christopher Guest's 1996 comedy "Waiting for Guffman"? Yes and no -- it was Blaine, Mo.
To be fair, those sinister toys from Cambodia do turn out to contain such prescription painkillers as morphine and codeine. The pills are taken away and destroyed, says the stentorian announcer, leading one to imagine all the pain that will go unkilled. A similar fate awaits 123 pounds of seized weed.
ABC got the cooperation of various agencies involved in homeland security operations, so it's understandable that all are shown in the best possible light. Sometimes that isn't so easy. Armed officers surround a car trying to get through the San Ysidro checkpoint, forcing a woman inside to get out and kneel on the ground with her hands behind her head while agents shout threats at the male driver, still in the car (or, as the agents tend to say, the "veekle").
It turns out they had entirely the wrong man. Angrily, the wife tells the agents, "You always get my husband confused with someone else," indicating she has gone through similar humiliations before. The announcer finds a silver lining: "It doesn't take long for the officers to discover this is a case of mistaken identity!" he trumpets. Goody for them; it probably seemed very long to the driver and his wife.
Perhaps the most comical of all the interrogations involves an attractive, dark-haired young woman named Nora, arriving at LAX from Switzerland, though not looking in the least bit Swiss. Agents prowl through her luggage on one pretext or another. What menacing apparatus do they come up with? "Belly-dancing equipment," as one of them calls it.
You might think the only belly-dancing equipment would be, in fact, a belly. But the would-be dancer has brought several exotic outfits, hoping to land dancing gigs here in the land of opportunity. Unfortunately, she is denied entry on the grounds that she failed to secure a work visa while still in Switzerland. At least one agent offers her a sandwich while she waits to be sent home.
It's doubtful that very many viewers will feel more secure after witnessing that and other Keystone Kop-like operations; there's little about "Homeland Security USA" that's warmly reassuring in the post-9/11 world. But the agents do behave with commendable civility (at least while cameras are trained on them) and apparent diligence, and while barbecued bats and belly baubles are dubious threats, we do see agents snatch an estimated $786,000 worth of cocaine stuffed into the nooks and crannies and spare tire of an SUV.
"This is your car on drugs," says an agent, standing before the sad, sacked car, reminding viewers that money spent on narcotics "also funds terrorism" -- at least theoretically. Even if it's better to be safe than sorry, however, "Homeland" still seems a sorry excuse for a television show.
Homeland Security USA (one hour) premieres tonight at 8 on Channel 7.