In a New Political Season, the Capital's Character Is Getting a Lot More Credit
Sunday, March 8, 2009; Page E01
Washington, until now a surefire setting for a TV flops, is suddenly hot.
Through most of TV's history, Washington was a simple idea: It's where the president and Congress did their unseemly business, sometimes heroically, sometimes comically.
"Capital Critters," an animated ABC show in the early 1990s, featured mice, rats and cockroaches (of course!) who lived in the walls of the White House, where they engaged in erudite debate on race, politics and morality. (Nobody watched, and the show scurried into oblivion.)
In "Hail to the Chief" (1985), Patty Duke played the first female president, averting nuclear war with the Soviet Union even as she survives the frustrations of her husband. (Canceled after seven episodes.)
Through half a century, about 50 prime-time shows have been set in Washington. Except for "Get Smart," "Murphy Brown" and "The West Wing," they were nearly all flops. Most viewers got more than enough politics around election time, thank you very much.
But with the election of Barack Obama, the shift of economic power from New York to the District, and the evolution of a voracious celebrity culture to include politicians and even campaign strategists, TV is rediscovering Washington. No longer is the city simply a collection of marble icons to be glommed onto police procedurals and other basic formats of television drama.
Street scenes still often clumsily reveal that the programs are made in Los Angeles. Fleeting shots of the Jefferson Memorial, the Capitol dome and random limestone buildings that look like they could appear on dollar bills are often the only actual views of the District, but shows such as "Bones," "Lie to Me," and, of course, "24" are redefining Washington to the nation.
Yes, this is still the capital of lies, conspiracy and sleaze, but the quest for justice, truth and the American way now thrives on TV shows set in Washington, even if it has been, for the most part, privatized.
In Fox's "Lie to Me," which debuted the day after Obama's inauguration, Cal Lightman (Tim Roth) is a human lie detector who solves crimes and eases national crises by figuring out who's not telling the truth. But Lightman doesn't work for the FBI; he's a private consultant with snazzy digs in, of all places, the Washington Convention Center, which the folks in TV land seem to think serves nicely as an edgy office building. Lightman couldn't do justice to the cause of justice when he worked at the Defense Department, so now he's on his own, and doing very nicely -- and dressing more like a Hollywood producer than a D.C. crime consultant (TV's Washington-based heroes are always vastly more fashion-forward than anyone who actually works here).
Fox's "Bones" also features a genius of a crime-solver who operates outside the system. Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) is a forensic anthropologist whose digs and team at the Jeffersonian Institution are anything but government-issue. She's way too savvy and quick to toil at the pedestrian FBI, but she deigns to divulge to the gumshoes the secrets contained in the corpses at the center of each episode.
The contrast between the bumbling incompetents who do the government's quotidian work and the brilliant consultants or clandestine operators who get the job done even if it means cutting some ethical corners has long been integral to "24." The hit show moved its story line from Los Angeles to Washington for Season 7, mainly because the capital "just felt more relevant," says David Nevins, a Bethesda native who is executive producer of "24" and "Lie to Me."
But the trusty trick of pitting slow and thick feds against outsider action heroes has undergone a real shift this year. "Jack Bauer was a distrusted rebel working outside the system," Nevins says. "This season, he's working very closely with an FBI agent who has to work inside the system's rules. We're making a conscious effort not to make every government person a boob. They're not all good, but we're careful not to draw them all as annoying bureaucrats."