Bill Brown is no critic, but let’s ask him about his reaction when he first saw the new Fox TV show “Minority Report.”
“It was my worst nightmare imagined,” he said.
Bill doesn’t mean the show itself — he tries to catch it every Monday night — but the Washington that it depicts. A spinoff of the Tom Cruise movie, “Minority Report” is set in Washington in 2065. The Nationals have won the World Series; the city’s NFL team is called the Red Clouds, and Washington, Bill said, “must have lost the next round of Height Act stuff.”
The Height Act: It’s the law that has made the nation’s capital a horizontal city — so far at least. In the Washington of “Minority Report,” the Mall and monumental core remain relatively unmolested, but glass towers crowd them on every side. It’s exactly what Bill hopes will never happen.
He’s president of the Association of Oldest Inhabitants of D.C. (AOI), a civic organization that works to preserve the history of the city. Whenever people raise the idea of letting the D.C. buildings grow taller, Bill is among those who speak out against it. And now he can point to a TV show that illustrates how different — how unsightly — the city would be.
Of course, that’s not what executive producer Max Borenstein had in mind when he pondered the show’s aesthetic. Max said director Steven Spielberg decided to set the 2002 movie in Washington because “he could put futuristic touches in but it would still look timelessly like itself.” (The Philip K. Dick short story that inspired the film is set in New York City.)
Washington, Max said, “has that neoclassical center, but then, on the outskirts in the film, they introduced a number of futuristic high-rise clusters.”
Before the movie was made, Spielberg convened a team of futurists to ponder what the District might look like decades hence. Among them was then-Post reporter Joel Garreau. Garreau persuaded the filmmakers to push the skyscrapers to Rosslyn and Crystal City, where you’d expect them to be. He was less successful convincing them that Lexus would be unlikely to build a car factory in town. Plot developments will always trump reality.
Washington has a mixed history when it comes to TV shows and movies that are set here. Who can forget the pivotal scene in “No Way Out” that features the Georgetown Metro station?
“Haven’t we all seen that in shows?” Bill said. “There’ll be like a palm tree. Or someone will be in the FBI headquarters, and they’ll walk out the door and it’s Ventura Boulevard. Who falls for this stuff?”
People who aren’t from Washington, I guess.
“Minority Report” is filmed in Vancouver, B.C. Fox recently trimmed its order of episodes from 13 to 10, suggesting that unless ratings pick up, the series may not return next season.
For example, the familiar obelisk that punctuates the Mall looks different. It’s oddly shimmering. “In ours, the Washington Monument is made of glass and steel,” Max said.
The reason why will be explained in a future episode, Max said. Let’s just say it’s not the original monument.
The computer-generated obelisk looks pretty cool, if somehow oddly familiar. It’s reminiscent of the sheeting that swathed the monument during recent renovations. Max said: “Some of the comments we got were, ‘Wait a minute. Why is there still scaffolding on the Washington Monument?’ ”
Max found this a bit irritating, given that his monument is the result of an expensive visual effects shot.
I think the funniest in-joke was in the show’s pilot episode. A crime is committed in Bartlet Plaza. Not Freedom Plaza. Not McPherson Square. The make-believe story honored a make-believe president: Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen in Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing.”
Max said: “My partner, the show runner Kevin Falls, was one of the writers in ‘The West Wing’ in its glory years, and so we did that as a kind of an homage to one of our favorite presidents. Maybe he’s a real president in the ‘Minority Report’ world.”
It’s not all fake presidents, though. On Monday’s episode, a character pulled out a thick stack of U.S. currency. The bills featured the face of President Obama.
“Minority Report” is about murders being predicted and prevented, thanks to a trio of humans with freaky precognitive abilities. Bill, the AOI president, spent 25 years on the Fairfax County police force. I asked him how crime in 2065 compared with his crime experiences in the 1980s.
“Fairfax was relatively crime-free back then,” Bill said. “Ten or 11 murders a year, most domestic. Yeah, we had crime analysts. We tried to see where the hot spots were. We had the occasional confidential informant who might tell you something’s going down. But there was no pre-crime, no precognition. There was nothing that futuristic or exciting, I tell you.”
And Washington was a low-rise city, as Bill hopes it will be long into the future.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.