We Need a ‘Get Smart’ For the War on Terror

By Alyssa Rosenberg

I was sorry to hear today that CBS is canceling Chaos, its hour-long CIA show. It’s not so much that that Chaos was fantastic, though Freddy Rodriguez is a charmer, and deserves a functional lead role in something. But in its semi-jokey approach to espionage, whether the agents are sneaking into North Korean in the guise of cranky dissident American filmmakers or subjecting themselves to unheated swimming pools to satisfy a crabby arms dealer’s sexy daughters, it had a whiff of Get Smart about it. And that’s a good thing, something we could use more of in a cultural moment when the zone is flooded with CIA and Homeland Security shows, when the closest we get to a parody of our security apparatus is some very tanned spies chilling in and shooting up Miami in Burn Notice or the oversexed agents of Archer.

Get Smart operated on two premises. First, that our so-called enemies are as ridiculous, confused, and out of their depths as we are: in this episode, the agents of KAOS can’t even close a shoe sale, much less beat Smart:

And second, the spy bureaucracy is sort of hopeless, as we find out when Max is dispatched to the Iron Curtain to pay off CONTROL agents behind enemy lines. “Secret agents have to live too!” complains Smart’s first contact aboard the Orient Express. “Everything costs so much today. The guns and knives are expensive. Poison is up. Strangling wire is $6.80 a yard.”

All this haplessness is the end product of the fact that the enterprise itself is semi-ridiculous, an idea that’s essentially taboo in our security-oriented pop culture. Even as Chaos started the first episode with a goofy, old-timey montage illustrating the CIA’s fubars and inflated sense of self-worth, or ha a team of goofy agents mess around on Company time, or a guy who claims to be a “human weapon,” it takes seriously the idea that North Korea is a threat, that we should spend a lot of time and resources humoring a recalcitrant arms dealer. Ditto for Burn Notice: the show gets a lot of its charm from its cast of roustabout former CIA and FBI agents, but the show still insists that there are serious national security threats coming through Miami on a near-daily basis.

Get Smart insisted that we’d trapped ourselves in a game of Spy v. Spy, that it was ridiculous (and very funny) that we were plowing huge amounts of money into developing levitating shoes, or having agents brew up coffee in a lab. The conflicts never really required more in the way of resolution than a punch in the face. The prospect of infiltration was about as serious as the threat of vampires. I can’t imagine the reaction to a mainstream show today that so forcefully and hilariously insisted that our whole national security enterprise was a fraud, but an equivalently funny show would be incredibly bracing.