Life, Death, and The Government

Alyssa has a piece in the new Washington Monthly about NCIS that observe that government is all over our TV screens:

The phenomenal success of NCIS is part of a little-noticed fact about contemporary American culture. Though the rise of the Tea Party supposedly means that Americans these days hate government, they can’t seem to stop watching shows about government.

Week to week, nearly half of today’s highest-rated network TV shows are set in government agencies, be they federal (NCIS, Bones) state (The Mentalist), or local (Law & Order, CSI), or in quasi-public institutions like hospitals (House, Grey’s Anatomy) and private law firms that deal directly with the government (The Good Wife). Even Glee is set in a public high school. On cable, the USA Network has built its brand almost entirely around quirky shows about public servants and their sidekicks, ranging from Burn Notice, which follows a CIA agent washed up in Miami, to In Plain Sight, about U.S. marshals who work in the witness-protection program.

As an entertainment industry phenomenon, I don’t think this is too hard to understand. We like our shows to be about life and death situations—illness, public safety—to provide the drama needed to drive the narrative forward. And as it happens, around the world these kind of situations are handled by public or quasi-public institutions. What’s a little strange, I think, is how little consciousness of this fact feeds back into our political debates here in Washington. People talk about “government spending” as if it were some alien force that’s arisen for inexplicable reasons. In fact, it’s largely arisen to deal with the kind of problems that make for interesting television—life and death situations in which we hope to find things done by hero-type characters and the pursuit of narrow self-interest and profit would be considered inappropriate.