Stories of the FBI and CIA usually focus on a simple good guy/bad guy approach. The agencies, with the backing of the United States government, take on evildoers. On CBS’ “Criminal Minds,” that means chasing down brutal killers. On Fox’s “The X-Files,” that has meant exploring a shadowy conspiracy by a cabal far removed from the elected government.
But that’s all starting to change, and the battle between government officials and the intelligence community, which might have seemed an unnecessary plot a few years ago (“Wait? Who are audiences supposed to root for? Aren’t they on the same side?”) is now front and center.
“I think the relationship between presidents and the FBI/CIA has always been informed by a fair bit of tension, but what we’re seeing now seems unprecedented,” said Howard Gordon, the executive producer behind series such as “24” and “Homeland.” “I have to imagine we’ll be seeing storytellers explore and exploit that conflict.”
Indeed, this past season of “Homeland” made that a central plot theme, as the incoming president Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel) clashed with the intelligence agency members, including Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham), whose attempts to undermine her eventually led to his arrest.
Viewers were glued to the Comey testimony in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this month, and the audience reaction played out on social media. Comey is the kind of anti-hero that TV producers love right now: He’s not someone who has been equally despised and beloved, depending on the storyline. Did he help lead America to the predicament the country is now in, or is he going to save the nation from itself? It’s complicated.
“One thing we’ve learned is that our audience isn’t monolithic,” Gordon said. “So whether the audience feels differently about those agencies may have something to do with their feelings about Trump.”
The FBI and CIA remain popular story drivers: This fall, ABC’s “Deception” stars Jack Cutmore-Scott as a superstar magician who helps the FBI solve crimes. CBS’ “Instinct” stars Alan Cumming as “a former CIA operative who has since built a normal life as a gifted professor and writer is lured back into his old life when the NYPD needs his help to stop a serial killer.”
On the recent USA Network reality series “Inside the FBI: New York,” filmmaker Marc Levin thought he was making a series simply about the FBI’s New York Field office, and how it contends with everything from terrorism and gangs to cyber crimes and human trafficking. But in addition to all of that, he wound up chronicling Comey and the FBI last year as it wound up impacting the presidential campaign.
“I was in the headquarters in New York City on July 5 when Comey made his first press conference on the Hillary Clinton emails,” Levin said. “The controversy, especially the political controversy, was an unintended consequence for us.”
The goal of the docuseries was to chronicle “the unsung real people doing the work every day,” Levin said, he said he could see that “there was a tremendous frustration that people have no idea what they do.”
Levin ultimately sat down with Comey for the series after the election. He said that Comey “said he’s thought long and hard about it and stands by his decisions, that he thinks he made them for the right reasons. He knows there are a lot of smart people who disagree with him but it drives him crazy when they question his motive.”
Levin said he found Comey to be a “charasmatic guy, the kind of public servant who can come in a room and joke about Beyonce and then quote classic Greek drama. He’s got an intellectual depth and a certain moral sense of righteousness, which may get him in trouble.”
But the ultimate misstep? “No one figured that Trump was winning, and I think that’s the baseline miscalculation that a lot of people made,” Levin said. “I think a lot of decisions were made with that in mind.”
Where does scripted entertainment go from here when it comes to depicting the government and intelligence agencies? Beau Willimon, who adapted “House of Cards” for U.S. audiences (but left the show after Season 4), said he believed TV and film writers will continue to write “about politics with great effectiveness and great insight, whether it is coming from a comedic place or dramatic place or somewhere in between. You write about politics the way people have written about politics going back to the Greeks. I don’t think we’re living in a unique time, when you look at the vast spectrum of human history and you look at artists working in other countries where you could actually be imprisoned or get killed for what you write.”
Depicting a moving target such as the rapidly changing world of Washington, D.C., is “an imperfect science. Everyone’s doing a pretty fine job of groping through the darkness,” Willimon said.
Still, he joked, “I got out at just the right time!”