Time was, the irritating, obnoxious, moronic postal carrier Newman from Seinfeld was about the best federal employees could hope to see of their kind on television.
After all, Newman was merely a comic foil. Plots centered around, for example, his effort to commandeer a mail truck for a cross-country trip to cash in on aluminum-can deposits were both outrageous and (c'mon, admit it) pretty funny. But virtually all the other federal employees portrayed on the small screen-or the big screen, for that matter-in the 1990s were at best inept and at worst scheming and venal. The only federal heroes in prime time were the dual lead characters in Fox's The X-Files, whose heroism consisted of crusading to uncover a massive conspiracy orchestrated by their counterparts elsewhere in the FBI, at the Defense Department and in several other agencies.
"Corruption, buffoonery, ineptitude and red tape are the hallmarks of government on prime time entertainment television in the 1990s," concluded the Partnership for Trust in Government, a joint project of the Council for Excellence in Government and the Ford Foundation, in a May 1999 report.
Elsewhere in this issue, my colleague Charles Mah-tesian argues that Hollywood is still actively impugning the motives of American government officials at every turn. I'll make the case that things aren't so bad any more. Just take a look at network television. There are more bureaucrat heroes on TV than you can shake a stick at, as Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, noted this summer after the annual Emmy award nominations were announced. Three of the nominees for outstanding drama series-CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, 24 and The West Wing-all feature daring, imaginative and brave public servants.
"The message is clear: Government service can be heroic service," Stier declared. "It's good to see public servants are finally getting their due."
Indeed it is. But assuming things are changing for the better, the question is, why? The obvious answer is Sept. 11. After the terrorist attacks, it suddenly doesn't seem so funny to ridicule the people whose jobs it is to serve the rest of us. But while it would be nice to think that we've entered a new age of appreciation of government in the entertainment realm, it may just be that Hollywood needed a fresh crop of villains for variety's sake.
Take one of this summer's big movies, The Manchurian Candidate. In the 1962 original version of the film, the bad guys were communist plotters who tried to brainwash a U.S. soldier into assassinating the president. The latest version cleverly updates the plot by turning the evildoers into executives of a huge federal contractor-a perfect fit with the cultural Zeitgeist.
But if you're anticipating the dawn of a new era of entertainment industry infatuation with civil servants, be careful what you wish for, because TV writers, producers and executives work in mysterious ways.
The Washington Post provided a great example of this in September with a story about NBC's new drama, Medical Investigation. The show features a team of cooler-than-cool epidemiological investigators who swoop into a different city every week to try to figure out why people are taking ill with one disease or another. There is just such a group of federal employees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. But on the TV show, the main characters are identified as working for the National Institutes of Health, an agency that in real life focuses on research, not investigation.
CDC employees immediately sensed a conspiracy. Higher-ups at the Health and Human Services Department pleaded ignorance. Some CDC and NIH folks actually flew to Hollywood to try to convince the show's writers and producers to put the heroes in the correct agency. No go. Chris Conti, NBC's senior vice president for drama development, told the Post that the show's producers didn't have anything against the folks in Atlanta. "But when you say the word 'CDC,' an image comes into your head of a bunch of guys in hazmat suits, with steel sliding doors and everything shot in blue light." NIH, on the other hand, was more of a "blank slate," Conti said.
If that makes sense to you, then you've got Hollywood all figured out.