The brilliance of today's TV characters

I have been watching television recently, and I am really impressed.

Not just with the level of the current network and cable fare, though hats off to the networks for some good midseason replacements (with some notable exceptions, like "The Bedford Diaries" and "Free Ride"). No, I'm impressed with the erudition, ability, craft, and technical expertise I see there, shining out from the screen.

Not by the actors, mind you. By the characters.

Television seems to be in love with people who are really, really, really good at their jobs. It's true on the detective shows, where sleuths with Columbo-like intuition and dogged persistence have been replaced by the coldly brilliant likes of Gil Grissom and Horatio Caine, the high priests of forensic science on the CSI franchise, whose knowledge of arcane facts is second only to their abilities at using them to catch even the cleverest criminals. And as far as criminals are concerned, the guys on the late (and yet unlamented) NBC drama "Heist" were top notch, and let's not even get started on the antihero of "Prison Break," whose abilities in both tactical and strategic planning make Clausewitz look like Santa Claus. (I'm not suggesting that tattooing your entire body and locking yourself into your brother's maximum security prison is the smartest thing in the world to do, but once you choose that road, there isn't a better man for the job than Wentworth Miller.)

But the most impressive and competent individuals on the small screen today, I think bar none, are those who work for the government, particularly in the intelligence and national security fields. It seems fair to say that not everyone would regard this as a true-to-life reflection of the current situation. To take just two examples, Sydney Bristow on "Alias" speaks over a dozen languages fluently, at a time when we read about the woeful lack of Arabic, Pashto, and Farsi speakers in our own intelligence community; and the fact that large numbers of the staff of the Counter Terrorist Unit on "24" seem to be computer whizzes on the level of Caltech professors doesn't quite jibe with those tales of FBI computers unable to run the most basic searches.

None of this, I think, is a coincidence; in fact, it seems to me that the entertainment industry, in presenting us with heroes and heroines who are technically brilliant at what they do, is fulfilling one of the most basic functions of entertainment: to alleviate our everyday anxieties. It's not exactly news right now that people aren't particularly trusting their government's ability to do its job; approval ratings of the administration are at or near their lowest level ever, and Congress and the two parties aren't faring much better. Americans don't feel good about their national security or their financial futures, which translates into a general sense of worry. What a relief it is to know, at least for 60-minute increments, that Jack Bauer or Sydney Bristow is on the job.

Or, for that matter, President Josiah Bartlet. It's not a coincidence that the granddaddy of all these shows was "The West Wing," where viewers were treated to the sight of staffers spouting reams of arcane policy data at lightning-fast speeds without ever looking at a single note or chart. (Yes, they carried briefing books on occasion, but those seemed to serve largely as free weights to keep the staff looking Hollywood trim.) A lot of viewers of "The West Wing" seem to have spent most of the show's tenure dreamily regarding it as a utopian alternative to real-world politics; what it really is, of course, is a utopian alternative to real-world competence. People on the "West Wing" are stubborn, idealistic, wrongheaded, and even occasionally deceitful and criminal; what they almost never are is bad at their job.

I'm just observing, I hasten to add, not complaining. There's absolutely nothing wrong with watching people do excellent work. I just wish that, when I did it, my television was more frequently tuned to CNN.

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