ABC's new docu-series Homeland Security USA follows the day-to-day adventures of border patrolmen, customs agents and the like, and you could easily–and not entirely inaccurately–think of it as a shameless sop to the anti-immigration crowd, feeding their fear that the U.S. borders are being overrun by drug dealers and terrorists, all trying to exploit one of the many holes in our first line of defense. Or you could think of HSUSA as a just another benign "how they do it" reality show, dosed with the same subtle self-righteousness of shows like COPS, Airline and Parking Wars, where viewers are asked to approve the petty power trips of low-wage working folk over the everyday idiocy of those they torment.
Myself, I generally enjoy those petty-power-trip reality dramas, because I–and most other fans of these shows, I hope—always keep in mind their subtle "manipulation by access." I understand that these kinds of shows are largely going to ignore any lapses on the part of their protagonists, and are going to edit out the drudgery that makes up the bulk of their working days. Instead, we only ever get to see conflict, usually instigated by people who aren't thinking too clearly. In Homeland Security for example, we see a twentysomething slacker attempting to walk across the Mexican border with hash pipes in his hands. He's not a smuggler; on the contrary, he's quite open with his drug paraphernalia. Because the customs agents are so congenial and the druggie so dim, most viewers will be inclined to side with the agents, and–like me–to enjoy the simple catharsis of watching a dumb guy get his comeuppance. Yet outside the context of the show, if you were to ask me whether I think a person should get busted for carrying empty glass pipes across the border, I'd say no way. Can I separate the me who goes along with where the producers of HSUAS are leading me, and the me who disagrees with those conclusions? I'd like to think I can. (But maybe I'm kidding myself.)
Moral slipperiness aside, Homeland Security USA mainly suffers because it isn't as smartly constructed as most of its "watch people do tough jobs" counterparts. The show reaches too far, checking in with everyone from postal inspectors to airport security to cops, on every conceivable American borderline. The producers cut quickly from vignette to vignette, until HSUSA becomes like one dizzying 40-minute montage of various vehicles, suitcases, toys and clothes being cut open to reveal tightly bundled packages of drugs. The individual stories aren't developed well enough. Early on we follow agents at the Canadian border as they stop a couple of pedestrians claiming to be on their way to L.A. by foot (!), but while we later learn that one of the suspects was on the no-fly list and that his confederates were waiting for him in a car on the other side of the border, nothing ever really comes of any of this. The law finds no drugs or weapons, and no one involved with the show does any follow-up to figure out just what was going on. The journalistic impulse on these kind of programs tends to be pretty spotty.
That spottiness is at its worst in a sequence in which a Mexican family is pulled over at gunpoint because the name on their vehicle registration is the same as a fugitive listed as "armed and dangerous." The young mother complains that this keeps happening to them every time they cross the border, and that it terrifies their kids, and the narrator explains that the U.S. customs agents gave the family tips for how to avoid this problem in the future. But did they? Was the mother satisfied with the advice she was given? No time to stick around and find out. There's a Swiss belly dancer with no work visa giving an immigration official a hard time at LAX.
-Speaking of that belly dancer and her inquisitor, the most interesting thing about that vignette is that the immigration official is clearly an immigrant himself, retaining heavy traces of his home accent as he grills the girl about why she came to this country with only 50 bucks, no hotel reservation, and nothing but a suitcase full of filmy costumes. How does this benefactor of the American dream feel about spending his days policing other immigrants? That kind of question isn't relevant to what HSUSA is all about.
-Homeland Security USA premieres tonight on ABC at 8 p.m. eastern time.