Primetime's Lessons in Government 101

From trailblazing cowboys to hardboiled detectives to the back-stabbing Survivor contestants, dramatic television protagonists traditionally steer clear of life's mundane tasks.

But this year's heroes of the small screen aren't quite so adventuresome: They're federal bureaucrats.

Most people's main contact with bureaucracies consist of stops at the post office, a few days of jury duty or those dreaded trips to the motor vehicle office. Network executives are pushing the idea that the cogs in the Uncle Sam machine are ready for primetime in such shows as The Agency, First Monday, Emma Brody, and, naturally, the granddaddy of them all, The West Wing.

And even anti-establishment Easy Rider Peter Fonda is getting in on the act, playing the U.S. president on a possible network series about a female congressional staffer.

While learning about the workings of government bureaucracies sounds like a high school social studies assignment, New York Post television columnist Adam Buckman said it's too early to write off these new shows. He said they could prove as successful as past series that, on paper, seemed unlikely to be hits.

"You wouldn't have thought a show like L.A. Law, which was essentially about the inner workings of an office where people work in cubicles and pass each other on the way to the Xerox machine, would be interesting," he said.

In fact, he said, anyone who's ever flipped through the channels should hardly be surprised.

"The interest in the federal government is just part of television's continuing search for TV-show environments besides hospitals and police precincts."

And those environments take audiences from the U.S. Supreme Court — where Joe Mantegna, James Garner and Charles Durning play justices on CBS' First Monday — to London, where young American vice consul Emma Brody will presumably pull in viewers by sorting out the lost-passport difficulties of hapless tourists.

Anyone who insists on guns with their government can tune into CBS' The Agency, in which Gil Bellows and Beau Bridges fight for freedom from CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.

If you decide you like your television sets decorated in government-issue beige and liberally sprinkled with acronyms, you can thank Martin Sheen and Rob Lowe, already holding down the fort at the White House in The West Wing.

"The West Wing has led the way for TV shows inside the government and government agencies, and, with its success, predictably, others will be tried," Buckman said. "Some will be a success and some won't based on all usual factors, like compelling stories, favorable time periods, the way your network promotes you, and the stars you can get."

Not everyone's happy to see more government — even if it is only on the small screen.

"Shows like The West Wing and The Agency essentially give viewers an idealized view of government," Libertarian Party spokesman George Getz said. "The Agency portrays the CIA as this benevolent protector of the American people with this incredible technological prowess. But in the light of the tragedy of Sept. 11, it might make more sense to portray it as just another bumbling government agency like HUD or the INS, and the CIA director might be more like Inspector Clouseau than James Bond."

Getz said that the American public might be better served if networks gave them a "more realistic" view of government in which multimillion-dollar programs end in a muddle and good intentions get tangled up in red tape.

But TV viewers shouldn't expect to be served up the mind-numbing file pushing or frustrating delays of an actual bureaucracy this fall, Buckman said.

"I don't think we're going to have a show soon on the Department of Agriculture or the FDA," he said. "But one never knows what one can make with enough cleverness."