Why Are We Crazy For Government Conspiracy TV Series?

'The Event's Jason Ritter with '24's Kiefer Sutherland and 'Rubicon's James Badge Dale (NBC/Fox/AMC)

'The Event's Jason Ritter with '24's Kiefer Sutherland and 'Rubicon's James Badge Dale (NBC/Fox/AMC)

They’re just TV characters espousing far-out theories, but if they were people standing on a street corner raving about the government, you’d think they were crazy.

So why do we take all these TV shows about government conspiracies so seriously? One reason is obvious: At they’re best, they can be very entertaining. See (most seasons of) ‘24‘ or the very first cycle of ‘Prison Break‘ – in which the vice president herself was a sinister, Machiavellian puppeteer – for example.

Or maybe these shows are an inevitable by-product of our post-9/11 world, where a shockingly high percentage of normal people – not just a handful of nuts on street corners or high-paid TV sitcom stars – believe the U.S. government was behind the attacks.

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Whatever the case, here come two more new series about government conspiracies that are so complex, it will take weeks – possibly longer – to figure them out.

In ‘The Event,’ NBC’s new government-conspiracy serial premiering Monday, September 20, Jason Ritter (‘Joan Of Arcadia’) plays the regular Joe who stumbles upon massive and shadowy secrets. This show is so labyrinthine that the titular “event” won’t likely be revealed for months, if not years. Adding to the complexity: The pilot uses multiple flashbacks – I counted seven in the one-hour premiere, ranging from 23 minutes to 13 months. Didn’t we get all that out of our systems with ‘FlashForward’?

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Coming up Aug. 1 is AMC’s ‘Rubicon.’ Even after watching four episodes, I cannot explain this show’s title nor do I have much of an idea what this show’s conspiracy will turn out to be. The few clues I’ve seen, though, indicate that it will likely involve a small circle of very powerful people both inside and outside the government.

‘Rubicon’ is centered on a midlevel intelligence analyst (played by James Badge Dale, so good in HBO’s ‘The Pacific’) who works for a presumably fictional branch of the national security apparatus that provides intel to all other security agencies and the military. Dale’s character is the one who stumbles onto this show’s conspiracy and then tries to connect the dots – no easy task. In four episodes, he doesn’t get very far, but like a good, page-turning novel, I couldn’t stop watching AMC’s ‘Rubicon’ and I don’t plan on stopping until it’s over.

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A handful of conspiratorial shows have come and gone since Sept. 11, 2001 – most (but not all) reflecting our national obsession with terrorism. The most successful had to be ’24,’ which ironically had to tweak its series premiere’s pivotal jetliner explosion, seeing as it aired mere weeks after the terror attacks. ’24’ went on to last eight seasons and set the standard for this kind of thing.

But we’ve also seen shorter-lived stabs at the genre – Showtime’s ‘Sleeper Cell‘ (2005-2007), ABC’s ‘Threat Matrix‘ (2003-2004) and ‘Traveler‘ (2007), NBC’s ‘E-Ring‘ (2005-2006) and heck, even last year’s ‘Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura‘ on TruTV.

But here’s what’s puzzling about the popularity of TV’s conspiracy serials:

Many of us expend a great deal of time and energy complaining about the incompetence of our real-life government. Yet then we turn right around and believe that that very same government – albeit a fictionalized version – is capable of organizing and carrying out the most amazing feats of treachery our imaginations can conjure up. So which is it – high-ranking politicos are inept, or insanely scrupulous?

Are we turning into a nation of nuts on street corners who believe our government is conspiring against us, and thus we cozy on up to programs that substantiate our fear? Or are these conspiracy-minded TV shows merely providing harmless fun?

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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