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Is D.C. Ready For Prime Time TV?

Washington, until now a surefire setting for a TV flops, is suddenly hot.

Through most of TV's history, Washington was a simple idea: It's where the president and Congress did their unseemly business, sometimes heroically, sometimes comically.

"Capital Critters," an animated ABC show in the early 1990s, featured mice, rats and cockroaches (of course!) who lived in the walls of the White House, where they engaged in erudite debate on race, politics and morality. (Nobody watched, and the show scurried into oblivion.)

In "Hail to the Chief" (1985), Patty Duke played the first female president, averting nuclear war with the Soviet Union even as she survives the frustrations of her husband. (Canceled after seven episodes.)

Through half a century, about 50 prime-time shows have been set in Washington. Except for "Get Smart," "Murphy Brown" and "The West Wing," they were nearly all flops. Most viewers got more than enough politics around election time, thank you very much.

But with the election of Barack Obama, the shift of economic power from New York to the District, and the evolution of a voracious celebrity culture to include politicians and even campaign strategists, TV is rediscovering Washington. No longer is the city simply a collection of marble icons to be glommed onto police procedurals and other basic formats of television drama.

Street scenes still often clumsily reveal that the programs are made in Los Angeles. Fleeting shots of the Jefferson Memorial, the Capitol dome and random limestone buildings that look like they could appear on dollar bills are often the only actual views of the District, but shows such as "Bones," "Lie to Me," and, of course, "24" are redefining Washington to the nation.

Yes, this is still the capital of lies, conspiracy and sleaze, but the quest for justice, truth and the American way now thrives on TV shows set in Washington, even if it has been, for the most part, privatized.

In Fox's "Lie to Me," which debuted the day after Obama's inauguration, Cal Lightman (Tim Roth) is a human lie detector who solves crimes and eases national crises by figuring out who's not telling the truth. But Lightman doesn't work for the FBI; he's a private consultant with snazzy digs in, of all places, the Washington Convention Center, which the folks in TV land seem to think serves nicely as an edgy office building. Lightman couldn't do justice to the cause of justice when he worked at the Defense Department, so now he's on his own, and doing very nicely -- and dressing more like a Hollywood producer than a D.C. crime consultant (TV's Washington-based heroes are always vastly more fashion-forward than anyone who actually works here).

Fox's "Bones" also features a genius of a crime-solver who operates outside the system. Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) is a forensic anthropologist whose digs and team at the Jeffersonian Institution are anything but government-issue. She's way too savvy and quick to toil at the pedestrian FBI, but she deigns to divulge to the gumshoes the secrets contained in the corpses at the center of each episode.

The contrast between the bumbling incompetents who do the government's quotidian work and the brilliant consultants or clandestine operators who get the job done even if it means cutting some ethical corners has long been integral to "24." The hit show moved its story line from Los Angeles to Washington for Season 7, mainly because the capital "just felt more relevant," says David Nevins, a Bethesda native who is executive producer of "24" and "Lie to Me."

But the trusty trick of pitting slow and thick feds against outsider action heroes has undergone a real shift this year. "Jack Bauer was a distrusted rebel working outside the system," Nevins says. "This season, he's working very closely with an FBI agent who has to work inside the system's rules. We're making a conscious effort not to make every government person a boob. They're not all good, but we're careful not to draw them all as annoying bureaucrats."

In the past, "24" thrived on mock executions and beatings, and on Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) doing whatever it took to keep us safe. New cast member Jon Voight, who plays a villain in forthcoming episodes, told TV Guide he supports waterboarding, which he said "scares the pants off of people but if it . . . can give us information that will save lives, I'm for it."

But it's a new day for Washington and its fictional double on TV. This season's "24" was conceived before the rise of Obama, before the TV writers' strike, at a point when much of Hollywood assumed Hillary Clinton would be the next president. Even so, the new TV president, Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones), was written in a way that eerily predicted Obama's appeal: "She is a more idealistic, principled leader than her recent predecessors in the White House on '24,' " Nevins says. "She really dovetails with people's perceptions of Obama."

This season's plotline pits Bauer's pragmatic past "against the president's more stringent principles," Nevins says. Similarly, "Lie to Me" tracks the change in administration; its basic premise is that interrogations need not involve physical force to be effective.

The Obama imperative is changing Washington's image on TV even on shows that don't yet exist. HBO has a cast for "The Washingtonienne," based on the autobiography of Jessica Cutler, the young Senate staffer who had a side business in sex and scandal. But the network has sent the series back to the shop for an overhaul "partly because there has been such a profound shift in Washington," according to Sarah Condon, executive producer of the show. HBO says it's premature to divulge details, but Condon says the show is being redeveloped "with the Obama administration in mind."

Similarly, CW is working on a show about 20-somethings on the Hill that TV industry insiders deemed too cynical for the times; according to an executive who was consulted on the show, it is being rewritten on the theory that the country doesn't want to see politics as usual.

Does this portend a new era of good feeling toward Washington on the small screen? Is TV, as the stereotype would have it, in the tank for Obama? Nevins says it's not that simple. Many of TV's staple forms, whether police procedurals or sitcoms, traffic in cynicism, "but the flip side of that distrust of authority is romanticism," Nevins says. The heroes in "Lie to Me" and "Bones" believe in people's better natures, and that comes through even when the script is busy peddling wild conspiracy theories. That root idealism was a constant undercurrent in "The West Wing," which Nevins also worked on, and it's the essential Washington story in popular culture, going all the way back to "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

Some aspects of Washington's image on TV remain the same as ever. Most shows' budgets don't allow for travel, so they make do with stock establishing shots of the Capitol or the White House. If "Lie to Me" continues to score well in the ratings, the show might be able to film in the District next season. That would enable the program to avoid some cringe-making moments when Washingtonians see recognizably Southern California streets subbing for spots in Ballston or Foggy Bottom (we don't do tall buildings here, a fact Hollywood never seems to absorb). "It's hard to accomplish that neighborhood feel of Arlington or Adams Morgan in Los Angeles," Nevins says.

What has changed is the audience's appetite for things Washington, perhaps enough so that some of what could be as many as eight shows about the capital on the air next season might do some filming here. Directors still complain that the District is especially difficult to film in because of security rules and overlapping police and government jurisdictions that make it hard to know when you've gotten all the permissions you need. But, Nevins says: "This is Washington's moment. The combination of Obama's election and what's going on in New York and Wall Street has made this D.C.'s time. Who knows who long it will last, but right now, D.C. is the place where the future gets written."

By Marc Fisher |  March 8, 2009; 12:36 PM ET
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Hey, don't forget about "227"!

Posted by: jarvis20009 | March 9, 2009 12:45 PM

X-Files leaned pretty heavily on DC, although I don't believe they ever filmed here. But lots of area neightborhoods and suburban locales were picked during the show's run to host a wide variety if evil government plots. (Gaithersburg has the dubious distinction of being mispronounced twice)

Posted by: RedBirdie | March 9, 2009 2:21 PM

I still remember Scarecrow and Mrs. King on CBS. I loved seeing the sights of my home town on TV back when I was a kid...oh wait, that was LA too!

Posted by: dj1123 | March 10, 2009 10:43 AM

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