Hackers have broken into mainstream TV
By Ann Oldenburg, USA Today
- Oct. 19, 2014
Hackers are hot.
Yes, they tend to be villains in real life, making headlines for tapping into Target to steal credit card data, breaking into the cloud to snatch nude celebrity photos, and even breaching government firewalls to commit all sorts of top-level cybercrimes.
But on TV? They're the new heroes.
"Hackers are often unfairly portrayed as super-bad people, super-evil people," says Nick Santora, executive producer of Scorpion, CBS's new hit about hackers who help solve high-tech threats. "The truth is, hackers can provide a valuable service. They can uncover government misdeeds, unfair corporate practices. Hackers have a skill set that most people don't have. It's a skill set that's really useful and important. They're the watchers of the watchers."
Scorpion, airing Mondays at 9 p.m. ET/PT
, premiered to a lot of its own watchers in September with a healthy 13.8 million viewers and is the No. 2 new show this fall, behind NCIS: New Orleans. And, according to a study released last week, the show has had the most positive word of mouth of all the new fall broadcast network series.
In a reflection of our increasingly digital world, more TV series are featuring cyberpunk story lines. Plots are centering on tech-savvy computer wizards who can figure out a way into anything, anywhere, often to save the day.
"I like showing these guys are heroes," Santora says. "When you hear the word 'hack,' it has a negative connotation in society. But in society I believe there are many more people who are hoping to do good than to do bad. It's the same with hackers."
The Blacklist, Person of Interest, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Homeland, Scandal
— even Sunday's episode of The Good Wife
— have included some form of hacking, a trend that has been steadily evolving and spreading, just like a computer virus.
Remember how exciting it was in 2003 when 24's computer-whiz sidekick Chloe O'Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub) first began hacking into a security camera line, allowing us to watch every step of Jack Bauer's terrorist-fighting action as it unfolded?
also has had a favorite hacker, Penelope Garcia, played by Kirsten Vangsness. Pauley Perrette's Abby Sciuto on NCIS
has become a global computer nerd favorite. And a hacker turned from villain to would-be hero on FX's The Strain
In the works for midseason is CBS's CSI: Cyber
, starring rapper/actor Bow Wow (real name Shad Moss). His character is described as "cyber-intrusion savant" named Brody "Baby Face" Nelson.
Being a "savant" has become a standard part of the hacker stereotype. Hackers are usually misfits. Super-smart. Socially inept. Offbeat.
"The neck-beard fat guy living in his mom's basement and holding a pillow with a picture of a Japanese girl," says Gregg Housh, a Boston-based hacker who is connected with the group Anonymous. Those "cartoonish" stereotypes, he says, are just one type of hacker.
"In Hollywood, now they've got this guy who's maybe socially awkward and now maybe refined, drinking his wine, and he has his nice leather couches, trying to act like he had grown up rich. There are people like that in the hacker scene. I know a guy who after his first few major hacks got a Porsche and did it up. Man, did his place look nice."
As with any stereotype, it's easy to be wrong. "Most of the best hackers, you'd never imagine that's what they do."
On Scorpion, the main character, based on self-proclaimed hacker Walter O'Brien, is played by Elyes Gabel. "It's difficult to think of Walter as anything but a hero," says Gabel, noting that O'Brien's company, Scorpion, is "based "celebrating the misfits."
While the characters are colorful, geeks huddling around a screen do not make for great television. "We try to avoid getting them behind the keyboard as much as possible," Santora says.
He proved that in the Scorpion pilot, which featured a high-action scene in which Walter drove a Ferrari under an airplane so that his cohort, Paige (Katharine McPhee), could download data from the plane's onboard computer to her laptop.
While that was an especially unrealistic stunt, Santora says, the more mundane hacks aren't realistic, either.
On TV, "they can hack into anything in 10 seconds," he says. "It's kind of a cheat. We want to respect the hacker world. We understand when we're showing it, it's not entirely accurate."
Housh says that's probably the biggest flaw. "You've got to do research. You can't just see a system and five minutes later you're in. A lot of what they do on these shows would take weeks."
But Housh, who consulted on Season 2 of House of Cards, knows it's entertainment.
"One of the problems with Hollywood is that they have to play to a general public that doesn't understand the finer details that come along with hacking and what we have to do," Housh says. "It gets our adrenaline going, because we know what is going on on those screens but it's very boring. I know how much fun I'm about to have, but watching the same screen, it's like typing into Notepad."
On House of Cards
, Housh works with actor Jimmi Simpson, who plays a hacker activist forced to work with the FBI.
"They asked me what his room would look like, his desk. They asked all these questions," he says. "I finally said, 'I'm just going to take pictures of my desk.' I sent them over." And they re-created it, right down to a piece of art hanging above his workstation.
With one modification: "I've got much bigger screens."