Human organs grown in dishes. Mars rovers. Genetically engineered meat. Not a day passes without headlines announcing amazing technological breakthroughs. So it’s no coincidence that in recent years, scripted television has exploded with shows exploring technology — and humanity’s relationship to it.
After all, Hollywood only recently emerged from a lengthy writers strike that largely centered on issues of new technologies and who deserves to control or profit from them. So it’s a sign of the times that while being forced to face the realities of cell phones, DVRs and the Internet, many writers — by nature a technophobic bunch — are diving headfirst into technology as subject matter for their scripts.
“It went from being a weird, fringe topic to something in everybody’s lives,” says Josh Schwartz, executive producer of “Chuck,” NBC’s freshman dramedy about a computer repairman who downloads CIA files into his head. “Computer geeks are the new doctors and cops of television.”
From more whimsical offerings like “Chuck” and “Eureka” to darker fare like “Bionic Woman” and “Battlestar Galactica,” there’s been no shortage of shows exploring questions and fears about how technology is evolving — and taking us with it.
Some, like “Chuck,” position tech-obsessed characters as reluctant heroes armed with manmade superpowers.
“It’s the deification of the tech guy,” Schwartz says. “The Nerd Herd (lead character Chuck’s repair squad) understands how computers and electronics run, (so) they’re the ones with all the power. That speaks to how powerless we all feel around computers. If you don’t know how to work a computer, you’re at a disadvantage on our planet today.”
Likewise, Sci Fi’s “Eureka,” set in a village of inventors, sees techno-savvy as an equalizer helping us evolve to higher social and cultural levels.
“Geek is chic,” says co-creator Jaime Paglia. Eureka “is not a place where being captain of the football team or having the best clothes or car makes you popular. It’s about intellectual creativity and innovation. Ideally, you get to a point where none of it matters; we’re all just people, and we appreciate (those) qualities in everybody.”
Other shows, like CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory,” illustrate how too much technology turns us into social misfits.
“(Scientists and engineers) are people who are going to change the world most dramatically in our lifetime,” says “Big Bang” exec producer Chuck Lorre, but they’re “not able to move with any alacrity through a social situation.”
Several more shows warn against overdependence on technology. In “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” based on James Cameron’s hit films, machines try to wipe out the human race.
“We’re getting to that place where the symbiotic relationship between who we are and what we create is interwoven,” “Sarah Connor” showrunner Josh Friedman says. “That’s always something movies have warned against: an overly significant dependence on technology.”
Similarly, the Cylons of “Battlestar” began as regular robots, then rebelled and attempted to eradicate their human creators, and on “Bionic Woman,” villain Sarah Corvus turned murderous when her electronic body parts began to fail.
“We’re tapping into anxiety about objects that are around us every day and could be dangerous but are, for the most part, helping us,” says “Terminator” exec producer James Middleton. “We don’t understand how a computer works or how the Internet works. We just use it and somehow trust in it, and that engenders fear.”
Adds Friedman: “Technology is another version of Communism or aliens or a large praying mantis stomping down Fifth Avenue. It’s a response to our sense of being out of control.”
Often, that out-of-control angst is proving creatively and financially lucrative, or at least seductive. Networks are already prepping several tech-related shows for next season, including Sci Fi’s “Caprica,” CBS’ “Eleventh Hour” and Fox’s “Fringe.”
“You can’t pick up the paper without reading about someone growing goats out of a Petri dish or working to redo transistors as molecules,” Lorre says. “These are people who change our world, and you want to write about it. The fact that they weigh 120 pounds and don’t know how to dress is irrelevant.”