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Homeland Security USA

Although reality television has become a constant in primetime, the sheer tonnage of unscripted series rolling out in January is jolting -- particularly to those holding membership in one of the talent guilds.

Cast:
Narrator: Phillip Crowley.

Although reality television has become a constant in primetime, the sheer tonnage of unscripted series rolling out in January is jolting — particularly to those holding membership in one of the talent guilds. The cause of this unscripted wave is twofold, serving as a testimonial to TV dramas’ rough fall, and further evidence of NBC and ABC’s understandable “American Idol” phobia. ABC in particular has undergone a pretty significant makeover, with “Homeland Security USA” leading its midseason charge with the unenviable task of keeping “Idol” at bay. One hopes the featured officers perform better than the show is apt to.

This isn’t to say that “Homeland Security,” produced with the cooperation of the eponymous government agencies, isn’t slickly done, offering a fast-paced package that mixes in lighter stories to offset the grim threat that lingers in the premise. It’s just that the program happens to come at the end of a cycle that has seen virtually every law-enforcement agency tapped as reality fodder, from the U.S. Marshals’ Fugitive Task Force to the LAPD’s training academy.

The series also mostly skirts the irritation associated with customs screening — whether at Los Angeles Intl. Airport or the U.S.’ southern and northern borders in California and Washington, respectively — with predictable sympathy. Yes, some complaints are vented, and one unfortunate sap crossing into the U.S. from Mexico is taken into custody at gunpoint because he happens to share a name with a wanted fugitive. “You always get my husband confused with someone else,” his wife protests.

Indeed, at times the customs service mantra seems to be “to protect and annoy.” Yet producer Arnold Shapiro dutifully chronicles the agencies’ commitment to keeping America safe, preventing contraband like cocaine and unlicensed belly dancers (yep, honest) from illegally entering the country.

As is so often the case, however, it’s difficult to invest real-life police work with the sense of excitement that television doles out in scripted programming — even with music whose urgency borders on the comical. Instead, there’s a lot of by-the-book handling of threats that range from the serious to the ridiculous, most involving attempts to smuggle something (or someone) past customs officials.

“Homeland Security’s” arrival becomes a bit more sobering when one considers the trail of dramas ABC felt compelled to jettison this fall, among them the whimsical “Pushing Daisies” and the less deserving “Dirty Sexy Money.”

Drama will rear its head again soon enough, but until then, ABC will engage in a bit of a rope-a-dope routine — hoping to dazzle us with beauty queens and bachelors, belly dancers and possible dirty bombs, before trying to sneak another new scripted series across primetime’s border.

Homeland Security USA

ABC, Tue. Jan. 6, 8 P.M.

Production: Produced by A Son of Nate & Lil Prods. in association with Seven Network Australia. Executive producer, Arnold Shapiro; supervising producer, Paul Coyne; line producer, Ed Lavelle.

Crew: Editors, Coyne, Shirin Bazleh, Teki Cruickshank, Matt Deitrich; music, David Vanacore Music. Running Time: 60 MIN.

Cast: Narrator: Phillip Crowley.

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