J. Edgar Hoover sure didn't look like Leonard DiCaprio, who played him in Clint Eastwood's biopic. The real Hoover was 5-foot-7 and had the face of an unhappy pet bulldog wandering the backyard for a suburban family. He couldn't have looked less like a hero.
History hasn't exactly appointed him one, either. Yes, he all but invented the FBI and professionalized it, but he had an unerring knack for landing on the funky side of history whether he was crusading against everyone an inch to the left of Harry Truman or throwing both public and secret shade at the civil rights movement (most notably at its greatest leader, Martin Luther King).
In one area, Hoover was one of the great American geniuses. He understood something about America long before everyone else. He did everything in his power, from Day One, to help his invention, the FBI, become central to the American popular imagination. He knew every FBI tale on radio, in the funny papers and movies, erected the FBI's fortress that much higher. It's still true in the 21st century.
We have FBI chiefs now who are 6-foot-8 (former chief James Comey), but they still can't fill Hoover's shoes as a Washington D.C. player. Or as an influence on American storytelling.
It's his invention, the FBI, that still holds the popular imagination.
Not only do we have a president who tries to score points by villainizing the FBI, but American television is wall to wall with our greatest investigative agency in all manner of nutso fantasies. Currently prominent in 21st century network crime fantasies:
The Dick Wolf version. What that means is this weekly tale of law and order features two agents played by Missy Peregrym and Zeeko Zaki. Their superiors in the bureau are played by Sela Ward, who always speaks logically, and Jeremy Sisto, who roams the office with a bluetooth plastered in his ear and barks orders loudly to everyone in the room. If J. Edgar could have modernized his prejudices for the 21st century, he'd have been pleased by this show, I think.
You take one FBI guy with a pixie personality and a squishy romantic streak (Scott Foley, former assassin on "Scandal") and pair him with a CIA rule breaker (Lauren Cohan) capable of just about anything for the cause (including instant sex with the nearest possible informant). Mix with an untidy comic and a neat-freak techie with a beard. Put them in foreign locations with as many low-octane wisecracks as you can to seem "stylized" to people who don't really care about style. It's a breezy concoction that Hoover, no doubt, would have found blasphemous, but left alone.
The Enemy Within
Jennifer Carpenter is an ex-CIA traitor who got all kinds of agents killed by coughing up classified info to save her daughter's life. From prison, she is helping a reluctant FBI agent played by Morris Chestnutt to go after a Russian mega-villain by climbing up the ladder of his buddies. You can just hear Hoover barking at Hollywoodians over the phone: "What are you, nuts? The FBI consorting with a CIA traitor? You've got to be kidding." Me? I'm happy Carpenter found this role after "Dexter," where she played the foul-mouthed sister of the serial killer who killed other serial killers. In life, Carpenter was married to "Dexter" star Michael Hall briefly. Tell me there wasn't an HBO, Showtime or Netflix sitcom somewhere in there.
. . .
There are no FBI regulars in some other new pop TV law and order fantasies, but I'd love to know what America's great pop cultural law and order patriarch would think of these new shows:
Marcia Clark, legendary O.J. Simpson trial prosecution loser, is hereby raising her ponderous impersonation of bestseller writer to TV producer. Her mini-series is about a prosecutor who fails to convict a double killer, but is back on his case when he's charged with a new murder of the woman in his life. She's played by Robin Tunney, who on "The Mentalist" was more welcome in American living rooms than Clark ever was. The accused in this new one is played by Adenwale Akinnuye Agbaje. I don't know why, but my guess is that all of this is from a new American fantasy factory that would have dismayed Hoover enormously.
Nathan Fillion as a charming 40-year-old rookie on the L. A. police force. Richard T. Jones, formerly of "Judging Amy," is his soft-voiced superior. The premise is stretched beyond belief, but I'm guessing Hoover would have liked this one even though no FBI agents are in it. He'd at least have liked the parts that don't involve the moody cop whose ex-wife is an ex-cop and recovering junkie.
For the People
The Shonda Rhimes recipe applied to the world of prosecutors and public defenders around the Southern District of New York Federal Courthouse. Add breezy badinage to a young cast, while still leaving room for tear-jerking plots about ice cold ICE functionaries who separate little boys from their illegal immigrant fathers. It's a "Young Lawyers" law and order fantasy. Lots of smarty pants are on both sides, prosecution and defense. To keep everyone emotionally honest, Anna Deavere Smith lends soul to the proceedings and Vondie Curtis Hall lends gray-haired judicial wisdom and gravitas. I'm betting Hoover would have liked it enough to try to insist on lots more FBI presence in the series.
Million Dollar Mile
A TV game show where athletes run around L.A. LeBron James does in prime time what he couldn't do on the court with the Lakers this year (not his fault, a groin injury messed up his season royally): Pretend to be a winner, in other words. The host of it is Tim Tebow. Now there, I'm guessing, would have been J. Edgar Hoover's idea of a TV host.
All-purpose Marine Corps lawyers who do everything on the show but make hit records on weekends. Pop fantasies can be taken too far. Right?