Because in the modern era of reboot, spin-off, and franchise television, nothing is ever truly gone, Fox this fall debuted a crime procedural that is an adaptation of the 2002 Steven Spielberg film “Minority Report.” That film, which is itself based on a Philip K. Dick short story, introduces the viewer to a Washington, D.C. free of crime—free, because three people with psychic powers predict crime before it happens. Tom Cruise and Colin Farrell play two law enforcement officers who are tasked with rounding up and disposing of the criminal element, before they have a chance to commit their crimes. The film is partially a vision of the future and partially a hell-for-leather thriller, one that follows a narrow path of twists and turns to uncover the mystery of why the main precog, Agatha (Samantha Morton), sees Cruise’s character John Anderton committing a murder, even though he has no intention whatsoever of doing so.
And though it is built on a supernatural premise—and presents as futuristic technology that we’ve rapidly eclipsed—“Minority Report” holds up with terrifying relevance in 2015. Last week I wrote about how Edward Snowden’s data leak had shaped fantasies of surveillance on television; “Minority Report,” the film, may well have shaped the fantasies of surveillance hold sway in our real lives. Either way, the film forces the viewer to ponder what criminal profiling and pre-emptive sentencing does to the social fabric. The film questions the very existence of the PreCrime division, and by the end, concludes it must be dismantled, judging the cost of such a program to not be worth the benefit.
Then Fox’s “Minority Report,” the TV series, rolls up and says, hey, why don’t we bring the band back together?
The premise of the television show is that several years after the original program was dismantled, one of the male precogs—lacking both the odd water bath and the loopy speech patterns of his past—contacts the police, hoping to help solve crimes. Dash, the precog (Stark Sands) befriends Vega, the cop (Meagan Good). And along with a cast of motley characters—some drawn from the film, some not—they sally forth to stop crimes that no one has asked them to stop, through erratic, imperfect visions that have been proven faulty time and time again.
In short, then, the show is a repudiation of any questioning or observation that the film made in 2002. And though it is certainly flawed in its own right—Good and Sands have minimal chemistry, and both have difficulty connecting to their roles—its biggest problem is that it is unable to engage with the themes of the story it is doggedly aping. And by ignoring it to focus on the shiny appeal of slick gadgetry and visions of crimes not yet committed, “Minority Report” ends up making astonishing statements about the criminal justice system.
Though these problems have been apparent since the first episode, last night's episode, "The Present," really showcases them. It's an hour of incredible arrogance on the part of law enforcement, represented almost entirely here by Good’s character Vega. Precog Dash sees a vision that he believes indicates Vega is going to be murdered, and as the two investigate, they begin to realize that the vision is tied to Vega's continued torment about her father's murder. Like Vega, he was also a cop; unlike Vega, he did not have precogs to warn him of impending doom.
This storyline hews very closely to the driving narrative of the film; Anderton is in precog Agatha's vision of an imminent murder, and as the story goes on, we learn that Anderton is driven to the act because of a personal loss that has become defining for him. In the film, Anderton has to learn to put aside his personal revenge narrative in order to examine the bigger picture. In the show, Vega... hijacks the resources of the precogs and goes completely off-book to try to solve her father's murder, only to realize, when she's pointing a gun at a child, that she probably should not do that. It's an incredibly hacky take on what was rather nuanced source material, exacerbated by the brutal dismissiveness of the cop Vega. She is supposed to learn, by the end of the episode, that crime isn't a simple question of good-and-evil. She barely manifests that transformation.
Presumably, Vega's view of the world is rigid so that it can evolve over the course of the season. But Vega, the self-martyring cop, fits into the show's larger themes of widespread overpolicing. Midway through "The Present," Vega and Dash take a trip to a correctional facility, looking for an inmate who may intend to harm Vega. She imprisoned him two years back, and he has sent her death threats ever since. When they walk in, each prisoner is sitting in digitized booth, staring at their own personal screen. Each is talking to a person on the other end—FaceTime, but really big. Everyone on the other end is extremely annoyed about trivial things—missing work, undelivered Chinese food, malfunctioning equipment. The guide explains that the inmates are working tech support:
Sixty years ago, companies outsourced all this stuff abroad and killed the working class, causing incarceration rates to skyrocket. Now we give the working class their jobs back, only this time, behind bars—for two cents on the dollar.
Aside from the main problem with this—which is that the working class traditionally didn't do white-collar customer service; it's the middle class that got killed—prison labor for profit is a real, radical, and terrifying issue. Here is how it boils down in the episode. Dash—a precog who is still reintegrating to society—hesitantly says, "doesn't seem right." Vega responds: "I'll save my crocodile tears for the victims and their families."
Immediately thereafter, they confront the inmate that has threatened Vega. The prison they are in stresses rehabilitation. Vega is openly dismissive of any efforts to change, expressing real anger that the inmates are allowed excursions as part of their incarceration. When she meets the inmate, he appears somewhat rehabbed. So she insults his independence and compares him to a housebroken poodle—which goads him to attack her. She quickly overpowers him, and asks if he wants to go best of seven.
And that's it; that's the scene. One might expect some fallout from this event, that would push Vega to less radical territory. One might expect some pushback from other characters. There is none. At the end of the episode, Vega finds the woman who killed her father—by storming into her house, without a warrant or probable cause, and holding a gun to her. The woman pleads that she has changed. She, at gunpoint, is the only character to advance the notion that criminals may not all bad.
It's not that "Minority Report" doesn't know what it's doing. Little asides in the show indicate that every cop wears a body-cam, and "force authorized" shows up when a cop can go to town on a criminal. A Defense Intelligence Agency higher-up complains about how unconstitutionality interfered with the maintenance of law and order. Terrorists bombed the National Mall and destroyed the Washington Monument just a few months after the PreCrime program ended; that symbolic castration is felt by law enforcement, too. And in the first few episodes of the season, nearly every bad guy the heroes catch is a formerly “haloed” criminal—one who was imprisoned by the PreCrime program, and after it was dismantled, moved to a rehabilitation facility. The proliferation of wrongdoing ex-haloes indicates to Vega and Dash that the PreCrime program had the right idea—and not, as Willa Paskin observed at Slate, “that some of these insane bad guys were once innocents, radicalized by a flawed system.”
“Minority Report” the show is a kind of fever dream of centralized police power. It's underscored by how the show has trouble extending compassion to any of its characters except Vega—in "The Present," even the terrible experience of the precogs is backgrounded so that Vega can solve her cop-dad's murder. [The precogs, when they see their visions of crimes, experience the pain and horror of them. In the episode, Dash shudders and gasps as the "bullets" hit him.] Its premise is founded on the notion that PreCrime, that supernatural stand-in for surveillance and control, is not such a bad thing; its execution emphasizes the duality between police and criminals, as if one is good, and one is bad. The show is unable to extend any compassion towards its purported bad guys whatsoever—and instead runs amok in the sandbox of police power excused by precognition. Vega is supposed to be our heroine, and yet time and time again she is quite cruel.
It's worth observing that “Minority Report” is very careful to not use race as a signifier of guilt, as is too obvious in our current practice of law and order—Good, among many other actors in the ensemble, are people of color. But it's almost an odd misdirect in what is otherwise a rather conservative narrative. “Minority Report” fits intimately into a worldview of mass incarceration and police overreach, at a time where consciousness on these topics has reached new heights. And though it's politically disturbing, the real problem is one of adaptation—this is what happens when the adapters aren't paying attention to whatever it is they're desperately trying to reboot.