Monday, August 19, 2013

Rockford Warned About Electronic Surveillance

No television show has foretold the future better than The Rockford Files, which ran as episodes from 1974 to 1980, and then as made-for-TV movies from 1994 to 1999.  Iconoclastic from the start, the series depicted an ex-con private detective, James Rockford (played by James Garner), who lived in a trailer in a seaside Malibu parking lot.  Rockford was closest to his father, Rocky (a retired trucker), a small-time conman (the ironically-named Angel), and an attorney (Beth), but had an eclectic circle of friends who ranged from policemen to mafiosi, and everything in between.  Breaking existing conventions of good and evil, The Rockford Files often scandalously depicted the criminals, police, and (especially) governments and corporations as morally equivalent, as well as insidious threats to the rights of ordinary citizens.  David Chase, the genius responsible for another genre-buster, The Sopranos, wrote and produced for The Rockford Files, and, the former resounds with loud echoes of the latter.

The current scandal over the breathtaking scope of the National Security Agency's electronic surveillance efforts was presaged in the final two episodes of season 4 ("The House on Willis Avenue"), the villain of which was an extremely extralegal corporation building a huge (for 1978) computer surveillance system for gathering, analyzing, and selling sensitive personal data on every person.  The closing credits ended with the following warning (attributed to "Member, U.S. Privacy Protection Commission"):
Secret information centers, building dossiers on individuals exist today.  You have no legal right to know about them, prevent them, or sue for damages.  Our liberty may well be the price we pay for permitting this to continue unchecked.
History repeats.  Is anything learned?  One truth abides:  The Rockford Files was way ahead of its time.