The Internet has limits. Even on television

On 'CSI,' everyone's a whiz with technology. Guess you've gotta be if you have to solve crimes in under an hour.
On 'CSI,' everyone's a whiz with technology. Guess you've gotta be if you have to solve crimes in under an hour.Cliff Lipson / CBS

Earlier this month, in the year 2007, Reuters reported that a British judge totally admitted to a London courtroom full of people that he doesn’t get the Internet.

"The trouble is I don't understand the language. I don't really understand what a Web site is," Judge Peter Openshaw said during the trial of three men accused of inciting terrorism via the Internet. The prosecutor reportedly attempted to explain “Web site" and "forum," to the 59-year-old judge who stated "I haven't quite grasped the concepts."

Justice may be blind, but it is not technologically ignorant, according to the Judicial Communications Office, who immediately countered the Reuters report with a valiant effort of spin control. According to the JCO, Justice Openshaw knows all about the Internets. Um. Internet. Apparently, he was just asking the prosecutor to break it down for anyone in the courtroom not as savvy as he. “Mr. Justice Openshaw is entirely computer literate and indeed has taken notes on his own computer in court for many years,” the JCO statement said.

Taking notes, indeed. It’s a good bet he wasn’t posting in “I HEART SANJAYA” chat rooms seeing as he’s not up on forums. Luckily, here in the United States, the most prominent and important guardians of truth, justice and freedom are totally down with the DSL. Well, at least the guardians on TV. As the television season draws to a close, it’s bone chilling to imagine how dull and lackluster our crime dramas would be with characters who lacked ample understanding of the Internet.

True, crime dramas exist in an Internet alternative reality where image loading is immediate, every blueprint to every building ever is just a mouse click away, and servers only crash if they’ve been hijacked by foreign ne're-do-wells — never just because.

Why, Los Angeles would be just one gigantic crater by now if those guarding American freedom on “24” didn’t understand the terrorist connection to the Internet. There’d be no saving the world today or tomorrow if not for Jack Bauer’s directory assistant, Chloe. No one’s better than Chloe when it comes to transferring phone calls — whether she’s patching Jack’s cell phone through to the president, a rogue fighter pilot, or some dirty hippies out in the desert. But her ability to hit the “transfer” button is nothing compared to the way she can cross section terrorist profiles with GPS-enabled Google Maps (or whatever) to give Jack the exact location of a nuclear suitcase…or the closest rest stop. (No need to pee in Gatorade bottle when you’ve got Chloe!)

But you don’t need to fight international crime to get your own personal computer geek. These days, most crime shows of a domestic nature have their own second-rate Chloe. CBS’s “Criminal Minds” has FBI Audio/Visual Technician Penelope Garcia, who can pintpoint the exact nature of an unsub’s (Unknown Subject of an Investigation) perversion within a two-second search of online newspaper archives.

On television, sometimes the ability to deftly navigate the nether regions of cyberspace is contingent on having a certain geeky flamboyance. Agent Garcia favors early 80s neon fashions, bright red glasses and referring to her superiors as "sweet cheeks” or "hot stuff." Maybe it’s a CBS thing. On the network’s “NCIS,” forensic goth girl Abby Sciuto speaks to her lab computers, encouraging them in their work as they search government databases for matching fingerprints and DNA. Her counterpart, special agent Tim McGee, has his own special relationship with the Internet. The “NCIS” season finale found him hacking into the network of rival government agency, the CIA. Because it’s just that easy.

Despite its often outlandish plots, another CBS show, “CSI: Original Recipe” features comparatively subdued (and pretty cute!) computer geek Archie Johnson. Sure he enjoys his science fiction, but he can also find incriminating hidden data on confiscated hard drives like nobody’s business. A closed case is only one archived chat room conversation away. 

Meanwhile, the “Law and Order” franchises over at NBC use the Internet less like sci fi, and more like the real world. Still, things happen pretty quickly — if the cops can’t get the judge to sign a warrant for Web site information by the commercial, you can bet they’ll be whining about it right up until the scenes from next week. And kudos to “L&O” writers for getting with the times and throwing proxy servers into the mix. Now, instead of being able to track some pervert immediately through his e-mail address, or find the location of the Web cam filming the tortured girl in real time, it takes at least 25 sweaty, table pounding minutes.

“L&O” is also reaching out to the kids by liberally dropping MySpace references every third episode or so. More directly, on one episode of “L&O: Criminal Intent,” Det. Megan Wheeler was forced to explain the social networking site to her age-inappropriate partner, Det. Mike Logan who, like Judge Openshaw, still didn’t get it.

A similar exchange occurred on a recent episode on the Fox network’s “Bones.” When a co-worker found a victim’s MySpace profile, super-genius forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan simply could not wrap her mind around the site’s purpose. This plot device was more than another narrative trick to show just how clueless Dr. Brennan is on all things pop culture. Jumping on the cross-marketing band wagon, the network led up to this episode by posting clues on “Bones” characters MySpace profiles.

Crime dramas sure have come a long way in cyberspace. Consider an episode the former NBC show “Homicide: Life on the Street” in which the squad discovers Det. Tim Bayliss’s bisexual Buddhism when someone digs up his personal Web site. These days, viewers would run to their computers at the first commercial to find the network’s version of the site. Notably, “Homicide” was one of the first crime dramas to use the Web cam murderer trope. Alas, justice failed to prevail, and Bayliss ending up killing the pervert himself.

Which just goes that to show, the Internet can’t solve everything. Even on TV.