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Fall 2000: "Level 9"

I had such high hopes for Level Nine. Any show about super dooper hacker spooks that starts off with somebody whistling "Bicycle Built for Two" would, on first impression, appear to have both the perspective and sense of humor to spin entertaining stories about crusading geeks.

Unfortunately, Level Nine fails to live up to its first impression. In fact, it fails to live up to any impression at all. An hour after watching the show, I couldn't recall a single character's name, nor ninety percent of the expository dialogue that made up most of the show. And I took notes.

Fortunately, those notes may refresh my memory: Level Nine follows the assorted adventures of a group of youthful hipster hackers as they stop crime for the Federal Government. There are too many of them to tell apart.

The premiere episode, like many clumsily executed premiere episodes before it, spends a lot of time on expository nonsense. We're supposed to find out that one of the hacker corps -- I'd say the one with the tattoos and the earrings and Dystopic Chic ensemble, but that doesn't exactly narrow it down among the ninety or so lead Level Niners running around on screen -- has a tattoo that indicates he used to run with the Level Nine hacker nemesis, Crazy Horse. Is he playing for Uncle Sam now, or acting as a human trojan horse? Who knows? Who cares?

The real mystery is not whether or not this brooding cipher is playing for the good guys, but rather why any of them are working for the government at all. The head suit carries on about Level Nine being comprised of the best government hackers, but given that the government a) pays peanuts and b) does not offer a boatload of options to its programmers as compensation for its lowly wages, why would any prodigiously talented programmer be working for the Feds when they could pull a Fanning and invent a networking technology that panics an entire industry?

Perhaps, I thought, these code jockeys were motivated by the kind of ideological zeal that drives the folks on The West Wing, but there wasn't a single thing in the show to back that up. Not one of the people in Level Nine professed any ideological underpinnings to their actions other than propelling the leaden script toward the next commercial break. If we had one sign -- any sign -- that the folks knew they were sitting out the dotcom craze to serve a sense of civic duty, then the show would be a little more plausible. But we don't. In addition to not knowing who the hell these people are, we have no idea why they're here.

We also have no evidence that they know what they're doing. Sure, they have a lot of useful skills when it comes to technology -- but the characters have shockingly little perspective on how that technology affects their lives. While I was watching them blithely eavesdrop, film and bug anyone they pleased, I was reminded of seminal geek movies Real Genius and Sneakers. In both cases, you had very bright people using technology to ensnare the bad guys, much like the people in Level Nine. But the characters in those movies communicated a sense of awareness regarding their actions. They could place what they did in the bigger picture. And they were funny.

The lack of humor is what makes Level Nine so dulling. Geeks have a sense of humor; the tradition of pranks at MIT and CalTech bears this out, as does the presence of 256 different brands of Star Trek humor floating about the Internet. You don't get humor without perspective.

And ultimately, that's what all the complaints about Level Nine circle back to: its lack of perspective. The people who put it together don't seem to have a bead on what life in front of a monitor is like, and they've passed their flat and blurry vision on to the rest of us.


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