Hackers on TVHackers are hot.   Yes, they tend to be villains in real life, making headlines for tapping into Target to steal credit card data, breaking into the cloud to snatch nude celebrity photos, and even breaching government firewalls to commit all sorts of top-level cybercrimes.   But on TV? They’re the new heroes.  

“Hackers are often unfairly portrayed as super-bad people, super-evil people,” says Nick Santora, executive producer of Scorpion, CBS’s new hit about hackers who help solve high-tech threats. “The truth is, hackers can provide a valuable service. They can uncover government misdeeds, unfair corporate practices. Hackers have a skill set that most people don’t have. … They’re the watchers of the watchers.”  

Scorpion, which airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET/PT, premiered to a lot of its own watchers in September with a healthy 13.8 million viewers and is the No. 2 new show this fall, behind NCIS: New Orleans. And, according to a study released last week, the show has had the most positive word of mouth of all the new fall broadcast network series.   In a reflection of our digital world,   berpunk story lines. Plots are centering on tech-savvy computer wizards who infiltrate anything, anywhere, to save the day.   “I like showing these guys are heroes,” Santora says. “When you hear the word ‘hack,’ it has a negative connotation. … I believe there are many more people who are hoping to do good than to do bad. It’s the same with hackers.”  

The Blacklist, Person of Interest, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Homeland, Scandal — even Sunday’s episode of The Good Wife — have included some form of hacking, a trend that has been evolving and   spreading, like a computer virus.   Remember how exciting it was in 2003 when 24’s computer-whiz Chloe O’Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub) first began hacking into a security camera line, allowing us to watch Jack Bauer’s terrorist-fighting action as it unfolded?  

Criminal Minds also has had a favorite hacker: Kirsten Vangsness’ Penelope Garcia. Pauley Perrette’s Abby Sciuto of NCIS is a computer nerd favorite. And a hacker turned from villain to would-be hero on FX’s The Strain.   In the works for midseason is CBS’s CSI: Cyber, starring rapper/ actor Bow Wow (real name Shad Moss). His character is described as a “cyber-intrusion savant.”   Being a “savant” has become a standard part of the stereotype. Hackers are usually misfits. Super-smart. Socially inept. Offbeat.   “The neck-beard fat guy living in his mom’s basement and holding a pillow with a picture of a Japanese girl,” says Gregg Housh, a Boston-based hacker connected with the group Anonymous. “Cartoonish” stereotypes, he says, are just one type of hacker.  

As with any stereotype, it’s easy to be wrong. “Most of the best hackers, you’d never imagine that’s what they do.”   On Scorpion, the main character , based on self-proclaimed hacker   Walter O’Brien, is played by Elyes Gabel. “It’s difficult to think of Walter as anything but a hero,” says Gabel, noting that O’Brien’s company, Scorpion, celebrates “the misfits.”   But geeks around a screen do not make great television. “We try to avoid getting them behind the keyboard as much as possible,” Santora says.  

He proved that in the Scorpion pilot, which had an action scene in which Walter drove a Ferrari under a jet so his cohort, Paige (Katharine McPhee), could download data from the plane’s onboard computer to her laptop.   While that stunt was unrealistic, Santora says, the more mundane hacks aren’t realistic, either. On TV, “they can hack into anything in 10 seconds,” he says. “It’s kind of a cheat. … We understand when we’re showing it, it’s not entirely accurate.”   Housh, who works with actor Jimmi Simpson, who plays a hacker activist on House of Cards, says that’s probably the biggest flaw.   “You can’t just see a system and five minutes later you’re in. A lot of what they do on these shows would take weeks.”

Ann Oldenburg   @annoldenburg USA TODAY  www.usatoday.com 

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