Created By: Westrim on January 15, 2012 Last Edited By: Westrim on September 26, 2014

Everyone Knows the Obscure Agency

Agencies that nobody knows in Real Life don\\\'t have to explain themselves in fiction

Name Space:
Main
Page Type:
Trope
With the roaring success of CSI (and perhaps earlier) came the search for ever more unknown, esoteric, and focused agencies and task forces to base a story on or create. This can have several pitfalls, but the one covered here is that it's unlikely that many people, even in the show universe, will know of the agency yet they'll still announce themselves first, foremost, and sometimes only as members of that agency, instead of saying police, federal agents, or something else that clearly expresses their authority.

May be related to Men in Black and No Such Agency.


Examples

Literature

Live-Action TV
  • NCIS
    • Agents do sometimes declare themselves as federal agents, but at least as often just shout "NCIS!" Only a couple times in the first season does anyone ask who they are. If it weren't for the show few people would know the agency in Real Life, for that matter.
    • NCIS: Los Angeles is even worse, as there's no reason for a layperson to expect a military presence in Los Angeles.
    • NCIS: New Orleans dials it back a little bit, but it's still full of plainclothes representatives of the same agency throwing their weight around in public without declaration and no one questioning their authority to do so.
  • Detectives from the CBI on The Mentalist rarely have to explain what "CBI" is (California Bureau of Investigation). This makes some sense with the law enforcement they meet, as they are often specifically called in by them (acting as a kind of major case support for smaller departments), but none of the witnesses they meet have any trouble either. Since the agency doesn't exist in Real Life, perhaps they're just more well known in universe, but we have no indication of that.
  • The CSI verse apparently has given forensics scientists/detectives a lot more exposure, as no one bats an eye at being questioned by them rather than an actual detective.
  • Averted in a Law & Order episode. The Sanitation Police try to arrest some people, who at first have no idea that there's even such a thing. Then the detectives show up and are also surprised to learn that there's a police force for garbage.
  • In Castle the trope is much milder since most of them are regular cops, but still present since one is a writer. Rarely does anyone question or complain about his presence.
  • In the "Mathnet" Show Within The Show from Square One TV everyone knows what Mathnet is, even if it's not well explained to the viewer what it is; some kind of math-based division of the LA Police (or NYPD in season 4).
  • Series/Warehouse13 usually averts this. Since their status as Warehouse agents is both secret and very hard to explain or believe, it comes in handy that the main characters are technically Secret Service and ATF on loan who still have their badges- but they still get regularly called out on it being unusual for their agencies to investigate whatever they're looking into.

Community Feedback Replies: 23
  • January 15, 2012
    randomsurfer
    Detectives from the CBI on The Mentalist rarely has to explain what "CBI" is.
  • January 17, 2012
    Lyendith
    For the laconic, something like "agencies that nobody knows in Real Life don't have to present themselves in fiction"...

    I like the idea, although I have no example. I know there is a French series called RIS (Scientifique Research and Investigation) that is more or less a rip-off of CSI, but RIS isn't an existing agency in Real Life, just a denomination for a range of professions, so I don't know if it counts.
  • January 17, 2012
    sliz225
    Subverted with the BAU (Criminal Minds). The local police have usually called them in personally (justifying how they know 'em), and they identify themselves as FBI to others.
  • January 17, 2012
    jatay3
    Well by know, everybody does know who NCIS is.
  • January 17, 2012
    GliderGuy
    Averted in a Law And Order episode. The Sanitation Police try to arrest some people, who at first have no idea that there's even such a thing. Then the detectives show up and are also surprised to learn that there's a police force for garbage.
  • January 18, 2012
    Westrim
    It's probably safe to assume that they don't in JA Gverse though, and I don't think the various criminal elements they come up against are in the shows demographic.
  • February 27, 2012
    Rognik
    The Mentalist had at least one episode where a guy claimed he had no idea what the CBI was, or that it meant they were officers. The response? "Yeah, we need to work on our press." Still fits the trope, though.

    ^I'm pretty sure JAG would be known by officers and their families, and I don't know how often non-military folks got involved in a case there.
  • February 27, 2012
    Westrim
    No, I was referring to NCIS, which is part of the same universe as JAG. I agree that JAG wouldn't be an example.
  • March 5, 2012
    TBeholder
    It may be the other way around - one can make up any acronym or obscure "comittee" or "department" name and pass invisible in the cloud of existing bureaucratic chaff almost no one really peers into. I.e. they don't need to explain themselves because the other side resigned.
  • March 21, 2012
    Westrim
    So would that be another trope, or a subversion?
  • March 21, 2012
    shimaspawn
    They regularly have to explain who NCIS is when dealing with people who are non-navy. And people frequently express surprise that they exist. But most of the people they talk to are Navy or Navy dependence and thus have reason to know they exist.

    This does not apply to NCIS Los Angeles. That show runs on it's own logic.
  • March 15, 2013
    Westrim
    Rebooting this before it celebrates a inactivity anniversary.
  • March 15, 2013
    Larkmarn
    I think this should be tied into the fact that local police forces will almost immediately cave into any fictional government bureau (Sector Seven from Transformers, Mi B, etc) after just a token "Never heard of you"/"That doesn't exist."
  • March 15, 2013
    StarSword
    I'm sure there's a possible wick to No Such Agency in here somewhere.
  • March 19, 2013
    randomsurfer
    In the "Mathnet" Show Within The Show from Square One TV everyone knows what Mathnet is, even if it's not well explained to the viewer what it is; some kind of math-based division of the LA Police (or NYPD in season 4).
  • May 8, 2013
    Westrim
    Are there any more suggestions concerning the tags?
  • May 8, 2013
    stevebiski
    If I recall correctly, agents from The Shop in Stephen King's Firestarter need only a quick flash of their badge to get what they want.
  • August 6, 2014
    DAN004
    "nobody knows in Real Life"

    That's... subjective.
  • September 26, 2014
    SvartiKotturinn
    • Night Vale, being Night Vale, has both the Sheriff's Secret Police and the Vague Yet Menacing Government Agency. Episode 53 reveals that the latter is not vague at all, but everyone in town just pretends not to know anything.
  • September 26, 2014
    Arivne
    • Capitalized the title.
    • Examples section formatting
      • Added a line separating the Description and Examples sections.
      • Added blank line(s) for readability.
      • Sorted examples by media and added media section title(s).
      • Corrected improper Example Indentation in the NCIS example.
      • Namespaced, italicized and Blue Linked work name(s).
      • Namespaced a Creator name.
  • September 26, 2014
    bulmabriefs144
    Real Life:

    • Although few people outside the organization knows specifically what they do, the CIA, FBI, and NSA are at least heard of by the general public.
  • September 26, 2014
    Westrim
    • Most people know about the Secret Service, but mostly in its capacity as the security detail of the president rather than its primary role as the Treasury Departments investigative and law enforcement arm. People secure in the knowledge that they've never threatened a president may be surprised when agents show up to ask about the counterfeit bills they've been using.
  • September 26, 2014
    Chabal2
    Hellboy always introduces himself as part of the B.P.R.D., with the people he talks to (victims of the Monster Of The Week) being perfectly fine with the idea of a supernatural cop agency employing demon kings and fish-men.
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