Like most of you, I spent the long, strange, tragic day that was September 11, 2001 glued to the TV set, rifling from channel to channel, hoping against hope that some channel, somewhere would offer a piece of good news – or even some kind of explanation for the day’s tragedies that would help make sense of all the carnage.
Instead, what I got was a kind of uniform confusion. Every talking head on every channel was having the same reactions, at roughly the same time. (If you watch one of the many YouTube montages of the second plane hitting the South Tower, the reaction time between the explosion and each anchorman declaring that we’re under attack is nearly identical from clip to clip.) And whenever emotion or the latest piece of bad news seemed to overwhelm the men and women on-screen, they turned to pop culture to help focus their thoughts, talking about how much these terrible images on our screens resembled something out of a disaster movie.
But if this was life imitating art in horrific fashion, art found ways to respond in kind. And no artistic medium was better positioned to respond to 9/11 than television, whether through news reports, fundraising specials, or even scripted dramas like “The West Wing” and “Rescue Me” and science fiction series like “Battlestar Galactica.”
Obviously, TV news was there from the start, following the story at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanksville, PA, then overseas to Afghanistan and elsewhere. The events of 9/11 helped usher in a more intimate form of news coverage, one where first-person reactions became not rare exceptions but an understood part of the form. After we had all been through that day together, and after the events of that day had shattered whatever kind of objective distance those anchors and reporters had from this story, it became easier to accept them becoming parts of other stories. (See all the embedded journalists during the invasion of Iraq, for instance, or the reactions to the flooding of New Orleans after Katrina.)
But that day’s impact on TV entertainment went just as deep, helped by a few quirks in scheduling and also the ways that TV is different from the movies.
The most prominent of the terrorist attacks took place in New York, which is home to so many daily talk and comedy shows, each of them hosted and produced by people who felt unable to get back to work without first responding to what had happened to their city. Only six days after the attack, David Letterman returned to “The Late Show” – because, he said, Mayor Giuliani had asked his constituents to get back to work – and began a spellbinding, heartfelt monologue by explaining, “If we are going to continue to do shows, I just need to hear myself talk for a couple of minutes.” Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show” came back three days after that, and Stewart was even more of a wreck – and more apologetic about putting his viewers through his own tearful catharsis. (For the episode-ending Moment of Zen segment, usually a source of goofy humor, he instead brought out a puppy to give people something to smile about.) By the end of the month, “Saturday Night Live” was back on the air, with Giuliani introducing the show, surrounded by cops and firefighters, explaining that “Having our city’s institutions up and running sends a message that New York City is open for business.” (When Lorne Michaels asked, “Can we be funny?” Giuliani responded, “Why start now?”)
Ten days after the attacks, the biggest stars in movies, music and television came together for “America: A Tribute to Heroes,” a concert to raise funds for 9/11 victims and their families, that was broadcast across more than 35 channels.
In some corners, weekly scripted TV was able to respond almost as quickly as the daily and/or live shows. The network TV season was set to debut less than a week later (most premiere dates were shifted back, and the Emmys wound up being postponed twice, the second time because of the invasion of Afghanistan), and several fiction shows, new and old, were in a position where their creators felt no choice but to respond in some way.
Aaron Sorkin and his team raced to put together a Very Special “West Wing” episode, titled “Isaac and Ishamel,” that wound up airing only 3 weeks after the towers fell. (The TV business simply moves at a much quicker pace than feature films, where Spike Lee’s “The 25th Hour” was the first major film to take place in a post-9/11 Manhattan, coming out more than a year after the attacks.)
Airing outside the series’ usual continuity, “Isaac and Ishmael” featured the White House staff stuck in lockdown during a terrorist incident, and was mainly an excuse for the regular characters to debate the various questions that had gripped the country since the towers fell. It wasn’t particularly elegant – several staffers were stuck with a visiting class of high school achievers who asked Josh questions like, “So, why is everybody trying to kill us?” and “Where do terrorists come from?” – and at times seemed even more of a lecture than the show’s usual M.O, but its heart was in the right place.
“Third Watch,” which dealt with a group of Manhattan first responders working the night shift, came back with three straight weeks of 9/11 content: first a two-hour documentary about the real cops, firefighters and EMTs who went to Ground Zero, then with a pair of episodes inserting the show’s characters into the days immediately before and after 9/11. The series would deal with post-9/11 job issues off and on for the rest of its run.
Perhaps in the most delicate position of all that autumn was “24,” a new FOX thriller in which Kiefer Sutherland’s government agent Jack Bauer would spend 24 episodes, filmed in real time, trying to foil a terrorist plot to assassinate a presidential candidate. The pilot episode, filmed months before the attacks, climaxed with a terrorist parachuting out of a passenger jet right before she blew it up. FOX executives were unsure of how to proceed. The “24” producers were convinced the show would never air.
Instead, the plane explosion was toned down a little, a few other tweaks were made, and “24” debuted – now with much greater heft than before. What might have seemed like formula action involving nebulous post-Cold War bad guys suddenly became a series set on the front lines of the War on Terror, and the show’s writers steered straight towards that kind of relevance. The second season involved a plot to start a war with an unnamed Middle Eastern country, and over the years Jack’s use of torture to get information that he had no time to obtain through gentler means became a major source of controversy, with even some military officers telling the show’s producers that they were sending a bad message to soldiers dealing with these kinds of issues.
“24” wasn’t planned as a post-9/11 show, but became one. Other series that followed had the attacks built into their DNA.
The most overt of these was FX’s “Rescue Me,” starring Denis Leary as a New York firefighter whose best friend died on 9/11. In its strongest moments, the series (which ended four days before the 10th anniversary of the attacks) dealt with the toll that day took on both individual firefighters and the FDNY as a whole. In its weakest, it was the story of how Leary’s Tommy Gavin was irresistible to women, but the series kept returning to its tragic origin story, and as a result kept the plights of those women and (mostly) men fresh in the public consciousness.
Just as much about our post-9/11 world, but wrapped up in science-fiction drag, was Sci Fi’s “Battlestar Galactica” remake. What had been a cheesey “Star Wars” rip-off in the 1970s was transformed into an unapologetic 9/11 allegory, in which a content and secure civilization tries to rebuild after a devastating attack by a bunch of religious zealots. The series mixed space battles with familiar bits of War on Terror iconography – the Galactica had a memorial wall that would look familiar to anyone who went to Ground Zero in the weeks and months after 9/11, and later seasons dealt with the Iraq insurgency – and because it had the added remove of science-fiction, it could be blunter or more provocative than many fictional takes on post-9/11 life set in the real world.
Both “Rescue Me” and “Battlestar” debuted in 2004, several years after the attacks. (And “Sleeper Cell,” a Showtime thriller about the War on Terror and the philosophical war within Islam, didn’t come out until the following year.) In that way, they reflected the ways the movie business had to respond to 9/11. Where the production schedule of television allowed producers like Sorkin and John Wells from “Third Watch” to rapidly turn around episodes about the disaster, they were also individual episodes. “The Daily Show” went back to doing comedy (albeit comedy with a harder edge) after Stewart’s tearful first night back. After “Isaac and Ishmael,” “West Wing” returned to its already-in-progress storyline about President Bartlet’s re-election campaign, and though the show dealt more with foreign policy issues than it had before, it was still basically the same show.
But the process of building an entire series around 9/11 and the events that followed takes more time, in the same way that it took the movie business five years to make and release “United 93” and “World Trade Center.” Series ideas need to be developed – and can require writers and/or executives to feel like enough time has passed to properly or respectfully deal with a topic this sensitive. (Even FX’s “Over There,” a short-lived drama following an Army unit during a combat tour in Iraq, was considered startlingly current, and it debuted more than two years after the invasion.)
But if series with 9/11 as their main subject matter took a little longer to come (and have been as relatively scarce as fiction films on the topic), both that day and the change it brought to the national mood has come up early and often in the past 10 years. Sometimes it’s been dramatic (“The Wire” frequently commented on how the War on Terror had made the War on Drugs a distant secondary concern to many law enforcement agencies), and sometimes comedic (“30 Rock” did an early episode where Jack Donaghy put on a fireworks display in mid-town that everyone mistook for a terrorist attack). It’s become almost a cliche to help define a new character on a series by explaining that he or she had a loved one who died on 9/11.
When “The Sopranos” aired its first post-9/11 episode a year after the attacks, the Twin Towers were removed from that famous opening credits shot of Tony Soprano’s rearview mirror. But the subject was on everyone’s mind in that episode and many after. In one early scene, Carmela responds to Tony’s smug attitude with, “Let me tell you something – or you can watch the fucking news – everything comes to an end!”
A 10th anniversary is just an easy one to observe. Though “Rescue Me” just ended, and “Battlestar Galactica” wrapped up a few years ago, TV doesn’t seem in danger of forgetting about what happened on that day anytime soon. We’re getting a slew of memorial specials this weekend, and a pair of “24” producers are about to premiere a new Showtime about terrorism called “Homeland” that’s already being referred to as “the first post-post 9/11” show, taking place in a world where everything that changed for us after the attacks is simply a fact of life.
TV serves as a reflection of society when it’s at its best. (And the years immediately following 9/11 have seen some of the best TV ever made.) No one who was watching TV on September 11, 2001 will ever forget what they saw; why should television, in turn, forget what it showed?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com