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September 1, 2015

From Jack Bauer to Cylons, How Scripted Television Dealt With Sept. 11

by Maureen Ryan, posted Sep 9th 2011 12:30PM
Given the enormity of what occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, it was natural that many television writers would spend the next decade working out what it meant in the stories they told. But the shows that grappled most directly with what it meant to live in a post-9/11 world (and I examine those shows in a bit more depth below) sometimes had a difficult time wrestling with the moral and political complexities of the age while still telling a gripping story. Who knew that a show about killer robots would be one of the most successful shows to combine concerns about terrorism with satisfying character drama?

Of course, in the relatively immediate aftermath of the tragedy, many scripted television shows had episodes or moments that paid tribute to what occurred on Sept. 11, including 'NYPD Blue,' 'Third Watch' and 'The West Wing,' among many others (and almost a decade later, 'Fringe' depicted still-standing twin towers in one of its most memorable moments).

Others programs dwelled on our longing for reassurance in a chaotic world in more oblique ways. 'Lost,' after all, depicted a plane crash, a struggle for survival and the difficulty of sustaining relationships in extreme circumstances, and 'Jericho' took our fears about the state of our union and amplified them in a variety of ways.

In the middle of the last decade, there was also a surge in shows such as 'E-Ring,' 'Threat Matrix' and 'Alias,' which depicted American operatives regularly defeating bad guys with a mix of skill, grit and ingenuity. Regardless of the flaws and merits of those kinds of shows (and obviously nobody minded the quick demises of 'E-Ring' and 'Threat Matrix'), they were, in part, designed to assuage our fears and let us believe that the competence and drive of those responsible for our security were unshaken.

These days, a decade after Sept. 11, there's a turn toward the metaphorical and the allegorical -- the Big Bad in some of the supernatural dramas that have premiered in the last couple of years is occasionally an actual wolf of some kind, and much more vampire, ghost and witch-flavored programming is on its way. Perhaps our fears feel more manageable if they spring from pulpy paperbacks or familiar storybooks, or perhaps we don't really want to examine ongoing security concerns in depth, given the many pressures, economic and otherwise, affecting society today. Or maybe we'll want to see our anxieties filtered through the lens of a J.J. Abrams' thriller (in CBS' upcoming 'Person of Interest') or via a psychologically complex drama about a returning soldier (in Showtime's 'Homeland').

Certainly it wasn't easy to take on the war on terror and the issues it raised in overt ways; there are some creative and commercial successes in the roster below, but quite a few short-lived programs as well. The dramas below didn't always know what to do with the incredibly complex issues raised by the events of Sept. 11, but they're to be commended for taking them on at all:

'24' (Fox, 2001-2010): This show premiered two months after Sept. 11, and there were fears it would quickly be canceled, given its subject matter. But Fox stuck with the show, and its early seasons, despite occasional missteps, were tautly constructed and addictive. The show reached a high-water mark with the weird, Nixonian presidency depicted in season 5, but it was more or less downhill after that. Jack Bauer's techniques for dealing with terrorists became increasingly cartoonish, and midway through the show's run, a lengthy New Yorker article examined whether the show's "Whatever it takes" attitude toward suspects had actually filtered down to soldiers and interrogators in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the uncertain and fearful years after 9/11, many of us who watched the show wanted, at one point or another, to buy in to the idea that somebody like Bauer was breaking down doors and taking on the bad guys on America's behalf. Part of the reason '24' was successful is because we wanted (and even needed) that reassurance. But Bauer's departure from the television scene last year was, in the end, overdue. In the last decade, it became clear that the war on terror is not just fought with guns and kneecapping, but also with a whole array of methods and techniques, some of which involve guns, of course, but some of which draw on intelligence gathering and unglamorous research. It was never the plan for '24' to be the emblematic post-9/11 show, but in the end, the show was very much a creature of that particular era. It probably wouldn't have worked at any other time, and while it served its purpose, this time-sensitive drama may well have served its legacy better by bowing out gracefully a couple of seasons sooner.

'Battlestar Galactica' (Syfy, 2003-2009): How do you battle threats that come from both within and without? How hard to you try to understand your enemies, or do you just try to annihilate them? How do you survive the worst without losing sight of your core values? '24' may have had the most crowd-pleasing response to 9/11, but the way this Syfy show viscerally grappled with these thorny problems made for some of the most intellectually rewarding and emotionally resonant television of the past decade. It did so by examining these complicated issues through character arcs that were exceptionally well-acted by the show's cast: Mary McDonnell's schoolteacher became a steely president (nicknamed Madame Airlock for her preferred execution style) and Edward James Olmos' William Adama, the head of the humans' broken-down military, became a symbol of principled tenacity. At its best, 'BSG' was far from predictable: Every time you thought you knew who the bad guys were, the show added another wrinkle to its depictions of political prisoners, torture, assassination and genocide. Far from being just another shoot-'em-up in space, 'BSG' made us face our worst fears, but entertained us so much that we came back for more.

'Generation Kill' (HBO, 2008): This HBO miniseries depicted the war in Iraq from the viewpoint of the grunts on the ground, and its terrific cast did a fine job of showing what it was like to roll through the country in a Jeep, wondering where the next RPG or dumb order would come from. Though it was simplistic in its depiction of certain cartoonishly incompetent officers, 'Kill' was valuable as a record of what the Iraq war was like for the young men who fought on the front lines. Both this program and the documentary 'Restrepo' (which was in part financed by National Geographic) were invaluable depictions of military life in the post-9/11 era.

'Homeland' (Showtime, debuts Oct. 2): In this thriller, a soldier returns from the battlefield with a question hanging over his head -- is he a hero or a traitor? Damian Lewis of 'Band of Brothers' plays the returning soldier and Claire Danes plays a CIA agent who suspects his loyalties. Ten years after the events of that terrible day, the continuing challenges of the post-9/11 world are depicted in a show that delves into questions of identity and memory as well as security and terrorism.

'MI-5' (BBC, 2002-2011): This spy drama never quite caught on in the United States -- it bounced around from PBS to A&E to BBC America without every finding a steady audience. That's a shame, given its fine cast and the intelligence with which it treated stories about post-9/11 security concerns. Adding to the realistic flavor was the way the show regularly killed off major characters, reinforcing the idea that the agents of the various security services are in a very dangerous line of work.

'Person of Interest' (CBS, debuts Sept. 22): This drama posits that it won't be long before the sophisticated tracking programs allegedly used by intelligence agencies will be able to predict crimes before they're committed. Civil liberties and privacy concerns emerged as contentious flashpoints in the post 9/11 era, and it'll be interesting to see if this J.J. Abrams show can mine those worries while creating unthreatening popcorn entertainment for a mainstream broadcast network.

'Over There' (FX, 2005): This interesting but ultimately unsuccessful drama was one of the first shows to depict the overseas wars that began after 9/11. Perhaps people weren't quite ready to face these conflicts head on (hence the greater success of shows such as 'Rescue Me,' 'Battlestar Galactica' and '24,' in which the connections to actual warfare weren't foregrounded all the time). Or perhaps the show's unsure grasp of what it was supposed to be and where it was supposed to be going led to its demise (it was often an awkward mixture of home-front melodrama and war stories). In any case, this experiment lasted only a season.

'Rescue Me' (FX, 2004-2011): This drama had its roots in 9/11 -- lead character Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) was at the towers the day they fell -- and the show wrestled with the legacy of survivors' guilt for seven seasons. But the show was often a structural mess and often settled for lazy depictions of anyone who was not Tommy Gavin (who, in the show's least plausible move, was apparently irresistible to dozens of women over the years). 'Rescue Me' certainly had its effective moments and its irreverence could be entertaining, but the show's better aspects were often undercut by 'Rescue Me's' incessant need to show Gavin in a heroic light (usually during a musical montage).

'Rubicon' (AMC, 2010): Sometimes the war on terror is fought by rumpled government analysts in a conference room, who have to decide who is a friend and who is a foe based on bank records, intelligence reports and other scraps of sometimes conflicting data. 'Rubicon' didn't execute everything it set out to do perfectly, but it ended up being gripping nonetheless, especially in its depiction of the strange, damaged people who put aside their personal lives (and sometimes their sanity) in order to take on a difficult, demanding job. 'Rubicon' was excellent when it came to depicting the emotional toll those kinds of decisions took on the analysts, who were forbidden from taking their work home with them, but who could never truly escape from the moral dilemmas they faced every day.

'Sleeper Cell' (Showtime, 2005-2006): Pacing was always a problem in this intermittently interesting series, as was Michael Ealy's rather languid performance as undercover FBI agent Darwyn Al-Sayeed. Though it had trouble at times working up a sustained momentum, it was a game attempt at depicting a compelling scenario -- a man who struggled with his identity as he attempted to infiltrate the inner sanctums of those who would do his nation harm.

'The Unit' (CBS, 2006-2009): For some strange reason (probably because nobody ever expected CBS to do anything probing on the war on terror), the media rarely, if ever, noticed or wrote about the ways in which this unassuming yet generally taut drama took on subjects like extraordinary rendition, secret prisons, interrogation techniques and a secret power-hungry cabal in Washington, DC. Right under everyone's noses, this show often managed to combine topical stories about security concerns with the action-adventure needs of a mainstream broadcast network drama. It didn't get much credit for doing so, but 'The Unit' managed to both pay tribute to the special operations soldiers who do dangerous jobs and question the wisdom of some of their orders.

For a list of Sept. 11 specials and commemorations that will air this weekend, go here.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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December 02 2011 at 7:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

One of the scripted shows most closely tied to 9/11 and its politics for me was The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

September 11 2011 at 8:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Man I’m impressed with this informative blog, and in fact you have a genius mind. keep up the good work.This is really nice info.Thanks for such a wonderful post.


September 10 2011 at 1:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

How can you ignore Third Watch and The West Wing?!

September 10 2011 at 12:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I don't remember exactly what happened on the September 11th episode of Third Watch, but I do remember it moved me.

And I miss E-Ring...long live Dennis Hopper!

But of course, my favorite was 24...Jack always made me feel safer somehow.
I would be interested in more of the intelligence stories that go on; I think a great show could come out from the intelligence work of some agency (maybe a more government version of Rubicon ?)

September 09 2011 at 7:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to dcwdvl's comment

I also still MI-5 on Netflix/Amazon Prime OD.

September 09 2011 at 7:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

'Third Watch', I think, handled it best. Not only did they air an episode dealing with the immediate effects of the events on their show's characters, they also showed the long-term effects. Additionally, they ran an UNSCRIPTED episode, where they interviewed first responders, as well as an interview with cast member Molly Price, who is married to a firefighter. It was also said that the cast became very close with the firefighters at E258 in Queens, the firehouse used as a setting for the show.

September 09 2011 at 3:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

24 was interesting in that it fed the American fear of Islamic peoples. Not to start anything here, but I'm not sure it aimed to do that, but the villains nearly every time were not white: they were Middle Eastern. It just seemed like the same thing over and over. I felt like a Toby Keith song should've been played as the theme song. Definitely a reaction to 9/11, and it was a hit for a variety of reasons. I will admit: those first few seasons were outrageously addictive, and I loved the president and his wife. And Michelle....oh, Michelle!

September 09 2011 at 1:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
4 replies to Sean's comment
George Otwori

Sleeper Cell is seriously underrated i really don't think anyone of these shows has tried to take authentic look at terrorism and religion have such a diverse cast.

As for MI-5 I've enjoyed the show up to point that I reached its ninth season which was very stale and ruined the Lucas North back story and it's eight season was somewhat repetitive with it overarching plot of global coup de tah. Which had been seen in prior seasons.

September 09 2011 at 1:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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