First In A Series of Articles on How Television Has Changed Twenty Years After The Attacks of September 11th
By now the phrase ‘everything changed after 9/11’ has been used so frequently that it has become a dull cliché. Politicians, the media, the entire world has said it so often that the phrase ‘post September 11th world’ is little more than a talking point.
However, when it comes to the medium of television, things have noticeably changed since September of 2001. Just — not the way everybody thinks.
Considering that so many of the series that are considered game changers when it comes to TV premiered after September 11, 2001, one could make the argument that the age of the antihero that frames so much of Peak TV is the natural effect of this. However, correlation does not equal causation. The Sopranos had already been on the air for three seasons by the summer of 2001, and that had a far greater effect on TV then anything else. The Shield, which would prove that great television was not the sole province of HBO, was already greenlit for series by FX before the attacks on the trade center. Six Feet Under had premiered the previous summer, and The Wire was already in development at HBO. Even 24, the series that has the most direct relationship with how the War on Terror would be perceived, had been greenlit the previous May. And it is worth noting that the writers of that series edited the pilot — which involved the explosion of an airplane — because they were afraid of affected the mood. At least in the immediate aftermath, TV did what it always did: it followed rather than led.
And it is well worth noting that the lion’s share of the great dramas that would be part of the conversation in the first decade of the 21st Century were either period pieces (Deadwood, Mad Men) or shows that either ignored it almost completely (Lost, Breaking Bad, Dexter) or had, at most, a tangential storyline that dealt with the aftermath (Friday Night Lights). It is interesting that the series that was by far the most influenced by the War on Terror was a remake of 1970s sci-fi series, Battlestar Galactica, a show which masked its dealing with torture, assassination attempt and suicide bombers, by making the enemies robots. (I’ll deal with 24, which was the most pertinent show to so much of the War on Terror in due course.)
Even now, more than twenty years after the attacks, it is hard to find any of the series considered among the greatest of the pack decade that actually have a direct relationship to it. House of Cards, which took place in D.C., touched on in only tangentially, The Americans and Stranger Things dealt with the Cold War, The Crown is another period piece, Game of Thrones was in another world entirely, and as much its creators might want to argue the point, The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopia for entirely different reasons. (Again, I’m leaving out a critical series, which I will get to in due course.)
That’s not to say that television wasn’t unalterably changed after the attacks on 9/11. For one thing, the police procedural always vital to network television, exploded. The entire NCIS franchise almost certainly wouldn’t exist without it, and Law & Order and all its spinoffs actually became even more popular. There have been a huge number of series, the lion’s share of them quickly failing that dealt with the government’s approach to terrorism in general.
There are, however, some changes that I noticed very clearly even though my viewing of television was only slowly starting to expand at the time. A huge number of series — not just the ones that were set in New York — began to drop very heavy-handed references to the attacks on September 11th. Law & Order by far handled it the best, which doesn’t necessarily mean that they did it particularly well. Every season, there would be at least one major storyline that had to do with a Muslim at the center of it, either the victim or the perpetrator of a crime. These were subtle compared to a lot of stories that actually dealt with attacks had direct links to the war in Iraq. (I found a storyline modeled on Geraldo Rivera’s supposedly exposing troop’s positions while filming in Iraq almost completely unwatchable.) By the show’s last season, the series had dropped even the pretense of subtlety: in the season premiere, in order to serve an indictment for conspiracy against a man who wrote a memo on how to ‘interrogate illegal combatants’, Jack McCoy indicted the entire chain of command of the George W. Bush administration. If ever the right wing needed proof of liberal bias, this was pretty hard to miss. (How exactly Dick Wolf and his fellow writers managed to pare this off with how the cops on his Law & Order: SVU and Chicago P.D. would ‘interrogate’ their prisoners is a paradox I’ve never been able to comprehend.)
And it is worth noting that many of the showrunners who were at their peak prior to the attacks of September 11th would lose the touch of subtlety that had made their previous achievements great. The effects would not become clear immediately in the case of two of them; many of the series they developed were critical and ratings successes for years to come. But as someone who had been among their biggest backers in my early years of writing about TV, it became obvious just how heavy handed their touch had become.
So, for the next few weeks, I will be writing a series of articles about many of the showrunners and series that took place in the aftermath of 9/11; how some of them were able to adopt and adjust, how some of them never quite did, and the affect their art had on television.
Note: Almost all of these articles will deal with drama. There have been nearly as many great comedies as their have been dramas over the past twenty years, but one would be hard pressed to find a successful one that was affected one way or the other by 9/11. Even the most politically driven of these series — Veep is by far the clearest example — bear very little relation to the world we live in today. We should probably be grateful for that.