Anxiety Attack

A theme of television's new fall season, America under attack and fighting back, is part of pop culture's attempt to grapple with

post-9 / 11 nerves

Cover Story

September 11, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9 / 11, writers, musicians, artists and performers have struggled to fashion an appropriate creative response to such a catastrophic assault. For all its vaunted irreverent immediacy, American popular culture has been relatively slow and uncertain in its synthesis of the event -- and its portrayals of the wariness and anxiety that now seem part of our national psyche.

Beginning this week, as the networks launch their new fall series, American television viewers will be offered one of Hollywood's first and most consistent replies to the attacks. A dominant theme of the fall season is that of invasion -- and survival. In many, though by no means all, of the new shows, the nation is under attack, but is fighting back, led by its best and brightest.

Each of the networks has at least one new drama built upon the premise, whether it involves aliens from another planet on CBS' Threshold (making its debut Friday), or a life form beneath the sea on NBC's Surface (Sept 19).

ABC's Invasion (Sept. 21), which features alien invaders arriving in Florida on the heels of a killer hurricane, had such resonance that early this month, the network withdrew its broadcast advertisements out of deference to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

"The producers of Threshold are very specific in saying it is a response to 9 / 11," said Emmy-award-winning actor Charles S. Dutton, who plays an assistant secretary of defense working with an ad hoc government team battling the invasion. "The show came out of their own creative heads, but it is definitely tied into the state of anxiety since 9 / 11 and the ongoing fear of invasion. I think all of these new shows come from that same slant."

The invaders are less metaphorical on NBC's E-Ring (Sept. 21), a taut thriller from producer Jerry Bruckheimer that stars Benjamin Bratt and Dennis Hopper as part of an elite Pentagon group dealing with terrorist threats to the United States. Ditto for the acclaimed playwright David Mamet's The Unit, which arrives midseason on CBS with Dennis Haysbert (aka 24's President David Palmer) heading up yet another crack anti-terrorist crew.

Showtime's Sleeper Cell features a secret al-Qaida group in Los Angeles and the FBI's attempt to penetrate it, a la Donnie Brasco. Though it doesn't make its debut until December, the series already has proven controversial because it depicts Muslims as terrorists.

"It was too early for popular culture to deal with 9 / 11 when the ashes of the dead from the World Trade Center were still falling on my house in Brooklyn. It was understandable that nobody was working it into fiction then," says Ethan Reiff, co-creator of Sleeper Cell.

"But it is time -- past time, really -- for television to start dealing with it realistically. There are these terrorist-related issues that have become ever-present in our lives since 9 / 11, and we believe it will be cathartic for viewers to see that reflected in our show."

While some might question comparing weekly television drama to literature or art, Hollywood writers like Reiff and his partner, Cyrus Voris, are responding to the seminal event of 9 / 11 in much the same way that Pablo Picasso did to the Spanish Civil War with his 1937 painting, Guernica, or John Steinbeck to The Great Depression through his 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath. All are attempts to make sense of events that seem too large and troubling for the human mind fully to process as they unfold.

Unlike great art, however, weekly TV tends to be formulaic. The fall's new, invasion-themed series have a recognizable narrative arch: Ordinary Americans are threatened with or victimized by an act of horrible destruction. In response, a team of highly talented and atypically ethnically diverse government agents and / or superstar scientists comes together in a situation room somewhere in Washington, and the fight is on. Courage and decency abound.

In the case of Threshold, even Dutton chuckles at the diversity of the government crew with which his character, JT Blaylock, finds himself working. The group includes team leader Carla Gugino as a global expert on worst-case scenarios, Brent Spiner as a peace-loving Berkeley pathologist and Peter Drinkage as a sex-and-gambling-addicted dwarf. "You've got a strip-club-going dwarf, an ex-hippie pathologist and a weird computer guy. My boss, the secretary of defense, is a woman, and now I've got this other woman [Gugino] with a contingency plan. It's diverse, all right."

Reassurance also plays a leading role throughout these series. No matter how evil or overwhelming the invaders seem, the United States will prevail. In Sleeper Cell, the FBI agent who penetrates the al-Qaida cell is African-American and a practicing Muslim (University of Maryland graduate Michael Ealy): "I think there is a kind of reassurance in a show like ours where we have a guy working somewhat effectively on the government's side to try to defeat the terrorists," said co-creator Reiff.

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