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Leave attacks' aftermath to real life

Since Sept. 11, some network series have struggled to somehow address the national tragedy. For most of them, it's a tricky and unnecessary task.

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 29, 2001


This critic has a humble suggestion for those TV producers and writers who feel the need to address the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 within their fictional, televised universes.

Don't. At least for a while.

My reaction comes after seeing the first few efforts to handle this national tragedy on the small screen, including the first two of three episodes on NBC's police-fire-paramedic drama Third Watch (the third episode airs at 9 tonight), the two-hour premiere of ABC's NYPD Blue on Nov. 6, the widely lambasted Oct. 3 West Wing terrorist tutorial episode and an unaired episode of CBS' CIA drama The Agency, featuring an anthrax attack.

Though The Agency episode was written well before Sept. 11, the other efforts came after, dramatizing in stark form just how difficult it is to shrink such a mind-boggling event down to TV series size.

Of them all, Third Watch's effort seems the most ambitious, and perhaps the most necessary. Focused on Manhattan emergency workers on the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift, this NBC drama would have felt like a fairy tale if it didn't address the World Trade Center's collapse and the presumed death of nearly 300 firefighters.

Its most effective feature was a two-hour show Oct. 15 featuring comments from real-life emergency workers introduced by the show's cast. Last week's episode outlined the lives of the characters in the 24 hours leading to the plane crashes that eventually leveled the World Trade Center -- a mostly static hour that came alive only when each character saw the attack in the show's closing minutes.

"It's a workplace drama about a very specific place. . . . It's not Gotham City," said Third Watch executive producer John Wells (who also produces ER, The West Wing and Citizen Baines), acknowledging that even some people on his staff argued against fictionalizing the event because of concerns about looking opportunistic.

"For the first 10 days (after the attacks), we were a bit numb and unsure how to proceed. (But eventually) we felt we had to incorporate it into the series."

Tonight's episode takes place 10 days after the attacks. NBC could provide only a script for the show, dubbed "After Time," outlining the characters' struggle to deal with the loss of close friends and sometimes family, the strain of working 12- to 16-hour shifts sifting through rubble and the often-discomforting pity of a grateful city.

While at times touching and poignant, "After Time" on paper still feels a little disconnected -- like a conversation that touches a dozen subjects without tackling the most difficult, obvious question: What specifically was each character's role in the crisis?

"We knew we couldn't do anything that implied our characters were there," countered Wells, a co-author of the "After Time" teleplay (which uses a typical Wells trick -- a baby's birth under emergency conditions -- to symbolize the persistence of life). "We were concerned about doing anything that would seem disrespectful. It's a delicate balance."

If Third Watch is at one end of the spectrum, ABC's NYPD Blue sits at the other, kissing off the attacks' impact in a few offhand comments delivered during the show's two-hour season debut Nov. 6.

The show's producers, Steven Bochco Productions, couldn't be reached for comment. And the two-hour debut was probably filmed before the attacks (with a scene or two re-filmed following the crisis), making any incorporation of the current situation difficult.

Mostly, the references feel clunky and awkward. In one exchange, Detective Connie McDowell (Charlotte Ross) confronts an angry Detective Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) over his foul moods, noting, "This whole department's been through hell, with the World Trade Center attacks, and we're all trying to deal with it in our own way. . . . We lost 300 firefighters, we lost dozens of cops . . . you don't have a corner on personal grief."

But Sipowicz's moodiness actually comes from concern about his missing partner, Danny Sorenson, played by Rick Schroder. (Since Schroder left the show over the summer, few viewers will be surprised by where Danny ends up in next week's episode.)

Still, considering how the attacks dominate life in New York even now, it's strange to see Blue's Manhattan cops so focused on more mundane concerns.

Both Third Watch and NYPD Blue highlight the strange paradox facing shows that feel compelled to refer to the attacks on-screen.

Focus too much on it, and your show is hijacked by an event too large and gut-wrenching to portray directly. But refer to it indirectly, and somehow, it doesn't feel like you've done enough.

With time and greater perspective, these problems will diminish. But who really wants to see Friends or Spin City cranking out a Very Special Episode on life in postattack America?

Still, when I suggest to TV writer Elizabeth Cosin (Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Snoops) that shows such as Law & Order and NYPD Blue should just stick to their fictional universes and avoid the issue altogether, she disagrees passionately.

"There's a time when people want to look to fiction to help explain horrible things," said Cosin, who wrote an episode of Criminal Intent centered on a ring of art forgers who are killing each other. "TV is one of the last places where you can tackle an issue without it seeming like . . . a news report or (a lecture). It's as bad to avoid the subject as it is to look like you're (exploiting) it. You have to find a balance."

Few shows on television have been as affected by the terrorist attacks as CBS' The Agency, a CIA-focused drama that saw its debut episode yanked because it featured Middle Eastern terrorists attempting to blow up Harrod's department store in London.

ABC's Alias and Fox's yet-to-debut 24 are also secret-agent-style programs. But Alias is a La Femme Nikita-style fantasy about a college student-agent, and 24 focuses a season's worth of shows on a single day in the lives of its characters (a scene featuring a terrorist blowing up an airliner has been clipped from its pilot, however).

Among this year's new CIA-type shows, only The Agency attempts to operate in something approaching a real world environment.

"I still think we can do almost anything except capture Osama bin Laden," said Ed Zuckerman, co-executive producer of The Agency. "We have the same problem as The West Wing: Our CIA loses credibility if it doesn't exist in the real world."

Critics already expected the show, which airs against NBC powerhouse ER on Thursdays, to face an uphill battle for viewership.

But CBS also had to yank an Agency episode featuring a German terrorist who planned to douse Washington with anthrax via a crop duster -- an episode filmed before the current anthrax attacks. That episode, Zuckerman admits, hasn't been rescheduled and may never air -- leaving producers scrambling to figure out what they can show in a postattack America.

To that end, Zuckerman is writing an episode in which the CIA chases a terrorist who is an implied bin Laden associate while an agent, played by former ER star Gloria Reuben, seeks counseling to deal with what is assumed to be the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

For reasons of legality and taste, specificity will be avoided. The World Trade Center and bin Laden will not be mentioned in Zuckerman's new script, and Harrod's name will be clipped from the pilot episode.

Even references to President Bush have been nixed. ("The lawyers asked, "What if you have to have the president doing something nefarious?' " Zuckerman said, chuckling)

James Bond-style quips, which once seemed witty and playful for a peacetime CIA, will vanish as The Agency's troops face a wartime focus.

"It's like, "Hey guys, stop having fun, this is war,' " said Zuckerman. "The CIA has been unleashed. It's like the difference between bayoneting a straw dummy and bayoneting a real person."

The Agency -- whose ratings have fallen 50 percent below those of the show that precedes it, C.S.I., and nearly 200 percent below those of NBC's ER -- may not have much life left, anyway.

"Maybe people don't want to watch a show like this now," Zuckerman conceded. "(CBS) realizes the show has been held back by circumstances beyond our control. But whether our show lives or dies is nothing compared to the horror many people are going through today."

True enough. And TV analyst Marc Berman, who explains ratings trends for Mediaweek.com, doubts the terrorist attacks have had much effect on TV viewers, anyway.

Sure, viewers have shown much less appetite for the contrived emotion of reality TV shows, now that the real dangers of airliner hijackings and anthrax mailings have emerged. But there were too many reality shows planned this season, anyway (the WB network scuttled one, Lost in America, long before Sept. 11).

Otherwise, lame-o new series such as ABC's Bob Patterson, NBC's Emeril and CBS' The Ellen Show are facing the cancellation they so richly deserve, while shows that still connect with viewers, including ER, Friends, The Guardian and, surprisingly, the WB's Reba and the Superboy drama Smallville, are doing well.

"I don't see people having less tolerance for new shows . . . or avoiding violence or anything," Berman said. "What the networks should be happy about is the attack didn't really affect things much at all."

- To reach Eric Deggans, call (727) 893-8521, e-mail deggans@sptimes.com.

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