TV's Changing Landscape
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Writers on shows that take place in current times and want to be seen as realistic, if not exactly real, have felt the need to reflect the changes the tragedies have wrought in American society.Skip to next paragraph
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In a coming episode of CBS's "The Guardian" (Dec. 11), a Middle-Eastern restaurant owner uses a baseball bat to defend himself, his daughter, and his property from an intruder. The teenage vandal has sprayed a racial epithet on the door. The teenager's parents try to sue the Muslim man for breaking the boy's arm, claiming irreparable damage. But writer-producer David Hollander resolves the problem creatively - and the surprising ending carries a significance it would never have had before now.
"Sept. 11 is an undeniable part of our culture now," Mr. Hollander explains. "People are caught up in fear and speculation and mistrust right now. No artist is immune to [his] culture. Part of our job is to reflect it.... I write what I feel. I write every day in this world, so the [tragedy] is in the 'white noise' around the characters ... but we are all trying actively not to make it part of programming...."
In less-realistic shows, from situation comedies to espionage thrillers, shows that do not depend on the real world for verisimilitude, writers are avoiding references to Sept. 11.
J.J. Abrams produces and writes for both WB's "Felicity" and ABC's "Alias." "The effect it's had on all of us is yet to be determined," he says. "It's evident that people are looking for more life-affirming entertainment. I'm aware of the importance of bringing people shows that are compelling and still have a romantic and respectful quality to them."
"Alias," he says, is hyper-real, larger than life. But what it is really about (besides entertaining people) is the age-old reconciliation of father and daughter. "In the wake of 9/11, I see that as especially poignant." But he says he does not intend ever to refer to the events of that day because for him to do so in the context of his shows would be to trivialize those events.
If these are times that try men's (and women's) souls, we're watching the trial on TV: More people than ever are watching television. Cable news channels have rushed to complete or re-air documentaries about the Middle East, Osama bin Laden, and the problems of Muslim women living "beneath the veil."
National Geographic has been investigating the cultures of Afghanistan since 1902, and National Geographic Explorer on MSNBC, in the tradition of its parent magazine, saw the need to send a reporter to interview anti-Taliban Gen. Ahmad Shah Masoud (later assassinated), long before any of the network news organizations did.
Even A&E, the arts and entertainment network, has tried to inform the public on timely issues through its outstanding "Biography" series, profiling important figures such as New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Bush, and Osama bin Laden.
News traditionally is cheaper to air than dramas and comedies. But the cost of producing the news since 9/11 has increased dramatically. Round-the-clock news coverage immediately after Sept. 11, without benefit of advertising dollars, was extremely costly.
The recession and the scarcity of advertising dollars, in tandem with Sept. 11, may have caused a strange phenomenon. Over the last three months, entertainment shows that would ordinarily have been pulled for poor ratings are staying on the air, such as NBC's "Emeril," "UC Undercover," and "Inside Schwartz," and CBS's "The Ellen Show" and "The Agency."
Fox's critically acclaimed "24" has not been the hit the network had hoped for. But Fox recently committed to running all 24 one-hour episodes of the real-time thriller about a terrorist assassination attempt on the life of an African-American presidential candidate. "24" is having trouble picking up new viewers because the story arc is so tight and late-comers get lost: It's a true serialized cliffhanger, TV analyst Rash points out. "It's also in a challenging time slot, across from 'Frasier' [NBC] and 'Smallville' [WB]."
What is the most distressing trend, post-Sept. 11? How about the exploitation of patriotism in ads? This isn't an impulse to show solidarity, such as the placing of an American flag in the corner of the screen might represent. It's nothing more than crass commercialism: Why is that Jeep driving up the face of the Statue of Liberty? And is Chevy really just trying to "keep America rolling?"