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A Year Later, a Daunting Task

Television faces the challenge of providing programming that's fresh and meaningful on the 9-11 tragedy.

September 03, 2002|MARK SACHS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In just half a century of mass consumption, television has evolved into an all-purpose appliance for modern living. It's used to baby-sit, to educate, to titillate. It's an easy laugh, a guilty pleasure, a vicarious thrill. It's a 36-inch nightlight.

But now TV finds itself taking on an infinitely more challenging task: to remind people of an event no one has forgotten, and to do so with fresh context and perspective for an audience that has been inundated with similar albeit scattershot efforts for nearly a year.

And so with the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks still days away, the onslaught of programming has begun. For a medium that flourishes by providing tidy resolutions to messy plot lines in 60 minutes or less, it's going to be an interesting couple of weeks.

With huge blocks of time committed across networks and cable, no angle is being left unexplored, including some that probably should have been. For every brilliantly conceived and executed show such as PBS' "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero," which examines, among other issues, "Where was God on Sept. 11?," there are programs such as the History Channel's "Relics From the Rubble," which shows how tough it's been for museum curators to select just the right wreckage for their upcoming 9/11 exhibits. One can't help wondering how the gift-shop ideas are coming along.

The need to establish historical touchstones for future generations is real, but viewing the process by which they are assembled comes off as largely inconsequential.

That's the challenge for all the programming, because the calendar has raised the bar for what viewers will be expecting.

The sheer breadth of viewpoints and the eloquence with which they are expressed are what make "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero" a rare achievement in documenting a national dialogue. Set against the still-shattering images of Sept. 11, the variety of perspectives are as startling as they are revelatory. There are religious leaders, atheists, survivors, and the friends and loved ones of some of the people who perished that day. Their words are by turns bitter and hopeful, heartbreaking and uplifting.

Several offered their takes on two World Trade Center office workers who were seen joining hands before leaping to their deaths far below.

"It's the most powerful prayer I can imagine," said writer and English professor Brian Doyle. "It's everything we're capable of against horror and loss and tragedy. It's what makes me believe that we're not fools to believe in God."

And then there was author Ian McEwan: "To me, it just seemed the bleakest possible image of the whole thing," he said. "Humans brought to the furthest edge of despair. I found no hope in that at all. If there is a God, he's a very indifferent God."

Some programs, such as the History Channel's "Inside Islam," appear to seek an easing of tensions by emphasizing the commonalities of religion and culture, particularly at the top and bottom of the program. It points out that Christianity, Judaism and Islam all claim a common patriarch in the figure of Abraham, and that the Koran, the holy text of Islam, refers to Jews and Christians as fellow "people of the book," namely, the Bible.

Yet between these conciliatory bookending segments, the documentary lays out in bloody detail the religious and territorial power struggles that regularly ripped across Europe, the Middle East and Asia through the centuries.

"Caught in the Crossfire" seems to have a similar aim, showing three Arab Americans as just plain folk as they go about their New York City jobs as a policeman, a journalist and a Christian pastor.

"I can't change where I come from," says NYPD Officer Ahmed Nasser, who moved to the U.S. from Yemen in 1986. "But I'm 100% American. And I'm 100% Arab."

If you feel the need to revisit Sept. 11 in its rawest form, there's A&E's "Minute by Minute: The Attack on the Pentagon." The documentary delivers, as advertised, a tense account of that day from inside America's military center, which represents a bit of a departure from the WTC-centric view of most of these specials.

Most also manage to at least touch on some of the things that make this country worth standing up for, but none in more evocative detail than ABC's six-part "In Search of America," narrated by Peter Jennings. The show measures how the founding fathers' experimental concept has been working out, and although the topics aren't tied to the events of Sept. 11, strictly speaking, the timing feels just right.

"Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero" airs at 9 on PBS; "In Search of America" airs at 10 on ABC; "Relics From the Rubble" airs at 10 on the History Channel; "Inside Islam" airs Wednesday at 9 on the History Channel; "Caught in the Crossfire" airs Wednesday at 10 on PBS.

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