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September 11: A decade after

Television takes on 9/11 amid its 10th anniversary

Networks are betting that Americans are ready to tackle the enormity of Sept. 11 with a range of dramas and documentaries.

August 14, 2011|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
  • "Person of Interest" is a crime thriller from J.J. Abrams starring James Caviezel as Reese, a presumed dead former-CIA agent who teams with a mysterious billionaire to prevent violent crimes by using state-of-the-art technology and their own brand of vigilante justice.
"Person of Interest" is a crime thriller from J.J. Abrams starring… (Jeffrey R. Staab / CBS )

Reporting from New York — — Every once in a while, a fire truck will pass by Rudolph Giuliani's window, and the former New York mayor will flash back to that dreadful day when he had to drop everything and rush to ground zero. "It's just hard to hear it and not react," he said in an interview. "I don't know if that will ever change — some things will always trigger the memories."

Those memories were formed on Sept. 11, 2001, when the New York mayor was the sure hand steadying a rattled city. This time, though, he's the one doing the triggering: Giuliani is one of several leaders featured in "9/11: Day That Changed the World," a new Smithsonian Channel retrospective that chronicles the day from the point of view of those in power, using both archival footage and recent interviews. (Former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and New York fire chief Thomas von Essen are also interviewed.)

For many Americans, television and the horrific images it transmitted — burning buildings, bereft family members, victims plunging to their deaths — defined that day. Ten years later, networks are betting that the nation is finally capable of digesting the enormity of that event. A range of programs premiering over the coming weeks will test that readiness, forcing a kind of mass reckoning.

In addition to "9/11," National Geographic will air "George W. Bush: The 9/11 Interview," the first full-scale television discussion of the attacks with the former president, while Showtime plans to broadcast "Rebirth," a wrenching documentary that tracks five friends and family members of victims over seven years.

It's not just documentaries that are wrangling with the events of that day. Several drama series premiering this fall bring to the surface post-Sept. 11 themes (military ethics, civilian surveillance, terrorism) that television tended to sublimate — or viewers tended to ignore — in the years immediately after the attacks.

In October, Showtime will debut "Homeland," a series starring Damian Lewis and Claire Danes, about a missing U.S. Marine who may or may not be working for Al Qaeda. The network, which aired the lightly watched "Sleeper Cell" in 2005 and 2006, will feature characters who may be Islamic terrorists, hoping that American viewers find them more compellingthis time around.

9/11: Where were you? Share your story

The next announcement was short, deliberate and astounding - a second plane had crashed into the other WTC tower. The news was almost incomprehensible.”
— Joseph Pescatello
I will never forgot the images or the confusion I felt upon seeing the videos replaying over and over again. I tried so hard not to cry for fear of being made fun of.”
— Lene De Leon
I was standing in my apartment in Santa Barbara, CA. My roommate was calling me out of my bedroom and I stood there watching the TV utterly baffled and shocked.”
— Elena Yee
I saw a terrifying scene on one of the t.v.'s in the terminal. A plane shot into a building, ripping into it, and then we boarded our airplane. We sat down, buckled in and waited.”
— Jan EdwardsMeanwhile, "Person of Interest," a scripted CBS series about post-Patriot Act America from a trio that includes J.J. Abrams and "The Dark Knight" writer Jonathan Nolan, follows a New York man (Jim Caviezel) as he seeks to intervene in the lives of ordinary people who are being watched via surveillance cameras erected after Sept. 11. It's a scenario that literally wouldn't have been possible right after 9/11, before funding for the cameras had been in place, and wouldn't have made sense until after constant surveillance became not only a reality but almost an afterthought.

"What 9/11 did is irrevocably change the characters' lives, and we're dealing with that fallout," Nolan said. "Just as we do in everyday life."

Pop-culture predictions made after Sept. 11 tended to go in one of two directions: we would never laugh again (Graydon Carter's infamous end-of-irony pronouncement) or we'd want only light, escapist fare. Neither turned out to be quite right. Television as a whole continued its inexorable march forward, with a range of comedies, dramas and procedurals that could have easily existed before Sept. 11. There was, certainly, a burst of dark antihero shows such as "The Shield" and "Breaking Bad," but those owed as much to the legacy of Tony Soprano as they did to Osama bin Laden.

"If we look at how television changed in the years since Sept. 11, the most surprising thing may be how aggressively it did not change," said Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson.

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