The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks produced immediate concern about the searing intrusion of reality on prime-time fiction, with three TV series dealing with terror threats and the Central Intelligence Agency scheduled to premiere in the fall of 2001.
Network officials and the producers behind Fox’s “24,” CBS’ “The Agency” and even ABC’s more fanciful “Alias” worried that such shows might be too close to current events for an unnerved public, prompting a flurry of last-minute activity that included reediting an image of an exploding plane in “24" and excising a reference to Osama bin Laden from “The Agency” while delaying another episode about anthrax.
“We thought it was entirely possible that we were done, that the audience would have no taste for it,” recalled Howard Gordon, an executive producer on “24.”
Eighteen months later, however, not only are all three programs still on the air, but the networks are also forging ahead with several similarly themed series prototypes, including a pair that deal directly with homeland security: “Threat Matrix,” an ABC drama pilot about an elite team investigating terrorist activity, and NBC’s tentatively titled “Bungalow 5" (initially known as “Homeland Security”), which also focuses on counter-terrorism efforts.
Instead of fearing that headlines might force them to alter plots, producers are proceeding with the hope and expectation that viewers can separate these fictional accounts from news. And so far, that appears to be the case, as millions who tune in “24" watched counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland, race to stop a nuclear explosion in Los Angeles, as attention now turns to whether a war in the Middle East -- against an unnamed country in possession of chemical weapons -- can be averted.
Once it was clear the series would return for a second year, Gordon said, the producers faced the choice of either steadfastly avoiding a story line that might smack of reality or accepting that possibility.
“We decided very quickly, ‘Let’s write to it,’ ” he said. “Reality had intruded upon our fantasy, and I think we found a way of commenting on that reality.”
As for the potential collision of fantasy and reality, Shaun Cassidy, executive producer of “The Agency,” said it’s clear these dramas are not meant to be documentaries, although he admitted that producers had to feel their way in terms of propriety.
“There was no road map,” Cassidy said, adding that in tackling the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, “we quickly discovered the best course was to try to deal with it as the agency might be dealing with it.”
Throughout the Cold War era, entertainment that was built around that unease -- from the James Bond franchise, “Mission: Impossible” and “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” to “Dr. Strangelove” and even “Get Smart” -- managed to co-exist with “duck and cover” drills and related tensions.
Moreover, viewers have grown accustomed to seeing recent events dramatized in popular series. NBC’s “Law & Order,” in particular, has mastered “torn from the headlines” episodes, which can be turned around much faster than traditional TV movies once were.
“It is no longer an exceptional episode to fictionalize events from ‘today’s headlines,’ and ‘Law & Order,’ ‘CSI’ and other shows do it with such consistency that it is now understood by the audience that it is a fictionalized account,” said Linda Voorhees, a professor of screenwriting at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.
Still, the Sept. 11 attacks had such a devastating effect on the public psyche, Hollywood was understandably anxious about possible repercussions, prompting studios to postpone several feature films that even dealt peripherally with terrorism.
“People didn’t know how to react,” said Stuart Fischoff, a professor of media psychology at Cal State Los Angeles. “There was no etiquette for 9-11. People had to create it on the run.”
As for how the public is responding, viewership of CBS’ military drama “JAG” has remained strong, with a spinoff series in the works. Ratings for “24" have risen since “American Idol” began preceding it on Tuesdays, and both “The Agency” (preempted the last few weeks due to NCAA basketball) and “Alias” continue to draw modest but respectable numbers.
In several instances, these prime-time dramas have been more prescient than reactive. Debate over the propriety of torturing terrorists for information, for example, has been explored on “24,” while “The Agency” -- which consciously steered clear of Iraq -- has an episode in the works about a crisis involving North Korea.
“We have 280 million people,” Fischoff noted. “Some are going to want to cope with this threat by running away into fantasy, and some people are going to want to stick their face in the cold water.”
Producers say they aren’t stoking anxiety or heightening the sense of danger, but instead offering viewers an avenue to channel their feelings.
“We’ve created an imaginary team which is based on what we would hope the government is doing,” said Daniel Voll, executive producer on “Threat Matrix,” which derives its name from the daily briefing the White House receives on global threats. “It’s absolutely drawing on what the hope for homeland security is and what it should be.”
While the war has unfolded on TV, Voll has been in production on the pilot, re-creating Jakarta in downtown Los Angeles. As for whether “Threat Matrix” might hew too closely to reality, he cited a need to be “on that edge,” contrasting television’s immediacy with film, which took years to address the Vietnam War with such movies as “Platoon” and “Coming Home.”
“If anything,” he said, “I feel we’re working on the right story at the right time.”