Salvation through changing the past

Times Staff Writer

THIS was the week they did it, though we knew they would pretty much all along. On Monday night, “Heroes” saved the world. Or, more precisely, a politician -- a politician! -- swept down from the sky and prevented, finally, 9/11. An act we as a culture have been trying to achieve for almost six years now.

In September 2001, as tragedy billowed across the country , feature reporters everywhere wrote pieces with a single theme: What effect would the devastation of 9/11 have on the arts and popular culture? Since then, movies and plays about the actual events have been produced, pieces of art constructed, music composed. But nowhere is the effect as visceral, wide-spread and lasting as on television.

Themes of terrorism, national security, social paranoia and religious clashes thread themselves through “CSI,” “Traveler,” “Battlestar Galactica” and, of course, “24,” which owes much of its popularity to its ability to show us how Jack Bauer could have prevented it all if only we had listened to him.

In fact, even as “Heroes’ ” Nathan Petrelli (Adrian Pasdar) was swooping his pre-nuclear brother Peter (Milo Ventimiglia) into the heavens, Bauer was commandeering a black helicopter and hoisting his nephew, and himself, to safety as the U.S. military destroyed an oil rig behind him. The sky, once our enemy, is now our friend as we look to the angels to save us.

If television shows are the stories we tell in our home, attempts to assuage and understand our fears and desires, we are living in a time of urgent regret.


Watching the “Heroes” season finale or, a few weeks ago, the premiere of “Traveler,” in which two young men go on the lam after they are wrongfully suspected of a terrorist act, a viewer is struck by the sense of desperation to go back, not forward, to undo what has already been done. Americans have always wanted to save the world; now it seems we worry it is past saving, and so the only thing to save is the past.

“Heroes” perfectly embodied this. Its season-long threat of New York bursting into nuclear flame was predicted in a series of lurid paintings and comic books. And if that weren’t enough, in a recent episode we glimpsed the future should the heroes fail -- a president, complicit in the tragedy, stood in front of a slab engraved with the names of the multitudes who fell, giving a speech that could have been lifted from any of the anniversary commemorations at ground zero, while Homeland Security ran amok and all the aliens were rounded up and detained.

Though a disparate group of the super-powered raced to prevent the tragedy, the linchpin was a Japanese everyman with the ability to time travel, to go back to the moments before the tragedy struck, again and again, because, despite the warnings, time-bending was the only way of preventing it.

Television has always dealt with saving the world and fighting the state, and shows such as “Sleeper Cell,” “Traveler” and next season’s “Aliens in America” (a comedy about a small-town family that takes in a Muslim exchange student) are direct, if not exactly predictable, answers to the fear and confusion raised by Sept. 11.

More telling are the subtle reactions -- Tony Soprano projecting his own murderous past on Arab acquaintances who might be Islamic fundamentalists, Sayid’s (former henchman of Saddam Hussein) justification of using torture to protect his friends from the Others on “Lost” and the misanthropic post-traumatic stress that afflicts the firefighters of “Rescue Me.”

But subtlety has never been a national hallmark, and we now see terrorism and religious extremism as plot threads on every show from “Law & Order” to “Veronica Mars.” As Peter MacNicol’s Tom Lennox said on last night’s “24" closer:

“In light of recent terrorist attacks, the nuke in California and the plot against the president, I just think we need to preserve whatever fragile faith the American people might have in this administration.”

Indeed. But the American people are running out of faith in mere mortals. The season finale of “Heroes” seemed at first to be an exploration of one of life’s great mysteries -- is there such a thing as fate, and can one change it? Nathan was supposed to allow the explosion to happen so that in the aftermath he would rise, Rudy Giuliani-like, to the White House. “This is going to happen,” his “Manchurian Candidate” mother said to him as she dismissed his concern about the deaths of so many people. But in the end, because this is America, love triumphs.

“The future isn’t written in stone,” Nathan said to his long-lost daughter, Claire, as he took his brother into his arms to save the lives of millions of New Yorkers and prevent a world in which xenophobia and nationalism run riot.

But tragically, the past is.