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.
“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.
The occasional series did tackle the subject, however, in the process reflecting the nation’s mood: still raw, anxious, often one-dimensional. Premiering just two months after the attacks, “24" was actually conceived long before Al Qaeda became a household name. But it hit a nerve as it depicted a world where fear and danger lurked everywhere. It also, in Kiefer Sutherland’s one-man terrorist-squelcher, offered a palliative that was in scarce supply in news headlines.
“Jack Bauer was really a wish-fulfillment character,” said Dana Walden, the co-chair of 20th Century Fox Television, which produced “24.” “He was doing on television what we couldn’t do in real life to Osama bin Laden.” But the show, popular in the years when Bin Laden was an object of mass fascination, began to fizzle as Americans’ obsession with the terrorist leader started to fade.
There’s a similar end-of-an era feeling to “Rescue Me,” which fittingly will finish its run just days before the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11. For seven seasons, creators Denis Leary and Peter Tolan have capitalized on the interest in firefighters piqued on that September day. They offered a nuanced view of men in uniform coping with the aftermath of the attacks.
Leary’s Tommy Gavin, who lost his cousin and best friend at the World Trade Center, was portrayed as devoted and sensitive but also prone to bouts of anger, alcoholism and selfishness. But as the series comes to an end, it also suggests that, 10 years on, the desire to understand Sept. 11 through the prism of firefighters may also be shifting a bit. (Leary recently told reporters at the Television Critics Assn. press tour that the timing of the series finale was “perfect” because it provided a “natural time totem.”)
Entertainment borne of tragedy tends to take a long time to percolate: It was as much as half a century before members of the Greatest Generation began to fully process the full effects of World War II and 20 years for those who went through Vietnam to work out their experiences through a series of high-profile movies.
So far, at least, there are signs that television is willing to depict the attacks and the questions they raised with more forthright reflection. That’s visible even in the anniversary programming, which features key figures who’ve previously chosen to avoid the subject.
With the National Geographic special, Bush is speaking for the first time at length — and not as an elected official — about what happened that day and how he felt about it. At the Television Critics Assn gathering in Beverly Hills last month, director Peter Schnall said of Bush, “He became as emotional as he allowed himself to be, as he allowed us to see him become, when he spoke about the loss of lives, when he spoke about those who had to leap from the buildings, when he spoke about wondering where his family was at the time, and perhaps the decision that he had to make to give the Air Force permission to shoot down commercial airplanes.”
Giuliani, for his part, hesitated before committing to the Smithsonian Channel special. Although he had made his experience on Sept. 11 a centerpiece of his short-lived presidential run, he had sat for only one previous in-depth interview for a program about that day. “I didn’t want to talk about it on television for a long time,” said the former New York mayor. “But it was the most powerful experience of my life, and I realized it may be good to start talking about it.”
“Rebirth” may be the boldest example of Americans’ willingness and ability to engage with the attacks. The documentary, which first-time director Jim Whitaker spent the better part of a decade filming, showcases both intense emotions and a broader understanding that would have been impossible right after the attacks. “Rebirth,” which will also play a limited run in movie theaters before its Sept. 11 Showtime premiere, explores how five people directly touched by that day changed emotionally, psychologically and even physically each year since 2001, right through 2009. He was moved to embark on the project after attending a wedding shortly after 9/11 and seeing several guests who worked in downtown Manhattan crying in the corner. (The film also features stunning time-lapse images from ground zero that were taken over the last decade.)
The filmmaker and Disney-based producer said his goal wasn’t simply to exoticize the victims but to draw direct parallels to viewers’ lives.
“In many ways this is about the experience of 9/11, but it’s also about the universal experience of loss,” Whitaker said. “I wanted people to intimately understand this subject by connecting it to their own experience.”