I was still in elementary school when the World Trade Center was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. My parents sat me down on the couch before school to explain the attacks, and that people might talk about it in class that day. The confusion I felt still lingers — I didn't get what it meant for someone to have done such a thing on purpose, let alone the extent of the catastrophe it wrought. No one discussed it at school, but images of the destruction played on a loop on each and every news channel all through dinner that night. It was intensely visual: The image of the tower slowly folding in on itself and the resulting cloud of debris spoke volumes on behalf of newscasters.
It also forced the broadcasts that went up around that time to address the disaster, whether implicitly or explicitly. With television as the primary medium through which news about the attacks was presented, even fictional series had to take into account that they shared their airwaves with such images. And since then, television has had to deal with the post-9/11 society we now inhabit, from TSA screens at the airport to the annual memorials of the attack and homages to those lost. Different shows have addressed this in different ways, but here are a few of the most sensitive and notable over the past 14 years.
1. "Isaac and Ishmael," Of The West Wing
Many programs took a brief hiatus, or cancelled planned episodes, in the immediate wake of 9/11. The West Wing showrunners scripted and filmed an episode focused on a fictionalized terror threat as a way to discuss cultural, religious, and ethnic stereotyping. It was the first episode of The West Wing aired after 9/11, and it went up within a month of the attacks.
2. Saturday Night Live
New York City's then-mayor Rudy Giuliani appeared on Saturday Night Live for the September 29 episode of Saturday Night Live. True to itself, the show doesn't shy away from cracking a few jokes despite the heavy subject, but the episode in itself is a tribute to those lost in the attacks and the rebuilding capability of the city. Paul Simon also performs The Boxer, which is tonally perfect for the occasion.
3. The Sopranos Opening Credits
There was originally a brief scene in the opening credits of HBO's cult classic The Sopranos in which Tony Soprano catches a glimpse of the World Trade Center in his rear view mirror. This frame was edited out after the terrorist attacks, and instead the credits feature another shot of the Manhattan skyline. Sex and the City made a similar change at the same time. It's a sensitive, subtle touch that demonstrates the understated way television could address the attacks without even needing to speak a word.
4. Battlestar Galactica As Allegory
As an essay on HitFix astutely noted, Battlestar Galactica can be read in a post-9/11 context as a futuristic allegory for the terror attacks. The fantastical context allows the show to more candidly address the politics of terror (in contrast to something more explicitly about the aftermath of 9/11 like Rescue Me).
5. "The One Where Rachel Tells Ross" Of Friends
An episode of Friends scheduled to air shortly after 9/11 — though filmed before the attacks — was edited to reflect what, in light of the events of that day, could be interpreted as a pretty callous scene in an airport. The potentially offending scenes were removed, but the showrunners later published the material with the accompanying note, "The following scenes were deleted from the episode 'The One Where Rachel Tells Ross' and are being presented here for the first time. The story involved Chandler joking with security at an airport and was to air two weeks after the events of September 11, 2001. In light of this, we decided to replace the original story. As part of the history of the show, we hope that the scenes can now be viewed in the spirit which they were originally intended."
Though the show could not have possibly foreseen how history would play out, it was a sensitive touch to adjust the story line to reflect the atmosphere of television post-9/11. The series never explicitly addressed the attacks, but like The Sopranos, it accommodated the atmosphere in the wake of the attacks and the impact that was felt in all corners.
6. Television Specials On PBS, USA, History, And Many More
The television special had particularly rich material to draw from in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Channels like PBS, Showtime, CNN, History, and USA all rolled out documentaries focused on different aspects of 9/11 and its impact, from the planning of the memorial to the ways that pop culture reacted to the events.
7. Sesame Street Addresses The Issues
In the episode "Fire in Hooper's Store," Sesame Street's Elmo and Maria call in a grease fire in the kitchen at a shop on Sesame Street where they're having lunch. It uses a fairly small-scale issue to look at the Fire Department's response to the problem, fear (including of the fire fighters themselves), and trauma and recovery after a disaster. It makes the issues that may come up in conversations between parents and their children with all the coverage around 9/11 accessible to children. Elmo even goes to the firehouse to see how things work behind-the-scenes.
Each year on the anniversary of September 11, 2001, we revisit the images that made such an impression 14 years ago. Television offers new lenses through which to examine the issues, whether biting, fictionalized accounts of a society in the wake of a large-scale attack like Battlestar Galactica, non-fiction portrayals of events and documentaries, and more explicit examinations as in The West Wing and Sesame Street. Society has a tendency to become numbed to images played on an endless loop, but television finds a new way to present the events and human responses in order to reinvest those images with significance.
Images: NBC; PBS