Over a decade since the tragedy of 9/11, Laura Bell charts how television still faces the challenge of how to deal with the building’s absence
Almost 12 years have passed since the devastating events of September 11th, 2001. A black mark on the advent of the 21st century, the images of horror and devastation that filled television screens the world over are not easily avoided, forgotten, or dismissed; and controversy surrounds their depiction still. The altered skyline of New York City and it’s place in television has evolved through the years, initial footage of the attack nearly exclusively the domain of news stations; prior to the later birth of YouTube, the cult of streaming video, and the end of tasteful editing.
The internet abounds with clips of the major network newscasts that followed the attacks live in real time. Their coverage begins shortly after the first plane hits World Trade Centre North, and anchors speculate the possibility of a freak accident, an aircraft out of control. It is only when the second plane strikes the South tower that the newscast shifts from being a recap of a tragedy to the live coverage of a modern horror story. Newsreaders, producers and technicians alike had visceral reactions to the new images, with a Fox news anchor declaring: “This has to be deliberate, folks.” Alongside the televised coverage of the attacks, the internet also provides never before broadcast access to phone calls made by the passengers and crew of United Flight 93 as well as several 911 calls made from the towers, including the haunting last words of business executive Kevin Cosgrove, hosted on Youtube under the title “Kevin Cosgrove LIVE 911 Call As He DIES.”
The September 11th terrorist attacks certainly changed the face of TV. 9/11’s presence was felt on the air less than a month later, in an episode of The West Wing broadcast on October 3rd, 2001. The episode, written by series creator Aaron Sorkin in the wake of the hijackings was a “non-continuity” standalone episode designed to comment on the new fear felt by Americans and featured the relatable line: “Why is everybody trying to kill us?” The eight season long 24, though conceived earlier in the year, premiered on November 6th, 2001. The nation’s interest in terrorism had been piqued, though later the show was heavily criticised for being intensely islamophobic. The original trailer for the show aired in April 2001, but a scene in which a commercial plane explodes was completely cut from both the advertisement and the series.
It is, however, not simply the conceptual impact of the attack that lingered in the broadcasting world. The towers, staples of the Manhattan skyline, became iconography representing a bygone era of protected borders and homeland security. Shots of the World Trade Centre towers were promptly removed from the opening credits of The Sopranos, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Sex and the City. The 1997 episode of The Simpsons “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson” was removed entirely from syndication for a number of years. Sci-fi series Fringe later shot a number scenes inside a replication of the interior of the World Trade Centre; the episode being based in a parallel reality in which the Ground Zero area was not affected by the events of September 11th.
Perhaps most notable in terms of 9/11 inspired television was the FX series Rescue Me. The Denis Leary helmed drama ran for seven seasons and dealt explicitly with the lives of a group of New York City Fire Fighters who were dealing with severe trauma in the aftermath of the event, and focused on their difficulty in coming to terms with their losses and facing survivor guilt. Beyond serialised programming, virtually every major network also produced a documentary recounting the chronology of the attacks, the tower collapses, and the recovery efforts that were ongoing until May 2002. Later documentaries were dedicated to specific issues facing the first responders at the site; particularly the health effects of working at the attack site where personnel, as per the James Zadroga act are believed to have been exposed to toxic dust containing chemicals and glass fibres.
The events of 9/11 are still a source of dissidence in the media today; most recently, The Carrie Diaries, a questionable prequel to Sex and the City set in the Manhattan of the 1980s notably omits the Twin Towers from shots of the skyline. “We didn’t want to cause anybody hurt,” creator Amy B. Harris said in a statement. “I wouldn’t want anyone think we’re trying to pretend something didn’t exist.” The move has since drawn criticism that the show wants to represent a ‘fantasy.’
In contrast, the promotional artwork for the fifth season of Mad Men came under fire for being “insensitive to 9/11 victims” by depicting an image remarkably similar to the iconic “Falling Man”, a photograph taken of a World Trade Centre employee jumping to his death. Approximately 200 people jumped or fell from the towers to escape the smoke and fire; their bodies could not be identified due to their obliteration by the force at which they hit the ground. The daughter of Captain Charles Burlingame, who piloted the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 has spoken out against the image: “I think this advertiser has decided that creating a controversy, at the expense of the thousands of people who will be hurt by this image of a man falling to his certain death, is worth it.”