Terrorism on Television – an Industry Reacts to 9/11

26 Nov

I was really struck by how both 24 and Homeland take the issue of Anti-American sentiment and terrorism as a foundational impulse for their narratives. 24 renders an America constantly under attack by rogue forces, especially given its unique and elongated narrative structure has the effect of making the events of one week stretch for seven years, perpetuating the idea that this threat never ends; that it will never go away. Similarly, though Homeland is an adaptation from an Israeli series, as Rahul pointed out much of the drama surrounding an imminent attack on American soil is a product of its American writers and production team, rather than the source material.


This made me wonder about how and why this issue – the terrorist/counterterrorist conflict – came to assume the role it does in American television. Very few other countries depict their nation under imminent threat so frequently in their films and television shows. Those that do tend to adopt a decentralized view of the conflict, showing a broad range of activity, rather than focusing on the heroic, singular counterterrorist agent like 24 and Homeland. A lot of what we read established the idea that 24 rode an unexpected wave to prominence as a result of the attack on September 11th, and this certainly seems to suggest that the American television audience was interested in and attracted to shows that addressed these themes. It is interesting that no such films or television shows emerged in other nations that experienced terrorist incidences in the last decade, namely Britain, Spain, and India.


It seems that responses to the attack of 9/11 were certainly needed and desired by audiences. I remember the return of Saturday Night Live and other programs that filmed in New York became a significant and emotionally charged event. I also remember when the West Wing interrupted its story line for a special episode, removed from the central story, focusing on President Bartlett’s attitudes and response to terrorist threats. The television industry in general seemed to collectively respond by adopting similar attitudes and themes with regard to their depictions of terrorism and the threat of attack. Aesthetically, we get action, explosions, and rapid movement in films and faced paced television shows like 24. American characters are largely heroic, and successful in their thwarting of whatever threat faces them. This is a very general but arguably accurate view of how the TV and film industries tackled the desire for this content for the first few years following the September 11th attacks.


Homeland, however, seems to break the mold in meaningful ways. First, the threat is shifted in a fundamental way from external militant force to an insider sleep agent. Homeland focuses on Sgt. Brody’s family and the internal psychological turmoil of Carrie Mathison more than sweeping geopolitical events. By throwing Carrie’s sanity into question, the show shifts attention from the outsider to an exploration of the internal divisions and complexities of the CIA. Overall, it stands to reason that the show would be a product of its age and embody some of the depth and complexity of today’s premium cable drama, but I still think in noting the differences between these shows, we see an evolution in cultural responses to these attacks. Maybe this is a reach, but it seems like we can really learn a lot from studying the differences between these programs and how they, the same team of writers and producers tackle the same issue in two different eras of very recent history. 

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