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TV and the Unrepresentable Trauma of 9/11

20 years on, television still struggles with the enormity of that day.
  • Friends added an American flag to its set and paid subtle tribute to the FDNY in episodes filmed in the weeks after 9/11.
    Friends added an American flag to its set and paid subtle tribute to the FDNY in episodes filmed in the weeks after 9/11.

    There have been few events as widely televised as the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. As a nation gazed in rapt horror, first one tower and then the other collapsed into ruin. Americans had never witnessed a terror attack of this sort on native soil, and the magnitude of the event seemed unfathomable.

    In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, it was nearly impossible to escape images of the planes flying into the Towers, of the Towers collapsing, and of despairing people leaping to their deaths. Everywhere we turned, there was an almost constant flow of information that made it feel as if we were all locked in a perpetual present, unable to escape the horror of the attacks.

    Television provided the means by which it felt like we experienced that day collectively. The broadcast networks and cable news clearly believed that delivering a non-stop flow of images and commentary was what people both wanted and needed in order to process the trauma. But in the weeks that followed, elsewhere on TV, a very different strategy played out.

    While images of the Towers remained ubiquitous on TV news, they were soon excised from almost everywhere else across the cultural landscape. Television series that had used them in their opening credits, including The Sopranos, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Sex and the City, removed them. Executives no doubt thought that continuing to include them would be both in poor taste and could serve as traumatizing reminders to the audience of what had happened in the real world. TV fictions, after all, are meant to provide a source of escape, so such logic makes sense.

    But there was an irony built into this erasure. When viewers saw a new intro for Sex and the City without the Twin Towers, many couldn’t help but be aware of a new absence, a gaping hole in the reality that they thought they knew.

    Other series made similar efforts to remove anything that might, however tangentially, call to mind the events of 9/11. Jokes or references were removed out of an abundance of caution. Such was the case with Friends, in which a subplot that involved Chandler making a joke about bombs while going through airport security was removed.

    Once again, it’s clear that producers and executives wanted to ensure that there was nothing in the realm of fiction that could puncture the myth that television could provide an escape from the traumas of the present. And, once again, the events of 9/11 were conspicuous in their absence. The specter of the day seemed to hang in the background (literally, on Friends, where an American flag and an FDNY tribute were added to the set), impacting both what was and what was not able to be represented.

    The trauma of 9/11 was so great, and it had become so firmly embedded in the American imagination that there was no way that any medium, particularly television — predicated as it is on immediacy, and situated in the lived environment of our homes — could ever not engage with it, even when it attempted not to do so. Escaping it and experiencing it became part of the same phenomenon, inescapably intertwined.

    Twenty years on, images of the Towers are no longer verboten in fiction; in fact, it’s not uncommon to see them used as a shorthand to establish a “before-times” sense of time and place. Likewise, the then-novel 24 hour news cycle is now almost completely dominant, both on TV and off, where anyone with a phone is faced with a constant barrage of information and commentary.

    Still, we grapple with the events of September 11th and all that they set in motion. With the 20th anniversary of the attacks being commemorated this month, TV channels and streamers are rolling out a slew of special programming, including three extensive new docuseries: Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror on Netflix, Nat Geo’s 9/11: One Day in America, and HBO’s NYC Epicenters: 9/11 -> 2021½, which made headlines last month after it was reported that the Spike Lee-directed series gave a platform to 9/11 truthers. Lee has since announced that he is removing a 30 minute segment covering truther theories from the show's forthcoming final episode.

    When it comes to TV and 9/11, it seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.

    Dr. Thomas J. West III is a freelance writer and co-host of the Queens of the B's podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.

    TOPICS: 9/11, Friends, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, NYC Epicenters 9/11→ 2021½, Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror, Spike Lee