November 4, 2001

TV through lens of attacks


NEW YORK - If fact is stranger than fiction (and considering what's happened since Sept. 11, just try to argue otherwise), then where does that leave television drama?

What happens when real life is more shocking than anything TV would dare to dramatize or, if it did, than we would choose to watch?

Meanwhile, what happens to us as audience members when the episodes from real life that we see with our mind's eye fascinate us, absorb us, haunt us more than anything TV could possibly conceive?

Even if it's unconsciously, this issue probably influences your viewing.

I know it's influencing mine as a critic. I am acutely aware that a huge new unknown has been introduced into the formula by which I judge what on TV is "good."

I don't know how long this condition will last. But nowadays when I watch TV, I see each program through the prism of events that began in the real world Sept. 11 and haven't let up since.

I remain preoccupied with real-life narratives involving mass disaster, individual loss, heroism, barbarism and a tragicomic measure of doubt: How do we stay on some ill-defined "high alert" while living our lives as usual?

It's a perplexing situation, and as unprecedented for the TV industry as it is for the public.

After all, in its first half-century in U.S. homes, television, right along with Americans, benefited from the country's lush stability. Now program execs and producers are wondering: How should TV oblige viewers in their newly agitated state?

Should the real-life terrorist atrocities be factored into a TV drama's story line? Or, conversely, should that show's fictionalized version of life be sustained as if Sept. 11 never happened?

The political drama "The West Wing" and "Third Watch," which dramatizes New York's fire and rescue teams, have already aired episodes addressing our anxious new age.

Tuesday, "NYPD Blue" does its token thing.

Detective Sipowicz (Dennis Franz), who lost his partner at the end of last season, is in a predictably foul mood as the series returns for its ninth year (9 p.m. EST on ABC). In fact, he is so grumpy that Detective McDowell (Charlotte Ross) tries to straighten him out.

"This whole department's been through hell with the World Trade Center attacks, and we're all trying to deal with it in our own way," she declares after following Sipowicz into the men's room. "You don't have a corner on personal grief!"

Also at 9 p.m. Tuesday, the much-anticipated "24" premieres over on Fox. While it doesn't touch on the nation's new war, the new war has touched "24."

Set in the CIA, this would-be thriller stars Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, head of an elite team of agents who is tipped to a possible assassination attempt on a presidential candidate. Worse, someone in the agency may be part of the planned hit.

"24" comes loaded with a hopped-up, multi-image visual style and a novel storytelling gimmick: Its 24 episodes will track 24 sequential hours; each unfolds in real time.

In TV critics' fall-season appraisals, "24" got uniformly glowing reviews. It currently appears on the cover of TV Guide as "the Best New Show of the Year."

I wouldn't go that far, but I liked "24" pretty well when I screened it in August. Then, a few days ago, I watched the pilot episode again.

What seemed gripping before Sept. 11 now seems tame, trivial and largely irrelevant. At a time when our nation's real-life losses are so great and the stakes it is facing so high, the dramatic potential for "24" seems gravely undermined.

So what, if Jack Bauer's got to save a politician's life, expose a traitor or two at the office, and, on the home front, rescue his wayward teenage daughter and his estranged wife - all by this time tomorrow?

"You call THIS a problem?" I thought as I reconsidered Bauer's to-do list. "Get back to me when you're in a REAL pickle."

Or, better yet, don't. These days, I'm gripped by real problems from real life. The suspense of "24" has been undone by TV news unfolding 24-7.

Granted, this new drama hasn't changed in the couple of months since I first watched it, and enjoyed it. The world has. And I have.

With its premiere Tuesday, will "24" be failing me, or have I failed it with my shifting frame of reference? I can guess, but for the moment, I'm not sure.

Copyright 2001 AP Online