Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Just a small town girl, living in a lonley world...

I read a story today of the BBC website about the end of the Sopranos that sort of struck me. This comment reminds me of a paper I wrote for a sociology class I had two years ago:

Mr Jaafar also explains that after 11 September 2001, the US was more willing to accept "darker fare and more serious material" on TV.

"You can see a changing landscape on American TV after 9/11 - The Sopranos was one of the first, followed by 24 and The Shield - gritty, well-written, expensive shows," he says.

Such fare stood out against a "barrage of reality and non-scripted TV programmes", he adds.

In my paper, entitled "The Dawning of a Doom Struck Era: How 9/11 Changed the content of Prime Time T.V., I used the plot lines for The West Wing, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Shield to demonstrate how television changed in the wake of the September 11th attacks.

Let's be clear: This paper was written for a 100 level sociology course taught by an instructor with low standard, we were only required 2 sources.

And the Paper:

September 11th changed nearly every aspect of American life, and prime time T.V. was no exception. Shows such as Fox’s 24 and ABC’s Alias depicted brave, dedicated patriots who spent each episode locked in mortal combat with super-empowered non-state actors. The story lines for major network shows in 2001-2002 also brought moral dilemmas that pre -9/11 prime time protagonist rarely faced. Shows such as The West Wing, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Shield depicted characters forced to commit morally ambiguous acts of violence in the name of preventing the death or injury of innocent bystanders. The best illustration of post 9/11 sensibilities occurred on NBC’s “The West Wing,” in the episode entitled “Posse Comitatus,” when President Josiah Bartlet was forced to order the pre-emptive assassination of the defense minister of the fictional country of Qumar, who was planning a major terrorist attack on the U.S.

The third season of The West Wing premiered in late September of 2001 and from the start the producers were trying to find a way to deal with the terrorist attack on New York and Washington. The first episode of the season was not part of the regular story line, rather, it was a one-act teleplay written by Aaron Sorkin that attempted to put the events of 9/11 in perspective and assuage a grieving nation. The episode was entitled “Isaac and Ishmael.” Although well meaning, it did little to shed new light on the challenges brought on by terrorism and focused mainly on the Arab-Israeli conflict (a cause rarely mentioned by Osama Bin Laden prior to 9/11) and American prejudices against Arabs. The episode also related misinformation, for example, the characters mention that most of “the terrorists” come from refugee camps and extreme poverty. In reality, most of the 9/11 hijackers were the sons of wealthy men who had been educated at some of the finest universities in the world.

Aaron Sorkin, head writer and producer of The West Wing, finally began to explore a more complex post 9/11 world at the end of the third season in a four episode arc that began with an episode entitled “Enemies Foreign and Domestic.” Post September 11th fears were explored throughout the story arc. For example, in “Enemies Foreign and Domestic,” Leo McGary tells Bartlett that he should “Get himself into a mental place where he can order an unidentified plane shot down.” This was obviously a reference to the situation on the morning of 9/11 when Vice President Cheney reluctantly gave an order allowing the Air Force to shoot down any plane that refused to land.

Another post September 11th fear that was explored in the story line was the target list of the terrorists. The president’s advisers warn him that buildings in Washington, including the White House, were considered possible targets. Again, this is a reflection of 9/11, when the Pentagon was hit directly and either the White House or the Capital may have been a target of flight 93.

Bartlett’s actions in the face of these terrorists’ threats are a reflection of the post September 11th notion of preemption as a doctrine of national security. His first instinct was to order his Attorney General to prepare an indictment of Sharif, but the A.G. informed Bartlet that Sharif, as an emissary of the Sultan of Qumar, enjoys diplomatic immunity. Bartlett is then pressured by Leo McGary to order Shariff’s assassination during Shariff’s upcoming visit.

It is important to look at earlier seasons of the West Wing to understand why the post September 11th season was different. During the first season, in an episode entitled “A Proportional Response,” Leo argues that Bartlet cannot use the U.S. military arbitrarily or for personal vengeance. In the second season, in an episode entitled “The War at Home,” Leo actually argues against the assassination of a Colombian drug lord named Juan Aquilar. This trend indicates that the writers made a decision to take the story in a new direction in the wake of 9/11.

The West Wing was not the only show to change its characters and story lines to reflect the post 9/11 realities. The WB’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which had previously always used a super natural villain as the season long antagonist (generally known as “the big bad” or “the evil”) featured humans as “the evil” during the 2001-2002 season. The end of the season brought the death of Willow’s girlfriend, Tara, at the hands of evildoer Warren. Unlike previous seasons, in which characters fought and died at the hands of medieval weapons such as cross bows and swords, Warren uses a pistol to shoot Tara in the chest. The 2001-2002 season marked the first time a firearm was used to kill any character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The post 9/11 season also marked the first time that a member of the “Scooby Gang,” (the shows protagonist who fought against super natural villains in Sunnydale, California) killed a mortal. Willow killed Warren in revenge for murdering Tara. In the episode entitled, “Two to Go,” Buffy, Dawn, Anaya and Xander debate weather or not it was right to kill Warren, and Xander argues that Warren “Got what he deserved,” and that it is okay to kill a human who commits an act of evil. This is a view that was never expressed in previous seasons (members of the “gang” had always been forbidden from hurting mortals) and, like The West Wing, these new plot twists indicated a much darker, more morally ambivalent tone for the show.

The reason T.V. writers choose to deal with both terrorism and the type of warfare that must be conducted to combat it is because American’s were frightened by the events of 9/11 and studies show that many Americans were deeply concerned that they or someone they knew would be a victim of terrorism. In the article, The Consequences of Terrorism: Disentangling the Effects of Personal and National Threat, (Huddy, Feldman, Capelos and Provost 2002) the authors describe a survey taken between October and November of 2001 in the New York metropolitan area. They reported that 82% of respondents were at least somewhat concerned about a major terrorist attack on the U.S. in the near future and 70% were afraid that they or someone they knew would be injured or killed in a terrorist attack. These results seem to indicate that many Americans were personally frightened by the 9/11 attacks, although, as the authors point out, only a very small minority was actually affected by the attacks directly.

Another study, entitled Effects of Right Wing Authoritarianism and Threat from Terrorism on Restriction of Civil Liberties (Corrs, Kielmann, Maes, Moschner 2005) looked at the way fear affected peoples views on suppression of civil liberties. The study was conducted over the course of several months following the September 11th attacks and indicated that many people become more willing to accept the suppression of civil liberties in exchange for security in the face of threats from terrorism.
This study brings us around to another show that enjoyed tremendous success in the 2001-2002-television season, FX Network’s “The Shield.” From the first episode the show made a hero of Vic Mackey, an LAPD detective who never let a suspect’s civil rights slow him down. Although there was never a terrorism plot line in The Shield, post 9/11 fears and sensibilities were palpable throughout the season. For example, in the first episode, entitled “Pilot”, Vic beats a suspect who had asked to speak to his attorney until the man reveals the location of a kid-napped little girl. The man was not a terrorist, but it is easy to see how harsh interrogation techniques might appeal to an audience worried, as the Huddy survey indicated, that another terror attack was eminent. When Vic went into that interrogation room the audience might have imagined Zacharious Moussouri or Richard Reid (the “shoe bomber”) sitting across the table. Assuming the findings of the study on authoritarianism and threat were valid, the fact that Vic Mackey became so popular in the wake of 9/11 is no surprise. Every time he beat a criminal or intimidated a witness Americans saw a man of action who would protect them by any mean necessary.

This brings us back to The West Wing and “Posse Comitatus.” President Bartlett was not cut out for a world where Vic Mackey was a folk hero. Bartlett belonged to last century, to the roaring 90’s and the days when POTUS was little more than a CEO and chief. The whole show reflected a simpler, more innocent time. When The West Wing premiered 1999 it offered the optimistic view that government was a place for people to come together. For two years the audience went to work each week with a group of smart, dedicated public servants who strove to raise the level of debate in America and maybe help a few people in the process. The president’s chief of staff, Leo McGary, had the simple goal of proving that it was possible for a good man to get elected. And Bartlett was a good man, a former economics professor and Noble laureate who was always ready to reassure with a smile and a quote from scripture (sometimes in Latin). The West Wing was a vision of the 90’s as we wished they had been. On 9/11 that vision came crashing down. “Posse Comitatus” represented this incredibly optimistic show finally facing the realities of its time. Ultimately, this episode depicted the veil of carefree innocence that had embodied the 1990’s being torn away. At the end of the episode Bartlett says to Leo “It’s just wrong, it’s absolutely wrong,” Leo responds with a nod and says, “I know, but you have to do it anyway.” Bartlett then turns away and delivers the order, “Take him.” The next scene depicts a team of Army Rangers opening fire on Shariff as he steps off his plane.

This year will mark the fifth anniversary of 9/11. This year will also mark the seventeenth anniversary of 11/9, the day the Berlin wall came down. The dozen years that separate those two events were marked by a towering sense of optimism. And when that optimism was laid low by a bolt from a clear September sky, popular culture, especially prime time T.V., reflected feelings of foreboding and the sense that we were living in what Hunter S. Thompson called a “doom struck era.” Nowhere was the loss of innocence more pronounced, or the sense of foreboding more profound, then in the alternative reality of Jeb Bartlett’s White House, which had once represented the best of all possible worlds.

Cohrs, Christopher. Kielmann, Sven. Maes, Jurgen. And Mochner, Barbara. “Effects of Right-Wing Authoritarianism and Threat from Terrorism on Restriction of Civil Liberties.” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2005, pp. 263-276

Capelos, Theresa. Feldman, Stanley. Huddy, Leonie. And Provost, Colin. “The Consequences of Terrorism: Disentangling the Effects of Personal and National Threat.” Political Psychology, Vol. 23, No. 3, 2002 pp. 1-25

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