Post-9/11 Genre of Television Shows

EDIT: 09/12/10: Looks like someone else has had a similar idea regarding post-9/11 TV shows!

My poor tv seems to be afflicted with tv shows designed to exploit the affective temperament of global post-9/11 audiences. This (massive!!) post is structured in terms of the relation to three specific tropes of the post-9/11 genre. It opens with an example of a pre-9/11 tv show.

Pre-9/11 Shows

The first time I noticed the post-9/11 shift in tv production was when I saw a rerun of the pilot episode of the X-Files while in Sweden.

Mulder: Conventional Wisdom. You know this Oregon female? She’s the fourth person in her graduating class to die under mysterious circumstances. Now, when convention and science offer us no answers, might we not finally turn to the fantastic as a plausibility?

Scully: The girl obviously died of something. If it was natural causes, it’s plausible that there was something missed in the post-mortem. If she was murdered, it’s plausible there was a sloppy investigation. What I find fantastic is any notion that there are answers beyond the realm of science. The answers are there. You just have to know where to look.

Mulder: That’s why they put the ‘I’ in ‘F.B.I.’

The X-Files is a distinctly pre-9/11 tv show. There is an inevitable war to be fought with aliens and the two protagonists are caught up in the middle, attempting to discover the ‘truth.’ Why? Because the ‘truth is out there.’ ‘Science,’ in traditional postmodern fashion (every pun intended;), is constructed as inadequate to the task of discovering ‘truth.’ The superficial events of the everyday carry on without knowledge of the ‘fantastic’ truth simmering just below the surface. Most people cannot connect with the ‘truth.’ The ‘truth’ is only for those who, according to Mulder’s famous poster on the wall of his basement office, ‘want to believe.’

The regime of ‘truth’ production becomes a battle, represented in the X-Files as the two main protagonists, between science, which is in the service of the hegemonic ‘powers that be’ (to use a Buffyism) and that only reincribes the normative understandings of the current state of affairs, and the passion of those who believe in disrupting this hegemonic order to uncover the catastrophic ‘truth’ just below the superficial facade of the everyday. The production of ‘truth’ becomes an affective paradigm: scientific detachment for the current state of affairs versus the passionate engagement with something immanent to them.

Post-9/11 Shows

‘Dealing with’ trope

The first wave of post-9/11 tv productions based around a literal connection between terrorism and the production of security. The connection is rather obvious. 24 is probably the best and first example of this genre, although The Shield is a variation of the primary trope (and both are from Fox). The first episode in the 24 series was broadcast on November 6, 2001, only 56 days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The show is defined by its unpredictable and relentless contemporaneity, which makes it a ‘roller-coaster of excitement’ and many other cliched and cliche-able descriptions. It taps into the need for symbolic reassurance by US audiences that their government can ‘deal with’ threats of a terrorist nature.

The lead protagonist, Jack Bauer, fulfills the fantasy of the lone gunman cleaning up the lawless town prevalent in the Western genre of films, but in this case it is the lone intelligence operative cleaning up terrorist threat internal to US borders. The relation of alterity which defines community and the threatening Otherness is turned inward. Bauer combats the enemy within. ‘Dealing with’ terrorist and other catastrophic events in a combatative just-in-time conquest-mode so as to avert the effects of the events or their occurance becomes one of the tropes of post-9/11 genre.

Unlike the pre-9/11 and paradoxically titled, The Lone Gunmen tv show, where the government serves as the agent of disorder and chaos, 24 resurrects the status of governmental agencies as agents of ‘order’ that can ‘deal with’ the terrorist threats of disorder. The pilot episode of The Lone Gunmen series is possibly the most bizaare examples of ‘life imitating art’ ever (and I mean ever in the history of the universe!!). Broadcast five months before 9/11, the pilot episode depicts a secret US agency behind a plot to crash a Boeing 727 into the World Trade Center via remote control and blame it on foreign terrorists in the hopes of generating a bigger military budget. I wonder if Baudrillard has caught wind of this yet? It must have given conspiracy theorists a collective heart attack.

‘Resuscitation of Science’ trope

The next trope really hammered home that popular tv shows had radically shifted from pre-9/11 genres. The best example are the CSI series of tv shows, but includes NCIS (with nerd/goth honey ‘Abbey Sciuto,’ played by Pauley Perrette;), Cold Case, and Without a Trace. All of the shows are produced for tv station CBS. Although the original CSI started in 2000, it rated at only number 12. It hit number one in tv show ratings on December 6, 2001 and has since spawned two spin-offs — CSI: Miami and CSI: New York. Edit: Just watched a double of NCIS. It actually fits in the above ‘dealing with’ trope above with the no-nonsense Agent Gibbs and rag-tag team of individuals with their own specialties (they are not necessarily ‘specialists’).

Rather like 24, the ‘truth’ of a given state of affairs is material and is not open to equivocal debate. Unlike 24, the ‘truth’ must be uncovered through scientific practice/investigation, rather than the militant and reactionary policing of ‘dealing with.’ And unlike pre-9/11 tv shows, such as the X-Files, the protagonists relay on the ‘science of evidence’ to uncover the ‘truth.’ Some lines from the pilot episode (which I saw a repeat of soon after watching the X-Files pilot in Sweden;):

Grissom: Concentrate on what cannot lie — the evidence.

Grissom: There is always a clue.

Grissom: There is no room for subjectivity in this department.

Detached close-ups on often-mutilated body parts and other affectively charged subject matter demands the audience have something of the ‘objective’ detachment displayed by the protagonists. The show’s website offers visitors a choice between the macabre versions and the non-macabre versions. The truth is still ‘out there,’ but rather than relying on passionate belief to uncover the truth, the various tv shows rely on a construction of ‘truth’ as the post-event, or ‘evental,’ production of truth via deductive scientific method. ‘Science’ has be reinstalled as the domain of truth.

‘We have to get along’ trope

The last one to hit my radar is the Lost tv series. Lost is so far the ultimate post-9/11 tv show. My mind boggles at how the creators/writers came up with a tv show that has such a homologous relation to the affective temperament of the post-9/11 audience. Lost is produced for the ABC tv network, filmed on location in Hawaii, and was first broadcast on the 22 September, 2004. The survivors of a plane crash have to learn to ‘get along’; from the show’s official website:

The band of friends, family, enemies and strangers must work together against the cruel weather and harsh terrain if they want to stay alive. But the island holds many secrets, including the intense howls of the mysterious creatures stalking the jungle, which fill them all with fear.

To trace a line in the universe of Lost and a line in the historical circumstances of 9/11 is very easy.

Lost (Historical circumstances of 9/11)

Plane leaves Sydney. (2000 Sydney Olympics last big global event before ‘War on Terror.’)

Goes off course, but no one from the ‘outside world’ knows it because the radio is broken. (Warning signs for a catastrophe go unheaded by the ‘government’; failure of ‘intelligence services.’)

Plane crash. (9/11.)

48 passengers survive. Each major ethnic, racial and class group has some form of representation. (Global response to 9/11 transcended most cultural and political divisions.)

Survivors in constant terror from the strange beasts of the island. (‘Survivors’ of 9/11 are plunged into a global ‘War on Terror.’)

And so on. There are countless parallels. My brain hurts and if you watch the show you can find more specific examples.

Something else interesting about Lost is the way episodes replicate the form of Japanese anime tv episodes. The Japanese anime tradition has a long history of post-apocalyptic themes, but what is interesting is how slowly their anime tv shows are played out. Here I am thinking of Initial-D and Dragon Ball Z. A moment can spread out for entire series of episodes and commonly the drama/action frames flashbacks. See, for example, Cowboy Bebop. I am not sure what to make of this slow unravelling of the contemporary that is shared with 24. Perhaps ontologies of dramatic ‘time’ have mutated to incorporate the post-9/11 media coverage of the event and production of the media-event? The unpredictable and relentless contemporaneity of the shows, signified by docu-style inserted time codes and the framing of a single episode around a single event or a day, mirrors the actual media reportage of the events of 9/11. Perhaps the media form itself has received a shock?

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