September 23, 2001

A Time to Ask,


A writer's imagination allows him or her to travel anywhere, to conceive the possibility of anything. And yet, in all the twisted story lines I've developed in 20 years of writing television, I could never have imagined the events that occurred on Tuesday, Sept. 11. In comparison, my imagination is pale and shallow.

So I am left with the brutal facts, with a hole in the skyline, with contemplating this tragedy's effect on television and on our nation.

David Angell, one of the many victims, was a giant in the genre of comedy, a wonderfully talented writer and producer whose wit and wisdom sustained "Frasier" for the last six years. His loss to our community is monumental.

Dick Wolf has scrapped plans for a five-part "Law and Order" mini-series that would have dealt with a biological attack against New York. And the networks have postponed or switched the premieres of several new C.I.A.-related series, including "24," which, in its first episode, features a plane destroyed by terrorists.

The long-term impact is more difficult to envision, both for me, as a writer and producer, and for the industry at large.

On "Oz" we have several Muslim characters whom we've tried to draw as fully dimensional human beings, sometimes flawed, sometimes righteous. When Timothy McVeigh bombed Oklahoma City, I had the impulse to start writing the Aryan prisoners differently. Will I react the same way now regarding the Muslims? I hope not, but honestly, I don't know.

On "The West Wing," audiences have delighted in the day-to-day problems of President Josiah Bartlet's White House. But will the banter seem somehow less relevant if our real commander in chief has made fighting terrorism his No. 1 priority?

On "Sex and the City," "Friends" or "Will and Grace," comedy shows set in Manhattan, the characters are pretty much free of the hardships real New Yorkers deal with daily. Will Carrie Bradshaw and Ross Geller continue in blissful ignorance, ordering lattes while ignoring the death and destruction?

Then again, maybe it would be worse for television shows to include our recent calamity in their scenarios. Maybe it would be worse to see Mayor Randall Winston of "Spin City" lead the New York Fire Department promotion ceremony, as Rudolph W. Giuliani did so movingly.

Maybe it would be worse for the firefighters and cops on "Third Watch" to wax poetic about their lost comrades, when we've already heard the actual rescue workers speak so eloquently.

If we turn this tragedy into fiction and try to honor the memory of the fallen, we may end up exploiting their courage; we may end up trivializing their suffering, reducing their pain to an action-packed promo.

At moments like these, the American public needs to laugh and to cry, to see men and women of strength and compassion. For the sake of our country, should we now write only fictional stories of uplifting heroes, even though America has the real heroes to admire? What can a TV comedy or drama possibly add, knowing that its words are make-believe? What value do any of our little "fictions" have now?

The writers, directors and actors who work in television will never be able to recreate the emotions the people of America are feeling. But, if we use our energies wisely, we may be able to help put that horrifying day in perspective.

Does this mean doing stories without bombs detonating, without planes crashing? No. Does this mean doing stories with dark-skinned bad guys, with white-faced, Christian soldiers? No.

This means figuring out where the United States fits in the global family. This means examining the roots of intolerance, of fanaticism, of hate. This means understanding the importance of neighbors, co-workers, relatives, friends and faith. This means trying to answer the question "Why?" Only then will the comedies and dramas that populate our TV screens fulfill what must be their true function now: defining for ourselves, and for the future, this time of fear and sadness.

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