I recently went on a bit of an experiment; I selected a bunch of shows that aired in 2001 and watched their September and October episodes, and in some cases followed through through the end of the season. I was interested in two things. The first was the influence of the political climate on television; many shows actually adapted and changed storylines after the 11 September attacks. I was also interested to know how well the politics wore. Here we are, almost a decade later. How would those episodes and seasons feel, looking back?
The 11 September attacks radically changed the US political climate and the reverberations can still be seen on television. More storylines featuring terrorism and vague Middle Eastern nations are coming up. More stories about suicide bombings. Some about racial profiling, assumptions, being brown or Muslim in the United States. Some challenging security theatre and the culture of fear, expanding government powers, acts of questionable legality people commit in the name of ‘national security’ and ‘protecting the people.’
My results were mixed. The 11 September West Wing episode was excruciating. It was such an obvious, painful insertion. I imagine that future viewers will skip over it, or if they do watch it, they will be left in a state of deep confusion. It’s so time-specific, so centred on a specific event and period, that it does not wear well. Children who were not even alive that day are coming of age right now; in 10 years, when they are watching ‘old’ television shows in college, I suspect that episode isn’t going to make very much sense. They understand the climate and culture, but not the immediacy of that event, for those of us who were there that day.
I also got interested in shows commenting on the climate after the fact. Battlestar Galactica and Jericho both probed a lot of political issues, Jericho somewhat more daringly after it was readily apparent that it was not going to get a third season. How well do those storylines weather now, after the fact, with distance and perspective? How many of them seem eerily prescient? One of the problems with The West Wing was that the episode occurred as a standalone nod to events, rather than as part of an integrated storyline, and as a result viewers had no chance to followup and think about changes within the White House in the wake of an event like that.
On Jericho, the show pulled no punches. The military contractor storylines in particular were very aggressive and open, and referenced events in Iraq and Afghanistan very clearly. I know that the show wasn’t very popular with many people, but I will say this for it: It had unabashed, open politics and it challenged viewers on a lot of things. What price are people willing to pay for security? What happens in the wake of national disasters? And what kind of condition is the government in now? While the show is about a theoretical series of nuclear attacks in the United States, there were pretty clear parallels with modern life.
Jericho asked viewers to think about who controls the government, who pulls the strings, who makes decisions. It also challenged viewers to ask how much they are willing to sacrifice or ignore in the name of security. The military contractors in the show were abusive and awful, whether they were killing civilians or using curfews to control society, and I hope that viewers understood that these behaviours are not limited to the television, that the wartime world of the show rang true to the real wartime world, to problems people are encountering in numerous nations. And the show took care to avoid casting everyone in the same mold; the contractors are not universally evil, there are good people working for them, with the right intent and the desire to build a better world.
On Battlestar Galactica, security and control were overriding themes almost from the start. The show represented a collision of military and civilian values and also asked some hard questions; what do you do when the future of humanity rests on a few fragile shoulders? How much can the government control and legislate? The show explored torture, curtailment of reproductive rights, and a lot of other topics of interest.
Do these shows weather well? I think it’s still hard to tell, because we’re still living in the times they commented on through their storylines and characters. They certainly wear better than shows that choose to do one-off episodes with respect to current events, and then turn their focus back to the stories they were already telling. On both shows, these issues were integrated into the very fabric of the story and were an important aspect of it for viewers.
Which I think is a cautionary tale for producers and creators. If you want to include politics and commentary on social issues, you cannot do it by halves. You cannot single it out for a very special episode, because it will feel obvious and clunky. Not just to current viewers, but to people viewing in the future. Shows that want to comment on society need to make it a running commentary, not a focus or an event. They need to embed it into the core of the content. The West Wing included plenty of other social commentary; I know that the producers probably felt pressure and responsibility, like they had to do something in 2001, but I rather wish they hadn’t and I suspect they feel the same way, because it’s so very hamfisted and obvious, it almost hurts.
I think there’s a place for television outside the continuum, beyond the timeline. Even when a show is explicitly political, I think it’s acceptable to focus on the politics of the show. To include messages about political climates if they fold naturally into the content, but to avoid an attempt to make a special comment. Because Very Special Episodes of all stripes tend to wear very, very poorly.