Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

As we know from the success rate of new movies and TV shows, entertainment executives rarely have much of a grasp on what audiences want to see. That’s the nature of show business. What is interesting is that in the atmosphere following the terror attacks on New York and Washington, they finally feel free to admit it.

Let me amend that. Producers and programmers still have no idea what Americans want to see. But there has been instant consensus about what we don’t want to see.

The first taboo is the image of the World Trade Center towers themselves, which have been snipped from movies and digitally erased from TV credit sequences. Even the Simpsons episode in which Homer goes to New York to retrieve his booted car from the WTC plaza has been pulled from syndication. It’s as if, now that the towers are gone, we can’t bear to admit they existed at all.

Second are the disaster flicks, with Warner Bros.’ too aptly named Collateral Damage starring Arnold Schwarzenegger being the first, but far from the last, of the Hollywood victims. Tens of millions of production dollars are being sacrificed as the entertainment industry, like a therapist with a fragile patient, tries to avoid further traumatizing our psyches or reminding us that we used to watch aliens blow the roof off the White House and think, “Wow, cool.”

Paradoxically, the attacks may actually exonerate media violence from some of the charges commonly leveled against it. Media violence, it is often said, desensitizes us to the real thing, blunting our ability to distinguish the real from the pretend. But the anguish of recent weeks indicates otherwise. Yes, many people said the attacks were “like” Die Hard 2 or Armageddon. But they were obviously totally unlike them as well. Even those who have spent happy hours munching popcorn to bomb blasts and fireballs, or whiled away afternoons exploding the heads of videogame enemies had no trouble—intellectually or emotionally—understanding that this mayhem wasn’t digital. TV news even had to stop airing the footage of the airliners plowing into the towers in the interest of the nation’s mental health.

On the other hand, the events have wreaked so much havoc in the film and TV industry, one wonders if there was a producer in Hollywood who was not working on a terrorism-themed project before Sept. 11. The attacks have pushed Touchstone Pictures’ Big Trouble (a comedy with a terrorism twist) back to 2002, dic tated emergency rewrites for Columbia Pictures’ Tick-Tock (an action flick centering on—what else?—a terror bomb) and others, savaged the plotlines of the new CBS drama The Agency and sent untold projects to the lowest circle of development hell. How is it that our culture could be so obsessed with terrorism and yet so unprepared for it?

There is, however, one man who dares rush in where others fear to tread: Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing, who dashed to his word processor to write a special season premiere, due to air this Wednesday, that will deal with “some of the questions and issues currently facing the world” in the wake of the attacks. According to NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker, Sorkin “has something to say” on the subject, and apparently no one is prepared to stop him. The episode is titled “Isaac and Ishmael,” a reference to the Biblical patriarchs of the Jews and the Arabs, so perhaps Sorkin has some foreign-policy agenda to put before the American people.

Like everyone else, I do not pretend to know what Americans now want from their entertainment. But I’m pretty sure that a re-enactment of the evacuation of the White House—with snappier dialogue—is not it. Audiences do not need the reassurance of a commanding yet compassionate President Bartlett when they can watch a Rudy Giuliani press conference. Nor are they likely to need or want to be vicariously moved by the characters’ horror and shock, having experienced the real thing themselves. Besides, Bartlett already yelled at God at the end of last season.

Curious fans (and I am one) are sure to tune in, but my fear is we’ll find out how much the symbolic resonance of the Bartlett administration—itself a kind of therapy for those traumatized by the 2000 election—has been damaged by the attacks. The sudden gap between this Clinton-era concoction and current political realities will become clear enough over the coming months without rubbing the audience’s face in it from the get-go. The second-hand drama of a pretend presidency will have a hard time trumping the real thing.