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Terror TV

No longer a sacred subject, 9/11 becomes fodder for shows good and bad -- and that's good

On a recent Friday night, amid TV's usual flow of sitcoms and "breaking news" about Michael Jackson, the NBC disease-of-the-week series "Medical Investigation" portrayed 9/11 post-traumatic stress. The heroine was a workaholic who, in a teary catharsis worthy of a Lifetime-Hallmark joint production, admitted feeling guilty for surviving the Twin Towers after leaving a hurt woman in a stairwell. In one hour of TV, the 9/11 attacks became a trite prime-time bromide, a resolution of grief squeezed in between SUV commercials.

It's about time.

Three years ago, such ordinary treatment of the 9/11 attacks would have been blasphemous. In the months after 9/11, the tragedy and the attendant war on terror were mentioned only in "very special episodes" of shows such as "The West Wing" and "Third Watch," and each reference was scrutinized and controversial. The crisis of our time, it seemed, had to be protected from TV's reductive "ripped from the headlines" aesthetic, left untrivialized by fiction. When the terror-themed shows "24," "The Agency," and "Alias" premiered after 9/11, their networks rightly feared hostility from viewers steeped in comfort-food TV and renewed love for the Manhattan unreality of "Friends."

But yesterday's sacred is today's profane, thank goodness. Once thought too sensitive to be openly broached by fictional TV -- in the same way we once whispered the word "cancer" -- 9/11 and the war on terror are now part of TV's weekly conversation. The denial is over, and the nitty-gritty American pop-culture process has begun in earnest. After all, nothing is truly real in this country unless it's been neatly tied up in a bow on a mediocre episode of "Law & Order." Or condensed into an American Express ad, such as the Robert De Niro montage in which he dubs Ground Zero "my heartbreak."

Now, as the polite restraint has dissolved, Osama bin Laden is a punch line on a new Fox animated sitcom, "American Dad," about a CIA agent with a color-coded terror chart on his refrigerator. Crusty Denis Leary milks drama and black comedy from 9/11 as a New York fireman on FX's "Rescue Me." And when he's not uncovering rat-eaten cadavers, Gary Sinise is plying glum melodrama as a 9/11 widower on "CSI: NY."

In other words, like World War II and Vietnam, 9/11 is now officially part of the collective fantasy life of this country, that realm where our imaginations explore what the headlines have made so hard to fathom. By necessity, the nightly news has forged past 9/11 as other events have taken precedence; fiction, on the other hand, can dwell on it, fuss with it, flatten it into banal crime plots, expand it into deeper truths. In November 2001, an exploding airplane was edited out of "24"; now Kiefer Sutherland's show exploits terrorist plots each week with the glee of a Saturday cowboy matinee. It's an Al Qaeda amusement park. And on March 24, PBS is airing an apocalyptic thriller called "Dirty War," about radioactive warfare. From the director of "Smallpox," a tense post-9/11 fiction about bioterrorism that ran on FX last month, it's a terror-era "War of the Worlds."

Yes, the World Trade Center references on "NYPD Blue" are cheesy, and the Muslim jokes on "Whoopi" last season fell flat. But think about how awful it would be if 9/11 never reached the level of nightly TV mediocrity. Should suspense series and TV movies turn back to the Cold War for ballast? Are only nukes, aliens, dinosaurs, and vampires acceptable sources of fright? Television writers and producers need to mine the fears of the moment, not just to be dramatically effective but to maximize the cultural power of suspense -- which can put us in touch with our angst. Watching the sleeper cells on "24" or the Al Qaeda plot on TNT's 2004 suspense miniseries "The Grid" is more haunting -- if not more entertaining -- than watching James Bond outfox comic-book villains. When it comes to evoking nightmarish thrills, the war on terror is the new Cold War.

The prime-time TV silence that greeted the Vietnam War in the 1960s enabled Americans to dodge its reality more easily. While battles and antiwar protests rocked the nightly news, American families were numbing out with witchy housewives and bottled-up genies. Occasionally, a Vietnam veteran would show up on "Marcus Welby, M.D.," but for the most part, the war was invisible after 7 p.m. It didn't really filter into TV fiction until the 1970s, with the Vietnam subtext of "M*A*S*H" and the generational war debates on "All in the Family." And it took yet another decade -- well after the war was over -- for the Vietnam dramas "China Beach" and "Tour of Duty" to arrive.

The war in Iraq is not facing the same level of domestic denial in prime-time fictions. Soldiers and their wives are already appearing on procedurals such as "Without a Trace" and on a daytime soap opera, "Days of Our Lives." "NYPD Blue" producer Steven Bochco is shooting "Over There," a dramatic series about an Army unit in Iraq, due this summer on FX. And Fox is developing a sitcom about a Western-style TV network in Baghdad. These new depictions may ultimately disappoint, but still; they are a form of recognition.

The richest of TV's fictional takes on 9/11 has been "Rescue Me," which returns to FX this summer. During its first season, the series parsed out the emotional downside to being a 9/11 hero -- not just the guilt, but the pressures of being idolized and the delusions of immortality. While last season's failed crime drama "Threat Matrix" encouraged viewers to feel safe about weekly post-9/11 terrorist plots, "Rescue Me" has looked into the unresolvable fallout of that one day. There are no happy endings on the show, which also takes 9/11 widows into its scope, as Leary's character has an ill-advised affair with one.

One of the greatest powers of fiction is its license to travel beyond the provenance of fact. It needn't be timely or literal. Think of White House news coverage, and then think of how "The West Wing" at its early best enveloped that same insular world in a rich context. Jon Stewart has brilliantly mined the potential of fiction with his faux newscast, "The Daily Show," as he says things -- some would call them truths -- real news shows can't. The attacks of 9/11 and the growing fear of terror deserve more of that kind of literary exploration, that infusion of humanity, in the years to come.

But 9/11 and the war on terror also deserve a place at the bottom of TV's artistic hierarchy. Not only should we see them in such Emmy-worthy shows as "Rescue Me"; we need to wince and wink at their manifestations in our escapist fare. We need to figure out which fictional portrayals work and which don't, just as we've done with World War II ("Band of Brothers" and "Hogan's Heroes," respectively). The subject of 9/11 cannot be tacitly forbidden from any level of culture, right down to hokey TV movies such as "Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story." It belongs on an irreverent comedy like "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which found Larry willing to abandon his wife during a terrorist alert, just as the Holocaust belongs in "The Producers."

It just needs to be visible after the news vans have hit the road and history has moved on.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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