Aliens blowing up the white House. Calling game-show contestants "Survivors." Background shots of the New York City skyline. Caring about Gary Condit's and Anne Heche's love lives. Videogame warriors blasting through ruins.
Insult comedy. Smug, detached comedy. Political comedy. These are just a few more of the casualties of Sept. 11's Wait.
Start again. "Casualties"? An officeworker, encased in a steel-and-concrete tomb, who did not live to see the birth of his baby: that is a casualty. But an entertainment genre? That's the vanity of vanities. That's confetti. That's nothing.
This, in a way, is the problem facing American pop culture in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon: so much that we could say casually a month ago rings empty, even cruel, today. Our metaphors have expired. Pleasure seems mocking and futile. The language that artists, comedians, storytellers and actors use to explain us to ourselves now seems frivolous, inappropriate or simply outdated. Entertainers in every field are in a crisis of relevance, caught up in a nationwide feeling of survivor's guilt, unsure whether their work has a place in the new reality. "I don't know if my writing right now is adequate to the time," says playwright Jon Robin Baitz. "I'm not going to write until I feel that's no longer an issue."
It is fair to say that this tragedy-and probably more important, the ensuing conflict-will change the culture. Great events do that. The absurdity of the First World War gave us Dadaism. The Great Depression created an appetite for frothy screwball comedies. World War II
replaced them with sentimental, patriotic dramas and eventually film noir and social-issues movies and plays. The atomic age fed science fiction and rock 'n' roll; the Vietnam War gave us Norman Lear sitcoms and Robert Altman films.
But, at least in the short term, the terror attacks have not yet changed pop culture so much as suspended it. "No humor column today," wrote syndicated funnyman Dave Barry. "I don't want to write it, and you don't want to read it." Satirical websites theonion.com and modernhumorist.com interrupted publication. A five-hour Law & Order mini-series was scuttled because it involved an anthrax-attack plot in New York City. Microsoft indefinitely put off the next version of its popular Flight Simulator because it includes the Twin Towers in its simulacrum of New York City. Terror-themed movies were shelved by studios and pulled from cable. A Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's musical Assassins was spiked for this season. Even advertisers yanked spots-including a Geico insurance ad with a piggy bank falling from the sky-and began questioning whether the irreverent tone of recent ads can survive darker times.
There has been some direct entertainment response to the tragedy. Michael Jackson and producer Nile Rodgers organized separate all-star tribute recordings to benefit the victims. Playwrights and actors in New York plan an evening of short plays written for the occasion to raise money. And on Sept. 21, U.S. networks aired the two-hour telethon America: A Tribute to Heroes. Surprisingly restrained, held on spare, candlelit stages, it featured elegiac performances from musicians including Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Sheryl Crow and Alicia Keys and so many star presenters-Tom Hanks, Muhammad Ali, Julia Roberts-that the likes of Jack Nicholson and Meg Ryan were answering phones. But, mainly, pop culture redefined itself in terms of what it now is not.
It is not too flippant. David Letterman held the hand of a weeping Dan Rather on a moving return to the air; The Daily Show's Jon Stewart tearfully invoked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Jay Leno, who almost sheepishly returned from Tonight's weeklong hiatus, told Time he was "trying to be silly. Not political."
And so it is not political. Nor is it too frothy: the media went through a phase of self-flagellation over their erstwhile focus on the lifestyles of the rich and rehabbing. "A media market that celebrated puerile gossip and forced detachment" now seemed "superfluous, even offensive," wrote media-news website Inside.com-itself no stranger to gossip and snideness.
Above all, it is not too violent. Before Sept. 11, panicked citizens running down a street from a collapsing building was
an action-movie cliché. After, the purveyors of cinematic disaster porn began soul-searching, and studios delayed premieres of projects, including Arnold Schwarzenegger's Collateral Damage and Jennifer Lopez's Tick-Tock. "This will forever change the content of certain types of movies," says producer Arnold Kopelson (Outbreak, Seven), who canceled production of a film about bioterrorism. "It's going to be a very long time" before audiences will watch a building blow up. Disney postponed two comedies, Tim Allen's Big Trouble (involving a bomb on a plane) and Anthony Hopkins' and Chris Rock's Bad Company (with a nuclear-bomb threat). "[To release a terror film] just wasn't being sensitive to where the world is right now," says Disney studio chairman Richard Cook.
The most immediate effects will be in TV, and not just late-night. The Emmy Awards, rescheduled for Oct. 7, currently plan to scrap host Ellen DeGeneres' monologue and a skit about President Bush and Al Gore. Comedies like Friends and Sex and the City will seem surreal, maybe even grotesque, if they return to a happy Manhattan where no one looks up in worry upon hearing a plane. Creator Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing, his fictional White House dramatically outdone by reality, has written a special episode dealing with issues raised by the terror attacks.
As artists and entertainment companies aim to be tasteful, the danger is that relevant work will suffer too. In the 1,213-station Clear Channel Communications radio network, an internal e-mail has circulated listing more than 150 songs deemed possibly too sensitive to be played during this period, among them Peter, Paul and Mary's Leaving on a Jet Plane. USA Network canceled an airing of the 1998 movie The Siege, a serious look at anti-Arab bigotry and paranoia after terrorist attacks in New York-arguably precisely the sort of issue the country needs to consider now.
Reshoots, rewrites, omissions and postponements are, relatively speaking, speed bumps. The hard question is whether pop culture has moved permanently to an old-fashioned war footing, eschewing moral ambiguity for earnestness. Have we shifted so suddenly from a Sex and the City culture to a Band of Brothers culture?
It's possible. But it would be a mistake to confuse the reaction of the past weeks, a culture of mourning, with a long-term change. The public's current emotions are many-grief, anger, shame, helplessness-but we may look back on them as the simplest ones we experienced during this chapter of history. And our response has already been more complex than you might think. Some have predicted a return to light escapism. Video-rental stores reported a spike in comedy rentals. MGM expanded the comedy Legally Blonde onto 1,300 screens after movie houses began pleading for feel-good fare. But rentals of action movies were also up, despite Hollywood's breast beating over violence. If there's one thing those bloody blockbusters leave you with, after all, it's a lot of dead bad guys.
The "death of irony" may be exaggerated too. Many critics read Letterman's emotional return as the sudden maturing of a wiseacre who had never manifested any real beliefs. As any Letterman fan knows, this is reductive hogwash. "Irony"-as popularly misused to mean a mishmash of easy sarcasm, cynicism and detachment-is ludicrous at a time of mourning, as is Letterman's meaningful irony (which is really a principled response to phoniness). But real irony-the basis of satire-is possible and valuable in addressing war. (Catch-22 and M*A*S*H, for instance, are darkly ironic yet serious works.) The newly returned theonion.com, says editor Robert Siegel, will address the events carefully, aiming for a poignant, "cathartic" humor.
And as tempting as analogies to World War II are, we are not who we were in 1941. We're not likely, for instance, to see the equivalent of the racist caricatures of the Japanese as screeching simians. Whatever bigotry rises among the public, tolerance seems cemented in the culture of official and corporate America. Even before the attacks, Paramount changed a terrorist group in an adaptation of Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears from Arabs to neo-Nazis, says chairman Sherry Lansing, and she doubts she would green-light a movie with an Arab baddie today. "You [hear about] these Afghan or Arab children in high schools who are getting picked on," she says. "You don't want this to be a country where we do this to innocent people."
Ultimately, the kind of war culture we get will probably depend on the kind of war we get: whether it's a rousing success or a quagmire, whether terrorists strike again or people begin to feel safe, whether we're deluged with battle video or it unfolds in secret. We may be entering a recession too, which produces a different culture from the optimistic boom times that gave us snarky dotcom ads, boy bands and upscale sitcoms. The last recession saw the rise of downscale TV families on Roseanne and The Simpsons and downscale grunge rock. Might a downturn-and the sight of heroic fire fighters giving their lives in Manhattan-mean a return of the working-class hero?
Some art will risk offense to stay relevant. In December playwright Tony Kushner opens Homebody/Kabul, set in Afghanistan in 1998, the year of American air strikes in response to bin Laden's U.S. embassy bombings in Africa. Despite the now incendiary subject, Kushner says he "wouldn't change a thing" in the script. "Even a country at war has a moral imperative to think about the people with whom they are fighting and ask questions about them," he says. All of us are likely to crave escape in the months ahead. But we should be afraid to live in a country where entertainment that deals with people's fears is untouchable, where satire is impossible. A country where it is forbidden to mock the President by popular consensus is no freer than a country where it is forbidden to mock the President by law.
The irony (yes, irony) of pop culture's crisis is that critics have spent many Britneyed, Rush Houred and Spy TVed years bemoaning a shallow culture suited to trivial times. Our war culture, if it comes to that, may well go both darker and lighter at the same time in response to today's troubles. It may even, in some perverse way, improve. But could anyone be blamed for counting the days until we can be so unfortunate as to live in shallow, trivial times again?
-Reported by Jess Cagle and Jeanne McDowell/Los Angeles, Amy Lennard Goehner and Lina Lofaro/New York