When the 9/11 Commission presented the report of its findings yesterday, Chairman Tom Kean accused the Clinton and Bush administrations of showing a "failure of imagination" when it came to terrorism. "The fact of the matter is, we just didn't get it," said vice chairman Lee Hamilton. "We couldn't comprehend that people wanted to kill us." Whatever you may think of this formulation (and some have disputed its accuracy even as a summary of what's in the report), it certainly can't be said that popular culture has been slacking off in that department. In fact, with the commission citing the novelist Tom Clancy as one of the most reliable sources about highly classified information like intelligence spending, it could be said that fiction is doing a better job than fact at helping us sort out 9/11. In the past week, two new series have premiered whose sole purpose seems to be the feverish imagining and re-imagining of the events of Sept. 11. They are Rescue Me, a one-hour drama about firemen on the F/X network, and The Grid, a "limited series" about counterterrorism (apparently "miniseries" is an insult now) that runs through Aug. 9 on TNT.
For a brief time after Sept. 11, there was a near-religious ban on the representation of anything even remotely suggestive of the attacks. Images of the towers were removed from the credit sequences of Sex and the City and The Sopranos; movies involving hijacking or terrorism were shelved for later or scrapped altogether. But just under three years later, representations of Sept. 11 have become not only permissible but positively edifying. In some ways these shows are like therapy sessions, helping the nation work out its grief in hourly installments. But mourning is always an uneven process, proceeding by fits and starts, alternating between rage, sorrow, and self-pity—and so it is with The Grid and Rescue Me.
Both shows contain a scene in which the respective heroes (Denis Leary as a maverick fireman; Dylan McDermott as a hotheaded FBI agent) rub the other characters' faces, and by implication, ours, in the gruesome horrors of that day. In fact, the two scenes are remarkably similar: Leary's character, Tommy Gavin, lost a cousin in the World Trade Center, while McDermott's, Max Canary, lost his best friend. In both cases, the missing men were identified by a single body part that remained: in Max's friend's case, a leg; in Tommy's cousin's, a finger. There's a kind of sadism implicit in the heroes' presentation of these facts, a tone of swaggering machismo: I lost somebody in the Towers, you douche bag. Denis Leary delivers his speech, barked out in drill-sergeant staccato, to the fresh-faced trainees in the firefighting force.
It's not clear why New York's bravest (many of whom, we may assume, also have some personal connection to the casualties of that day) will benefit from being told, "These men are better human beings and better firefighters than any of you will ever be." But the young firemen, like the audience, can take a hint: This guy survived 9/11, so he can do whatever he wants. In Leary's case, that includes spying on his soon-to-be ex-wife, bribing his children into leaking information about her new boyfriend, and drinking Bushmills straight from the bottle for breakfast. We're supposed to find Leary's character raffishly charming, a down-and-out but lovable prankster, but all I could keep thinking was, What a dick. Rescue Me is a typical F/X show, full of gross-out bravura and rollicking action sequences; its tone is one of gallows humor, generously marbled with sentimentality. But at times it's difficult to tell when the protagonists' shameless deployment of 9/11 for their own cynical purposes (one young fireman regrets the dwindling of the endless supply of "pussy" available after the attacks) blends in with the series' own (or indeed, that of the Bush administration. But that's another story).
Another of the recommendations of the 9/11 panel yesterday was the creation of a "spy czar," a new post to oversee and coordinate the nation's various intelligence agencies. But will this proposal just further bloat an already logy bureaucracy? The Grid has an innovative solution for the intelligence community's leadership dilemma: Just hire that chick from ER. Julianna Margulies, her rowdy curls ironed into a professional-looking pageboy, plays Maren Jackson, the rising star at the National Security Council who's appointed to head a joint task force investigating a deadly sarin attack in London. Despite her relative youth and inexperience, Maren is apparently a genius at cutting through red tape. Pep-talking her newly formed crew of foxy counterterrorists (an organization that is neither FBI, CIA, or NSC, but somewhere in between, and whose funding appears blissfully free of the need for congressional oversight), she lays it out from the get-go: "Look, we're trying something new here. Screw bureaucracy. Go directly from analysis to action, I'll watch your backs." Clearly, Maren is a figure cut from the cloth of national fantasy; someone who can figure out how to infiltrate al-Qaida cells quietly, secretly, and immediately and look like a million bucks doing it. She's also prone to frequent lingerie-clad romps with her hunky oil-exec boyfriend Hud (James Remar of Sex and the City), which, let's face it, is something Tom Ridge just can't bring to the table.
The Grid, one of whose producers was also behind the seminal British miniseries Traffik, asks a lot of its audience. In the two-hour pilot Monday night, it laid out more than 17 principal characters, all involved in either perpetrating or solving two separate terrorist plots in London and Nigeria. A series of subplots involves interagency squabbling and paranoia (with dependable TV meanie Tom Skerritt as a small-minded CIA officer) and competition between the American and British intelligence communities (Jemma Redgrave, who plays prickly but soft-hearted MI6 agent Emily Tuthill, is the cast's great revelation). The Grid is fast-paced, murkily plotted, and occasionally incoherent, but it's utterly watchable television and surprisingly evenhanded in its treatment of the terrorists themselves, who are presented as actual characters rather than racist stereotypes.
The opening line of the first episode of Rescue Me, spoken by Leary to the abovementioned group of trainee firemen, is, "You wanna know how big my balls are?" (Is "no" an option for the answer?) The closing line of the Grid pilot, uttered by a devastated Julianna Margulies in a task-force briefing after a second terrorist attack, is, "I was wrong." If you place these two statements on either end of a continuum: balls-out bravado on the one side, numb remorse on the other—you have a pretty good sketch of how our divided nation is feeling nearly three years after the events of 9/11. "Remember … how you felt that day," instructed Tom Kean yesterday before reading his statement on behalf of the 9/11 commission. With shows like Rescue Me and The Grid giving voice to our collective anxieties and desires, we're beginning to do exactly that.