After Sept. 11, TV faces dilemma over real life

Monday, November 5, 2001

NEW YORK -- If fact is stranger than fiction (and considering what's happened since Sept. 11, just try to argue otherwise), then where does that leave television drama?

What happens when real life is more shocking than anything TV would dare to dramatize or, if it did, than we would choose to watch?

And program execs and producers are wondering: How should TV oblige viewers?

The political drama "The West Wing" and "Third Watch," which dramatizes New York's fire and rescue teams, have already aired episodes addressing our anxious new age.

Tuesday, "NYPD Blue" does its token thing.

Detective Sipowicz (Dennis Franz), who lost his partner at the end of last season, is in a predictably foul mood as the series returns for its ninth year (8 p.m. on ABC). In fact, he is so grumpy that Detective McDowell (Charlotte Ross) tries to straighten him out.

"This whole department's been through hell with the World Trade Center attacks," she declares. "You don't have a corner on personal grief!"

Also at 8 p.m. Tuesday, the much-anticipated "24" premieres over on Fox. While it doesn't touch on the nation's new war, the new war has touched "24."

Set in the CIA, this would-be thriller stars Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, head of an elite team of agents who is tipped to a possible assassination attempt on a presidential candidate. Worse, someone in the agency may be part of the planned hit.

"24" comes loaded with a hopped-up, multi-image visual style and a novel storytelling gimmick: Its 24 episodes will track 24 sequential hours; each unfolds in real time.

In TV critics' fall-season appraisals, "24" got uniformly glowing reviews. I liked "24" pretty well when I screened it in August. However, what seemed gripping before Sept. 11 now seems tame, trivial and largely irrelevant.

So what if Jack Bauer's got to save a politician's life, expose a traitor or two and rescue his wayward teen-age daughter and his estranged wife -- all by this time tomorrow?

Granted, this new drama hasn't changed in the couple of months since I first watched it, and enjoyed it. The world has. And I have.

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