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New York City Got ‘Rescue Me,’ but D.C. Is Still Waiting

Jason DeCrow/Associated Press
Actor Denis Leary (center) takes a break with other cast members during filming for an episode of the television show “Rescue Me,” which focuses on firefighters in New York City’s post-9/11 atmosphere.

Since 9/11, the denizens of Capitol Hill have been on heightened alert for follow-up attacks. The autumn 2001 anthrax mailings hammered this point home, and last month's earthquake set off unsettling feelings of vulnerability among the people who live in, work in and visit the capital city.

In short, the post-9/11 world is lived every day in Washington, and Capitol Hill, with its bollards, security procedures and the like, has been altered forever.

So how is it that the hundreds of television programs developed in the past 10 years haven't come close to doing for D.C. what "Rescue Me" did for New York?

"People, when they hear 'Sept. 11,' they think New York," said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. He said it is at least partly explained by the fact that the public saw the planes hit the World Trade Center towers, followed by the explosions, images of falling bodies and, finally, the collapse of the towers mostly live on television. The crashes of the planes into the Pentagon and at Shanksville were reported after the fact.

"Image trumps just about everything," Thompson said. "I think if we would have seen the plane crash into the Pentagon, it would have changed how we perceive" the events of 9/11.

The show most associated with Washington in recent years, "The West Wing," debuted in 1999. Aside from a special episode about terrorism that was hurriedly shot days after 9/11 and broadcast on Oct. 3, 2001, before the series' third-season debut, 9/11 was largely absent from the show.

"K Street" was an HBO series that debuted in 2003 about Washington lobbyists, consultants and politicians that employed a documentary approach. It incorporated the likes of James Carville and Mary Matalin to play versions of themselves, while including in the mix actors playing fictional characters, such as future "Mad Men" star John Slattery, who played lobbyist Tommy Flannegan. George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh were executive producers, giving it a bit of Hollywood gloss.

But the show, which received some critical acclaim for its improvised nature and satirical bent, was canceled by HBO after its 10-episode first-season run.

The show's publicity art might offer some clues as to why it didn't exactly catch fire: a view of the Capitol building reflected in a car mirror on a rainy day. The tag line: "Politics from the inside out." Not a human being in sight. And in the series, the primary characters were lobbyists. Critical to how Washington works perhaps, but not as compelling or sympathetic as, say, firefighters.

"The problem with 'K Street' was that is was incomprehensible," Thompson said.

Still, the nation's capital is not a place that lacks for stories, regardless of whether they are related to 9/11. "It is kind of surprising that there are no shows. ... Washington is still the center of political power," Thompson said.

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