New York City Got ‘Rescue Me,’ but D.C. Is Still Waiting
Popular Culture Overlooks the Effects Of 9/11 in Washington
“Rescue Me,” the pitch-black television comedy/drama about New York City firefighters making their way after the trauma of 9/11, ended its run Wednesday night — fittingly, it seems — just as the country begins its observance of the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.
The one-hour series on Fox’s FX Network began in 2004, and it stands out as the longest-running and most critically acclaimed among the pop culture artifacts of the post-9/11 era.
The significance of “Rescue Me” — and its vivid portrayal of post-9/11 New York, begs the question, though, as to whether Washington’s role in the events of 9/11 will ever get such treatment.
Other television series, such as Fox’s “24,” reflected the tone of the times, with its portrayal of counterterrorism agents scrambling to cut off the bad guys, one day at a time.
But, unlike “24,” “Rescue Me” was conceived and executed entirely after 9/11. The show’s detailed immersion in the lives of New York firefighters in the aftermath of the attacks led to multiple Emmy nominations and plaudits from everyone from firefighters to politicians.
Regarding the 10-year anniversary, New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley put it this way: “Not paying attention is unthinkable, but it’s even harder to think of an adequate tribute. ‘Rescue Me’ … isn’t a bad place to start.”
Beyond the talents of its star/producer/writer, Denis Leary, and the rest of a brilliant ensemble cast, the show succeeded because of its unflinching look at what happened to New York and its people through the lens of the first responders who, as we’ve heard so often, raced into the World Trade Center when everyone else was racing out.
Underneath the show’s humor and surrealism, the scars of the attacks were ever-present, and it didn’t take much to expose them. At the end of its run, “Rescue Me” states unequivocally, in the words of Leary’s Tommy Gavin, “There’s no getting over it.”
Its status in American culture was sanctified this summer when Leary donated much of the show’s equipment and related ephemera to the Smithsonian Institution.
So what about Washington? Although the nation’s capital did not sustain the human and infrastructure casualties that New York did, the scars of 9/11 run deep here, too.
The Pentagon, a symbol of American military might, sustained major damage and casualties. And United Flight 93, which crashed in Shanksville, Pa., was by all accounts headed for either the White House or the Capitol before passengers overwhelmed their attackers and sent the plane down.
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.