Television's uneasy relationship with the World Trade Center
UPDATED: Carrie Bradshaw is New York. Sex and the City liked to remind us of that. The seminal HBO show exposed non-Manhattanites to a very specific island of clubs, restaurants, and stores that existed in the late 90s and early 2000s for a small group of wealthy people. It was a privileged world, yes, but in the almost seven years that the show’s been off the air, it has served as a kind of time capsule of an era — or at least a Manhattan that very few of us got to enjoy.
The Carrie Diaries, a prequel to Sex and the City which premiered on the CW this week, hoped to create a similar snapshot of New York in the 80s. But the show has made a significant choice in their decision to keep the skyline void of the Twin Towers. In an interview with The Atlantic Wire, executive producer Amy B. Harris said “when we really sat down to talk about whether we wanted to put the World Trade Center into any of our stock footage what we decided is this is a show about love and romance and coming of age.” She added: “If one 16-year-old who is watching the show possibly lost a parent—if we caused them pause or hurt in any way—it wouldn’t have been worth it.” (Clarification: The Carrie Diaries producers chose to avoid showing the Twin Towers, but did not delete images of the towers from stock footage of the skyline).
Sex and the City had to confront this issue more immediately, as the show was still in production in September of 2001. Michael Patrick King and others decided to remove shots of the World Trade Center from the opening theme. The Sopranos followed suit. Sex and the City also removed shots of the towers from a few of their episodes as well. The Late Show with David Letterman replaced the towers in its opening with shots of the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building.
The SVU offshoot of the long-running Law & Order franchise also chose to replace shots of the towers in their opening sequence after the attacks, though you can still see the towers in syndication and on the DVDs from season one and two. Even The Simpsons removed their 1997 episode “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson” from syndication for a few years, due to the prominence of the Twin Towers in the episode. It’s come back recently, though. The Aaron Sorkin sitcom Sports Night was actually set in the World Trade Center, but never had to deal with the aftermath since it was canceled in 2000. The Onion still took the opportunity to poke fun at the fictional employees.
It wasn’t an uncommon choice for procedurals at the time to have some sort of September 11 episode, including Third Watch and NYPD Blue. The FX series Rescue Me confronted the issue more head on than the others. The show, which premiered in 2004, was a product of its time and integrated the aftermath of the attacks into the story’s narrative. As a New York City firefighter and a first responder on September 11, Dennis Leary’s character has frequent flashbacks to that day.
South Park’s Season 10 episode “9/11 All Over Again” shows the attacks while Cartman is researching 9/11 conspiracy website. Family Guy has also aired a number of post-attack depictions of not only the towers, but the attacks itself. And Star Trek: Enterprise uses an image of the burning towers in a historical manner for the “Storm Front” episode. Fringe, which just wrapped on Friday, is a modern show that has used the powerful image of the towers in a unique way – to represent the alternate universe.
The list of the towers in television and pop culture is exhaustive, and this is not meant to catalogue every depiction of the towers in the aftermath of the attacks, but, for the most part, television shows have tended to integrate the attacks into their version of history that informs the reality of the present. But mistakes do happen. When Gossip Girl premiered in 2007, they showed an establishing helicopter shot of Manhattan that included the towers.
For historical representations of New York in shows made after September 11, the conversation was different, but in general most decided to acknowledge the towers in the skyline. Tony Kushner’s Angels in America went a different route. Released in 2003, the HBO miniseries was set in the 1980s and was one of the first major productions to use digital imaging to insert the Twin Towers into their shots. LOST did the same thing in its 2005 episode “Adrift.” The presence of the towers roots the viewer in a particular time. Set in 1973, the short lived ABC series Life on Mars also chose to include digital representations of the towers.
But The Carrie Diaries denies the World Trade Center any existence at all. If the idea of re-inserting the towers bothered the producers of The Carrie Diaries, they could have chosen to simply not reference them, or to not show the New York skyline. The Carrie Diaries wants to show an exaggerated reality of Manhattan in 1984. With this decision, it can never be anything more than a fantasy, which is maybe the best possible category for it anyway.