Sept. 11 made spy dramas like ’24’ and ‘Alias’ scramble. But not for long

Two decades later, it’s clear early predictions that the trauma from such terrorism on US soil would alter popular entertainment turned out to be wrong. If anything, “24” demonstrated how the two would coexist, with Kiefer Sutherland’s counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer battling on through the decade, becoming a short-hand symbol for the war against terror, even referenced in the debate over public tolerance for torture in “ticking-clock” scenarios.

Before that, however, the producers had to edit a sequence in the opening episode that involved a terrorist blowing up an airplane. The pilot for CBS’ CIA drama “The Agency” — which made a reference to Osama bin Laden and involved a terror plot to blow up a department store in London — was also delayed, and rescheduled for later in the season.

“Alias” turned Jennifer Garner into a star (and introduced viewers to Bradley Cooper) as a super-spy in a more fanciful series that ran for five years on ABC. It was more a female James Bond motif than the others, but nevertheless wound up lumped in with them discussing whether programmers were prescient or had really bad timing.

As the Washington Post’s Lisa de Moraes wrote 12 days after the attacks, the fate of all three shows appeared uncertain at first: “Upon reflection, however, network executives began to hope that these shows were a case of being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. Remember, World War II movies were very popular during World War II.”

Although “The Agency” was canceled after two seasons, “24” became a major hit, one invoked by politicians and pundits to buttress their arguments about the need for Jack Bauer-like action in response to the threat of terrorism.

The image lingered. In a particularly dubious editorial, the New Hampshire Union Leader reacted to the 2014 US Senate Select Committee on Itelligence report on the CIA’s use of torture by asking, “What would Jack Bauer make of these wusses?”
Keifer Sutherland in "24."
At the same time, political columnist Matt Bai wrote about the “’24’ effect,” noting that to the fictional Bauer, “the operative philosophy was simple: ‘Stop terrorists, by any means necessary.'” As for the influence on policy makers, Bai noted, if nothing else politicians had to notice the show’s popularity, and “no matter how assiduous you are about separating art from reality, human nature says you wouldn’t want to look in the mirror and see one of the spineless bosses at CTU.”
Despite concern about whether TV viewers could return to such shows as a form of escapism, they eventually did. A decade after the attacks, Associated Press critic Frazier Moore noted, “Soon enough, the flow of TV programming, including scripted drama and comedy with all of their distractions and excesses, defiantly resumed with the rest of daily life.”

It’s worth noting “24,” “The Agency” and “Alias” made their debut before there were streaming services, back when the four major broadcast networks — while feeling pressure from cable –accounted for much larger proportion of overall TV viewing.

Audience-wise, those networks are a shadow of what they were in 2001, but their current lineups underscore how the genre bounced back. CBS, for example, will launch the new TV season with three editions of “FBI” and a revival of “CSI,” one of the crime procedurals to which millions turned each week after the attacks.

At the time, networks liked to characterize such programming as “comfort food.” While the packaging has evolved, in some respects, much of the menu remains the same.