In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, CBS tabled this week’s episodes of “NCIS: Los Angeles” and “Supergirl.” Both featured plotlines that closely mirrored real-world events: “NCIS: Los Angeles” focused on the search for a teenage girl recruited into a terrorist organization; “Supergirl” centered on the heroine contending with a series of bombs that explode throughout the city.
Shelving the episode indefinitely was a joint decision by the studio, the network and the creative team, according to “Supergirl” executive producer Greg Berlanti. “We all independently and collectively thought that it would be insensitive and in bad taste to air it,” he told Variety.
But while sensitivity and restraint is a reasonable course in the short term, a larger question looms as to whether this latest wave of terror has any lasting impact on the creative direction of U.S. TV programming.
History has shown that some series don’t shy away from directly confronting even the thorniest political issues. Take “24,” which debuted on Fox just two months after 9/11. While the country was still reeling, the take-no-prisoners drama gave Americans something they deeply wanted — a sense of mastery over a chaotic and unpredictable world.
“There was some wish fulfillment,” recalls “24” executive producer Howard Gordon. “Viewers wished they’d had a Jack Bauer to stop the events of 9/11. The show became resonant in many ways because of that, both for good and bad. But when Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo became part of the national conversation, Jack became the poster child for the issue of torture.”
Other series took a more nuanced perspective to the war on terror, like the Syfy drama “Battlestar Galactica” — which examined the philosophical roots of terror — and Showtime’s “Homeland,” which depicted the psychological costs to the individuals waging that war.
“Alex (Gansa) and I thought very much about not having the answers, but trying to understand the questions and the complexities,” said Gordon, who also developed “Homeland” and serves as executive producer along with Gansa. “Drama on television is a great way to try to work through ideas. What’s our response to this rising threat? It’s a challenge. Having been fishing in this particular pond for 15 years, it’s now more elusive than it’s ever been.”
This season, two of broadcast’s breakout hits both wade in these waters, albeit through a bit more superficial lens: “Blindspot,” a spy-themed NBC drama, which is also from Berlanti’s shop, and ABC’s “Quantico,” which centers around an imagined terrorist attack in New York.
Reps for “Quantico” declined comment on how recent world events might reshape the series. (Sunday night’s episode aired as scheduled, but with a “viewer discretion” disclaimer.) “It’s not a show about terrorism,” exec producer Mark Gordon told reporters at the TV Critics Assn. press tour in January. “It’s a show about these young people at Quantico.”
Given the headlines, the question is whether executives will now be hesitant to greenlight shows that tackle terrorism head on. Gordon said execs were nervous about “24,” but audience number spoke volumes. “TV is always a mirror of current events, whether it’s Archie Bunker or ‘24,’ ” he said. “It is a way for people to experience what we’re all living through in a way that’s much easier to go down than news.”
And it’s a tricky line to walk, said producer Carlton Cuse (“Lost,” “The Strain”) acknowledging the need to balance sensitivity with creativity.
“Obviously the scary part of all of this is that none of us can see what the future is going to bring,” Cuse said. “I hope that it doesn’t cause de facto censorship in the way we work as storytellers. I hope that enough people see the virtues of free expression that storytellers of all forms — whether journalists, TV creators or movie writers — will still be free to tell stories that are a complete reflection of the world they live in, which unfortunately includes terrorism.”
Maureen Ryan contributed to this report.