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How TV Tackles September 11 as Character-Building Backstory

In the immediate years after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, countless documentaries and a few scripted projects — think “United 93” — chronicled and memorialized the events of that day and its repercussions. Now, with the distance of almost two decades between the tragic national event and the modern audience, storytelling is leaning further into how the attacks shaped individuals for years to come. While time allows for reflection, it also presents the additional challenge of how and when to utilize such a defining moment to layer a character’s emotional history without sensationalizing a tragedy or triggering the audience.

“This was the day our generation lost its innocence, so it is still very sensitive,” says D.J. Nash, “A Million Little Things” creator and showrunner. “I don’t think a topic itself makes me say it’s unattainable; it’s how you approach it that determines whether you should do it.”

Nash incorporated the events of Sept. 11 into the first-season finale of his ABC ensemble drama. That episode flashed back to reveal that Jon (Ron Livingston), who committed suicide in the pilot, had been living with survivor’s guilt. He and a friend were supposed to travel on American Airlines Flight 11, but he was running late and the gate agent wouldn’t let him board; his friend made it on the plane and didn’t survive.

“I approached it how I approach all of the sensitive stories on the show, which is ‘What if someone from one of those families was sitting next to me while we were screening it?’ It may not be easy for them to watch, but will I feel comfortable and feel like they think we got the story authentically?” Nash says. It was important to him not to imply Sept. 11 was the reason Jon committed suicide years later but became one “huge incident” that weighed on him since.

This meant working with consultant Barbara Van Dahlen to keep the story honest for the character’s psychology, as well as with the broadcaster’s Standards & Practices department to ensure a subtle approach to the depiction of events. No one in the episode ever says the date; nor is any footage from the attacks shown. Instead, there is a shot of The Boston Globe (“We enlarged the date so you can see it better on camera,” Nash says) and a terminal computer with the flight number on it. When it came time to deal with the actual attacks, Nash and episode director James Griffiths stayed on reactions of the characters watching the news unfold on screens, without ever showing the actual footage to the audience.

“Our own hurt that we feel about the topic helped endow the moment with what we needed it to have,” Nash says. “You get the idea without having to hit you over the head with it. I wanted the audience to be entertained without being victimized.”

A Million Little Things” may be the outlier in that way. For many series, from Ramy Youssef’s Hulu comedy “Ramy” to Showtime’s Roger Ailes biopic “The Loudest Voice,” telling a story set on Sept. 11 means grounding period piece scenes in news footage.

“It’s so difficult to re-create our mindset at the time the information was coming down because we’ve had so much time to reflect on it since. So I was trying to bring it back — to re-create the mood and understanding of us getting information as it was pouring out,” says Kari Skogland, executive producer and director of “The Loudest Voice.”

The second episode of that limited series explores — as Skogland puts it — Ailes being “weaponized” by the events of that day. The show sits with him in the control room at Fox News as he decides to air footage of people jumping from the World Trade Center towers after the planes hit. The camera cuts to the screens, allowing the audience to see what Ailes was watching. However, although he was responsible for delivering some of the most triggering images to the audience, Skogland was still cognizant of seeing Ailes hesitate over the decision so as not to depict him as one-dimensionally evil.

“He decided he was going to ignite a spark. His wheels are turning, and it’s like he punches back,” Skogland says. “Not only is it important to respect what the imagery means, but I felt it was my responsibility to reignite that emotion so that this kind of hate crime is really analyzed.”

Skogland had her cast and crew listen to the real-life emergency calls, and even though “A Million Little Things” never showed the footage on screen, Nash shares that his team did watch it in order to evoke genuine emotion. Both series rolled cameras immediately to capture those first, natural reactions to avoid having to do too many takes and make everyone relive the traumatic experience for too long.

“We had lots of conversations. It was talk therapy,” Skogland says. “But we also, honestly, didn’t want to be afraid to show what we needed to show to put the audience back in that place and really understand what it was. The truth of that moment of the jumpers and the people who were dying was so horrible to even ponder, and yet it happened. So, to reflect their innocent sacrifice, I felt it was really important that we respected it without being afraid of it.”

Meanwhile, in the “Strawberries” episode of “Ramy,” Youssef flashes back to his younger years as a middle schooler who started having nightmares that Osama bin Laden was in his kitchen because “we were the Muslims in town, and he would come and be like, ‘We’re the same,’” Youssef says.

In the episode, the younger Ramy (played by Elisha Henig) is at first preoccupied with learning to masturbate, but things take a darker turn after he sees the towers burning on his classroom television and his parents call him on his two-way radio to make sure he’s OK. Suddenly the sound of his Arabic scares his friends, one of whom asks him point-blank if he is a terrorist.

“I remember looking up the name of the first World Trade Center bomber, and his name was Ramzi Yousef, and you have this weird fear because you’re kind of afraid of yourself and where you come from on this new level,” Youssef says. He wanted to explore how to move past the “obvious sadness and obvious tragedy” of the situation, which has been told many times before, and instead shine a light on “How does it f— up the normal things that are already hard? Life is all of these things, and 9/11. It’s ‘How do we find the way to talk about it?’”

While “A Million Little Things” aired an end card reading, “We’ll never forget,” most shows do not acknowledge that Sept. 11 may be triggering for an audience. An argument can be made that one should expect to see such things when electing to watch a show such as “The Loudest Voice,” given that it is pulled from a true, public story that the audience already knows had deep ties to the event. But for many others, where Sept. 11 is not baked into the plot of the show, the use of such violent footage can be shocking to a viewer’s system.

This is especially true for “Euphoria,” the Israeli teen drama that was adapted for an American version on HBO. In it, footage of the planes hitting the World Trade Center is used in the opening frames, despite the show’s tangential connection of the main character being born days after Sept. 11.

For the Israeli producers, however, the idea of a trigger warning seemed more shocking than the footage itself. “Maybe because in Israel we’re used to so much terror, but from our point of view, we see it so much, we feel that wasn’t such an issue,” says Hadas Mozes Lichtenstein. “I think it’s funny that you put all these content alerts, where in real life, kids are seeing it without any warning. They’re seeing it every day in the streets.”

Dano Nissen contributed to this story.

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