Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Deadwood, Six Feet Under, and The Sopranos (Photos: HBO). Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio.

In the wake of 9/11, television—like the rest of America—didn’t know what to do with itself. There were its first-responders, of course, all those news crews and cable pundits with cracking voices, trying to talk us through the idea that two enormous skyscrapers and thousands of people could suddenly be gone. But television, out of respect, ceased to be a medium of entertainment. The nation was in no mood, frankly, for frivolous sitcoms or selfish game shows, or dramas full of imaginary problems solved by implausible heroes. Have you ever been subjected to a Friends rerun in a hospital waiting room? The laugh track rings mockingly hollow, the characters all seem like petty idiots; it’s all just so annoyingly fake. And as Americans sat somberly in collective triage, trying to figure out what order it should deal with its grief, fear, and rising panic, we didn’t want to hear any of that shit. Even when our comedians tentatively crept back—our Lettermans, Jon Stewarts, Saturday Night Lives—first they had to work through teary monologues or get permission from Rudy Giuliani. Everything was imbued with such portent and dread, anything that dared distract us from that better damn well feel meaningful.

When TV did start trying to respond to 9/11, those attempts at sincerity often felt clumsy or superficial—and they were usually, gingerly indirect. The West Wing slapped together arguably its worst episode, “Isaac And Ishmael,” reframing the World Trade Center attacks in its alternate America as a preachy morality play. Ally McBeal reinterpreted them as a treacly Christmas story. Shows like The Practice and JAG began adding subplots about terrorists and anthrax. Many, many more—from Friends to SpongeBob SquarePants—began cutting scenes that tread too closely, while others, like The Simpsons, simply pulled episodes from rotation. Some series, unsure of what to say, or even what responsibility they had to do so, opted for a cursory title card paying tribute. Most said nothing at all.

There would be a few direct addresses. Third Watch, about a group of NYC rescue workers, returned with a documentary special that interviewed real-life first responders; subsequent episodes dealt with the day prior to September 11 and its immediate aftermath. Similarly, FX’s Rescue Me found Denis Leary playing a Manhattan firefighter forever haunted by those he lost in the Towers. There were obvious allegories, too. 24—which had its 2001 pilot delayed and altered—became a way of exploring (and occasionally celebrating) the increasingly hawkish, by-any-means response to terrorism in 9/11’s wake. And Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica update, about a group of people struggling to survive after a cataclysmic attack by religious extremists (who just happen to be robots), delved into the resultant paranoia and spiritual crises—and in its own way, it frequently offered more hope and resilience than a million telethon speeches ever could.

That the rise of this sort of “serious” television began in the wake of 9/11 is no coincidence. As our initial shock wore off, yielding to a sort of constant, subconscious abyss, the national temperament turned darkly self-reflective, slightly shattered, wounded and cynical. It’s little wonder that the years that followed were a boom time for shows like that, series that subverted TV’s reassuring conventions and concerned themselves with characters who similarly felt adrift, jaded, and secretly terrified. Most of what we came to know as the “prestige drama” was formulated there, and most of it was on HBO.

The Sopranos (Photo: HBO)

As a series about the increasingly empty promise of the American dream and our perpetual worry of suddenly being whacked, The Sopranos, which debuted in 1999, was uniquely positioned to tackle 9/11’s aftermath. There was also its literal position, right across the Hudson in New Jersey—something that necessitated the removal of the Twin Towers from Tony Soprano’s rearview in the opening credits. But the impact went much deeper than that. The attacks were threaded into the background of every season thereafter, occasionally wending their way into conversations, but most importantly, folded into the persistent, low-level anxiety that already colored the series, curdling its despair into something more deeply existential. “Let me tell you something, or you can watch the fucking news,” Carmela says to Tony in the show’s first episode back. “Everything comes to an end.”

That episode, the fourth season premiere “For All Debts Public And Private,” also touches on 9/11 more directly in an exchange between Tony and Bobby Baccalieri—a moment creator David Chase later cited as his favorite from the entire series—where Bobby waxes, with typical worldly aplomb, on the subjects of politics and prophecy: “World really went downhill after the World Trade Center,” Bobby says. “You know, Quasimodo predicted all of this… All these problems. The Middle East. The end of the world.”

Aside from the ensuing, Abbott & Costello routine about the differences between The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and Nostradamus, the dialogue does a pretty fair job of conveying the confusion much of the country was living under: confronted with complex geopolitics and looming apocalypse and winnowing it down to something they could take some small control over. It’s a theme The Sopranos would return to again in season six, in a pair of Muslim wiseguys who are initially brushed off as unlikely “al-Qaedas” (“Muhammad and his girlfriend have a dog… a Springer Spaniel”), then become a bargaining chip that Tony uses with the FBI. It’s never confirmed whether the two are actually involved in terrorism, but their presence creates a lingering, muddled paranoia. And targeting them convinces Tony that he’s helping, even when it’s unclear that he is.

That sense of anxiety and powerlessness would take their greatest toll on A.J. Soprano, however, causing him to sink into a deep depression signaled by his torturing himself with browsing terrorist websites. By the series finale, “Made In America,” A.J. is giving needling voice to Chase’s most straightforward commentary on post-9/11 America, chewing others out for turning a blind eye to how fucked they are. “It was really sort of about how we are going about our amply fed, luxury-car life here, and the world is going to hell and we’re under tremendous threat. And people don’t want to see it,” Chase later said of that final episode, which he acknowledged was a direct response to 9/11 and “that feeling of foreboding” it created, but which most Americans chose to ignore. In the end, Chase’s most cutting commentary is that A.J. ends up just getting over it, amply feeding his face with onion rings as soon as he lands a plum job and a shiny new luxury car of his own.

The apathy Chase was criticizing had, at its root, a growing cynicism that 9/11 had only intensified, and that disenfranchisement would form the backbone of two of The Sopranos’ most obvious heirs, The Wire (which kicked off in 2002) and Deadwood (in 2004). Two complementary, separated-by-centuries visions of a lawless America where government is a duplicitous joke, money rules all, and there are no true heroes or clear moral compass, The Wire and Deadwood both subverted the American myth, offering parallel portraits of disquiet that resonated with a post-traumatic nation that felt suddenly, vulnerably lost in the wild.

The Wire (Photo: HBO)

The Wire’s very first episode was shot only a few weeks after September 11, but the repercussions are felt right there in the very first scene, as Detective McNulty is informed by an FBI agent, “We just don’t have the manpower to stay on anything big, not since those towers fell.” (In his DVD commentary, creator David Simon says that the writers presciently, pessimistically predicted that would be the agency’s response.) The bureaucratic paralysis that resulted as the government shifted its priorities to Homeland Security and chasing leads through the Afghani mountains becomes the entire premise of the show, as Baltimore’s cops are stymied at every turn by the lack of resources that drain creates—and occasionally, by the feds knowingly working against them by prioritizing terrorism over everything else, even people’s lives.

Throughout The Wire, the War On Drugs becomes a stand-in for the War On Terror: an endless, winless battle with a multi-headed hydra that’s always ready to crown a new king the second the old one disappears, and whose only potential advances would come through huge, unorthodox policy changes (like the junkie Eden of Hamsterdam) that the powers that be will immediately shoot down. The allusions occasionally turn pretty heavy-handed: Drugs are rebranded “WMDs”; Baltimore is likened to Fallujah; season three opens with the decidedly WTC-like collapse of the Franklin Terrace Towers. But The Wire’s most effective critique is of the systemic dishonesty that perpetuates the machine. “Fact is, we went to war and now there ain’t no going back… If it’s a lie, then we fight on that lie,” Slim Charles says at one point, testifying on behalf of Colin Powell et al. “The bigger the lie, the more they believe,” Bunk echoes later.

All those bigger and bigger lies had greatly affected Deadwood creator David Milch, who believed people had become narcotized by the tidy Iraq War “miniseries” with its false “Mission Accomplished” narrative—and furthermore, their basic humanity was being corroded by that narrative’s utter lack of nuance. But it’s not as though he could just show them that directly. “[9/11] was so traumatic to the American psyche that I thought our imagination wouldn’t be capable of the suspension of disbelief required for the sort of story I was interested in telling,” Milch said. “I began to look for stories set in a different historical moment.”

Deadwood (Photo: HBO)

The story Milch wanted to tell had to do with the way civilizations form, and all the waylaid good intentions, selfish agendas, and paved-over bloodshed that entails. His original concept—a show about cops in Ancient Rome, working at the behest of a maniacal emperor—was rejected for being too similar to another drama in the works. But his second stab was even closer to the bone: What could be more upending to the American delusions of black-and-white morality or inherent righteousness—“a lie agreed upon”—than by subverting the classic Western?

The residents of the town of Deadwood are rebuilding from their own recent trauma, the Civil War, which has left them with a deep suspicion of their fellow man. Moral confusion is the order of the day. The “good guys” are killers separated from the “bad guys” by a tin badge, and mostly they just want to be left alone. “Justice” is often ugly and arbitrary. “Government” is imperialism masquerading as democracy, loosely assembled from the town’s various, self-serving controlling interests, some of whom are total fucking idiots. The foundational lie of hard work being justly rewarded is repeatedly exposed by some poor bastard prospector getting his throat slit before he’s fed to the pigs (a striking metaphor for capitalism if there ever was one). And every step made toward establishing “order” or “progress” is usually over some bloodstain being scrubbed off a saloon floor, or over the bones of the Sioux being mercilessly slaughtered just outside of camp.

Milch would go on to address 9/11 and its deleterious effects on the American mind more accusingly—if far more abstractly—with his follow-up, John From Cincinnati. But Deadwood, for all its darkness and delightful nastiness, had a deeper underlying message of hope, of the necessity of community, and of the importance of regular people doing their part to foster peace in the absence of heroes. This is best spelled out at the grave of Wild Bill Hickok, where the myth of the American gunslinger is laid to rest as Reverend Smith reads a telling passage from Corinthians, Chapter 12:

Saint Paul tells us: By one’s spirit are we all baptized in the one body…For the body is not one member but many… He tells us, The eye cannot say unto the hand, “I have no need of thee.” Nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of thee.” Nay, much more those members of the body which seem to be more feeble, and those members of the body which we think of as less honorable, are all necessary. He says that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care, one to another, and where the one member suffer, all the members suffer with it.

Where Deadwood and The Wire offered a cynical look at the way that 9/11 had left that community body torn, and The Sopranos concerned itself mostly with the quiet desperation beating deep inside its chest, it was Six Feet Under that arguably best captured the nation’s frazzled, fucked-up mind. “9/11 was a moment that affected Americans and the American psyche in a way that made people more conscious of mortality—we can be attacked, we’re vulnerable,” creator Alan Ball has said of its impact on the series, which debuted in June 2001. This hyper-awareness of our own frailty certainly fed into the audience interest in a show where each episode begins with death, usually somebody who’s just going about their day when they’re suddenly struck by a construction worker’s falling lunchpail or mauled by a cougar.

Six Feet Under (Photo: HBO)

Six Feet Under wrapped its first season a month before September 11, which means that—as tempting as it is to read its entire conceit as 9/11 metaphor, a meditation on the American family, thrown into mourning and chaos by the loss of its patriarch like the symbolic death of order—that would be overreaching. “We did the first season in a vacuum. We completed the whole thing before a single episode aired,” star Peter Krause would say later. “And then 9/11 happened. And I wondered to myself, ‘Is this show going to suffer because of the subject matter at this point in time and history? Is this really life before 9/11 and after?” But as Krause and the rest of the show discovered when it returned for its second season, the “post-9/11” era turned out to be the exact right time for a show about death, just when the entire country was suddenly, unwaveringly fixated on its own.

“Everyone dies” was Six Feet Under’s mantra, repeated ad nauseam in various soothing funeral home monologues to grieving widows, until the final season’s tagline, echoing Carmela Soprano, expanded it to “Everything. Everyone. Everywhere. Ends.” The series found the Fishers, whose house rested atop literal corpses, struggling to come to terms with their own impermanence—none more so than Krause’s Nate, whose diagnosis with a brain disease crumbles his veneer of enlightened acceptance until he finally snaps. “Did you think you were immune to this? Everybody dies—everybody! What makes you so fucking special?” Nate shouts to one of the funeral home’s many itinerant ghosts, notably doing so in the second of Six Feet Under’s post-9/11 episodes. Nate was speaking to himself, of course—and, by shouting it directly into the camera, all of us.

Nate, and Six Feet Under, reflected a sort of postmodern and (forgive the word) “emo” existentialism that a lot of people were living with—introspective and often cripplingly self-pitying, yet deeply jaded about the fact that everything seemed like such a huge cosmic joke. While the people around Nate were spurred by trauma to take stock of their lives and stop bottling things up so much, Nate, already pretty open, often channeled his sadness into live-for-the-moment recklessness, even when it constantly upended his desperate attempts to retreat into some idea of normalcy.

A lot of America could relate. After 9/11, we didn’t know whether we wanted to cry or kill someone, start a family or a coke habit, spend some quality time talking about our feelings or go flying down the highway on a motorcycle without a helmet, blasting “Don’t Fear The Reaper.” But time and again, the ghosts we lived with—and Six Feet Under—told us to get over it, because it could all be taken away in an instant. “You hang on to your pain like it’s worth something,” the late Nathaniel tells his son, David. “Let me tell you, it’s not worth shit… You can do anything, you lucky bastard. You’re alive!”

As it turns out, much of what we did with our precious gift of life was watch some really good television, which in turn helped us become more intelligent, more reflective, more honest people. The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Six Feet Under—together they mapped out a future of shows that emulated their psychological messiness, descended from their portraits of post-9/11 disquiet, that more accurately captured the complex human condition. And even as those TV shows, like the rest of America, eventually subsumed all that directly 9/11-influenced paranoia, anxiety, and cynicism into their larger psychological makeup, rendering them as just part of the shared emotional thread of living in the 21st century, their effect continues to linger in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. In the wake of 9/11, television didn’t know what to do with itself—because like the rest of us, it had to change itself forever.

Sean O'Neal has been writing for The A.V. Club since 2006.

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