TV UK, 6 September

The stories of 9/11 are compelling - raw emotion is not.

Dolan Cummings

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While I was away last month, the troll who lives on the sofa was kind enough to tape three weeks worth of essential American drama for me.

But since labelling the tapes, or even putting them in a safe place, was of course quite beyond him (I think it’s an opposable thumb thing), I was faced on my return with the usual chaotic pile of about 30 unidentified cassettes. Add to this the troll’s super-efficient habit of recording several programmes on the same tape, and you will understand that I have not quite caught up.

This means that I’ve been left out of water cooler discussions on 24 and Six Feet Under, but at least I am on top of the new series of The West Wing (E4, Thursdays at 9pm). In fact, because E4 is showing two episodes at a time, after a couple of weeks I’m now in a position to spoil things for those of you without digital TV, which is nice. Instead, I’ll stick with real-life drama.

Inevitably, there is a glut of programmes commemorating the first anniversary of the 11 September attacks. Channel 4 and Channel 5 have led the way, with programmes from both sides of the Atlantic, combining emotional reflection with more sober analysis.

9/11 The Firefighters’ Story (Channel 5, last Thursday) contained unseen footage shot by British film-maker Paul Berriff, but its focus was on the effect of the attack on New York’s fire fighters. A year on, the personal accounts are remarkably uneven in their effect. The film made me think of my first response to the live footage last year, the temptation to review the performances of the victims (see TV UK, 14 September).

The empathetic impact of raw emotion is a bit of a myth; it is the stories that are compelling, or not. One fire fighter’s parents found consolation in the fact that his dismembered body was found mingled with that of a woman whom he must have been protecting or carrying. Other accounts, while undoubtedly horrifying, were simply less moving.

One man who has gone out of his way to come up with a story worthy of 24 is Thierry Meyssan, the French author who argues that the attacks were orchestrated by sections of the US military establishment. In The Meyssan Conspiracy (Channel 4, last Tuesday), film-maker Jon Blair confronted the conspiracy theorist.

In support of his theory, Meyssan insists that it was a missile and not a plane that crashed into the Pentagon. (The missing 757 disappeared somewhere in Ohio.) Alex Standish of Jane’s Defence – who was recently interviewed on spiked (1) – was able to answer one of Meyssan’s central questions, why the alleged plane’s wings and tail had not torn the walls of the Pentagon when its body crashed through a doorway. Apparently this is because three-foot-thick steel-reinforced stone is stronger than aluminium.

Standish did cast doubt on the hijacker’s passport that allegedly conveniently fell to Earth near Ground Zero – I’m reminded of the story about four different cops dropping knives by the body of a single gunned-down suspect, who then protested ‘Them ain’t my knives – that’s my knife!’. But this kind of evidence overkill indicates stupidity rather than conspiracy.

Having dispensed with Meyssan’s crackpot theories, Jon Blair got on to the slightly more interesting question of why anybody else pays attention to him (Meyssan’s book is a bestseller in France). The answer offered was that in a complicated and mystifying world people like theories that make sense, even if they aren’t true.

That makes sense, but I don’t think it’s true. In fact the best fiction tends to be the most truthful in one way or another. (The success of 24 was in the genuine human response to a sometimes embarrassing plot.) And the most compelling real-life stories are the ones that ring true without necessarily making sense at all.

The current golden age of American TV drama is something I’ll come back to as soon as I’ve sorted through that pile of tapes. In the meantime, American reality is in no need of embellishment.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) See ‘A link between Saddam and bin Laden? No way’, by Brendan O’Neill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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