Spigel - ENTERTAINMENT WARS 235 Entertainment Wars...

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American Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 2 (June 2004) © 2004 American Studies Association 235 Lynn Spigel is a professor in the School of Communications at Northwestern University. She is author of Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs (Duke University Press, 2001) and Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (University of Chicago Press, 1992). She is currently writing High and Low TV: Modern Art and Commercial Television, 1950–1970 (University of Chicago Press) and conducting a new book project on new media and smart homes. Her co-edited anthology Television after TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition is forthcoming Fall 2004 with Duke University Press. Entertainment Wars: Television Culture after 9/11 LYNN SPIGEL Northwestern University A FTER THE ATTACKS OF S EPTEMBER 11, TRADITIONAL FORMS OF ENTERTAINMENT had to reinvent their place in U.S. life and culture. The de rigueur violence of mass media—both news and fiction—no longer seemed business as usual. While Hollywood usually defends its mass-destruc- tion ethos with claims to “free speech,” constitutional rights, and industry-wide discretion (à la ratings systems), in the weeks following September 11 the industry exhibited (whether for sincere or cynical reasons) a new will toward “tastefulness” as potentially trauma- inducing films like Warner’s Collateral Damage were pulled from release. On television, violent movies also came under network scru- tiny. USA canceled its prime-time run of The Siege (which deals with Arab terrorists who plot to bomb New York). At TBS violence-packed films like Lethal Weapon were replaced with family fare like Look Who’s Talking . TNT replaced its 1970s retro lineup of Superman , King Kong , and Carrie with Close Encounters of the Third Kind , Grease , and Jaws (although exactly why the blood-sucking shark in Jaws seemed less disturbing than the menstruating teen in Carrie already begs questions about exactly what constitutes “terror” in the minds of Hollywood executives). 1
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236 AMERICAN QUARTERLY But it wasn’t just the “hard” realities of violence that came under self-imposed censorship. Light entertainment and “diversions” of all kinds also didn’t feel right. Humorists Dave Letterman, Jay Leno, Craig Kilborn, Conan O’Brien, and Jon Stewart met the late-night audience with dead seriousness. While Saturday Night Live did return to humor, its jokes were officially sanctioned by an opening act that included a somber performance by Paul Simon, the entire New York Fire Department, and Mayor Giuliani himself. When producer Lorne Michaels asked the mayor if it was okay to be funny, Giuliani joked, “Why start now?” (implicitly informing viewers that it was, in fact, okay to laugh). In the midst of the new sincerity, numerous critics summarily declared that the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center had brought about the “end of irony.” 2 Despite such bombastic declarations, however, many industry lead- ers were actually in a profound state of confusion about just what it was that the public wanted. Even while industry leaders were eager to
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Spigel - ENTERTAINMENT WARS 235 Entertainment Wars...

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