The perfectly manicured if slightly soiled hand belonging to Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra arose from the rubble, beckoning rescuers and a camera close-up. Beneath her: The smoking wreckage of Grand Central Terminal, which had mostly collapsed into a crater after a terrorist bomb had detonated, killing thousands and -- incidentally -- launching a new TV series, ABC's "Quantico," which premiered last night.
Chopra plays Alex Parrish, an FBI recruit from Quantico, who is about to be implicated in the terrorist attack on a beloved New York landmark.
But this post isn't about her, or the show's plot, but about that beloved monument, and its destruction.
Begging my question, or questions: Too soon? (Or) will it always be too soon?
Monument destruction has been a reliable movie trope for decades, and will remain one for as long as directors like Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay are around. Grand Central has been destroyed at least three times over the years... Even post-9/11 monument destruction remains a fairly lively trade: The Statue of Liberty, for example, was decapitated in "Cloverfield"; "The Avengers" also took out Grand Central (I think or at least dusted it up pretty bad); Times Square has been flame-broiled at least five times, from "Spider Man 2," to "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen."
I think all of New York was similarly dispatched in "Watchmen."
TV has been more circumspect, for a couple of reasons. The obvious one is cost. This trope is an enormous budget-sucking enterprise, costing millions, for a few minutes of on-screen carnage. Television -- even bomb-happy "Blacklist" -- has neither the budget nor sense of profligacy to engage in regular monument destruction. ("Sharknado?" Yeah, sure but those were sharks, after all...) Since 9/11 of course there have been numerous exceptions: "24" destroyed Los Angeles any number of times, if memory serves, and when the show headed to New York for the final season, the United Nations was to become an unfortunate casualty (although the building did survive). "Homeland" famously -- or infamously -- blew up quite a few members of Congress and assorted other VIPs at Vice President Walden's memorial service in "The Choice," the second season finale.
But Sunday night's series premiere of "Quantico" went some place -- the destruction of Grand Central -- that television has largely eschewed over the last 15 years. Beyond cost, I think, one reason is also propriety. Television circa 2015 simply has a more central, or intimate, role in the life of most Americans than the movies do -- and many producers and networks often have a keen appreciation of that role and intimacy (believe it or not). TV violence remains a scourge, of course, but most TV networks still think there's some sort of line out there -- one reason USA postponed the season finale of "Mr. Robot" because a plot point eerily paralleled the horror that had unfolded on live TV in Virginia, on the very day the finale was originally scheduled to air.
The destruction of Grand Central -- even fictional, even on a "heightened" thriller with a tenuous grasp of real-world complexities or law enforcement protocol -- seems to me to have been a line that shouldn't have been crossed.
And here's why: Fifteen years after, New York remains a city traumatized, if not on the surface, then below, where a memory can be instantly summoned by the mention of a word, or name. An uneasy recollection of what that day looked like but also smelled like is just a thought away. Survivors, many thousands, are among us and not merely those who escaped the buildings, but those who live every day with the face of a loved one or colleague or rescue worker firmly affixed in their mind. It wasn't 15 years ago for them. It was yesterday. It is -- very much -- today.
Even "Quantico's" fictional staging was carefully calibrated to invoke the smoking ruins that many millions saw on their TV screens on Sept. 11, 2001 and for many days after.
This indicates, essentially, that 9/11 is now fodder for primetime entertainment, a tacit declaration that years have passed, wounds healed, time to move on.
Years have passed, but the wounds remain. Pretending that they don't becomes an exercise in anesthetizing those wounds: Not healing but ignoring, or worse, exploiting...
TV, by the way, does have a history -- a long one -- of responsibly incorporating national trauma, and exploring national trauma. "M*A*S*H" is an obvious example although Korea served as the fictional proxy for Vietnam, a war still underway when the series launched Sept. 17, 1972.
"Quantico," by contrast, feels like it's turning a national trauma in the pilot into primetime entertainment -- not setting the stage for an exploration of it.
So, yeah -- too soon, and too wrong.
"Quantico" could go on to become a hit for ABC, and even though my review was tepid it has some flashes of quality -- good actors, and showrunners (Josh Safran), and, other than Grand Central's fate, the usual requisites of a potentially decent serial.
It would be a real shame if it doesn't use those opportunities, that potential promise -- not to mention a primetime network platform -- to explore what 9/11 continues to mean.