Before I begin I feel compelled to put the following warning up:
BW Media Spotlight is a storytelling discussion blog, not a political blog. While by necessity we will be discussing real world events, many of whom are the source of heated debates (and that’s being generous with my description), those debates have nothing to do with this topic and are not welcomed no matter who you’re supporting or bashing! I will delete stuff or straight up turn off comments if I have to. This is your only warning!
Now that’s out of the way the recent fallout in Afghanistan is indeed responsible for this topic. Why? The United States Of Al. One of storytelling’s problems lately hasn’t been that real world events are impacting the fake worlds of television, movies, comics, video games, and even novels but how they’ve been doing so. That’s a discussion for another time, but my point is on some level life does imitate art and at times can also influence art as much as art influences life. The United States Of Al and it’s unique position in 2021 is only the latest example. From war to plague it almost seems like the 21st century has decided to make fictional worlds into harsh realities, and we don’t even get a superhero to come save us.
This article is not going to give you any solutions. There are no solutions to be found. Case by case, example by example what’s happening now influences things in different ways, and it’s changing by necessity what stories writers tell or can tell, even when their story isn’t “ripped from the headlines”.
Let’s start with Al. If you missed the show or my review of the pilot, the show follows Afghan interpreter Awalmir, who moves to America as those who worked for the US forces in Afghanistan start facing persecution. He has a friend in the Marines who helps him get across and takes him in, along with his sister (whose fiancé was also a Marine but died in the war) and father. On Al’s part the goal is to bring the rest of his family over while the US is still working with the Afghan government.
A few days before season two was to start filming President Joe Biden called for a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Again, if you want to discuss the event itself GO ELSEWHERE! My point in bringing this up is the affect this has to have on the show. The Afghanistan war, intended to hold back the Taliban, and how life is there (the reason Al got of there and wants to bring his family to safety in the US) is a huge part of the title character’s backstory as well as the people involved. Al’s friend Reilly is having trouble readjusting to civilian life and promised to push to get Al’s family out. Then you have the aforementioned sister whose would-be husband was killed in battle, not to mention the people in Reilly’s life Al tries to help. All of them are affected by this event and the writers didn’t exactly have prep time to get a script read by the show’s October season debut. There are still reports about people left behind, modern weapons left behind by the military in the rush to evacuate, and reports of people’s treatment that run counter to the reports by the restored Taliban government.
It not only seems difficult to picture how the new season can start without addressing this situation, but all of season two was written on the thought of a slower withdrawal, if one at all. It not only affect’s Al’s plans but must impact Reilly and his sister with the current debates going on and the responses of the families who lost loved ones in the war, came out of the war with PTSD like Reilly, or still have family over there. Of course there’s also Al’s thoughts on the current state of his home country, which he only left for safety reasons, joining the US side because he needed the money and because he didn’t want the Taliban back in charge, which happened anyway. None of this was planned for season two and now the creators have to either alter scripts, toss them out completely, or ignore the whole thing and continued as planned, stating that this season takes place prior to current events because there isn’t time to rewrite an entire season to get episodes out on time.
This is nothing new but it certainly is bit more serious than our other two examples, and I’m going down the line in the order of ease. 9/11, the anniversary of which is this Sunday as I write this, is what led to the Afghanistan War. The terrorist group Al Qaeda, who was under the Taliban’s protection, hijacked four airplanes, two of which were flown into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, a building they tried to destroy years earlier from underneath. Another hit the Pentagon while a fourth, crashed early by passengers who heard about what was happening and sacrificed themselves to stop it, is believed to be also targeted at the Pentagon, Capitol Hill, or the White House. (President George W. Bush was at an event in Texas at the time but they may not have known that.) Lives were lost and the image of the Towers eventually collapsing under the damaged weight is one that is burned into people’s minds.
This whole series of events however was not something we citizen would have expected…as least in reality. There have stories about plane hijackings, I think one movie even had a similar plan of attack on the Twin Towers or at least a similar skyscraper, and that’s all it ever was. Nine times out of ten the hero managed to save the building and the people inside and most of those remaining one times it was either a comedy or not as bad as the real event. You don’t see those stories anymore, and the hijack plots themselves were based on actual hijacks, usually to either free some group’s members or get a trip home to expose some plight real or imagined. Using them as suicide bombers however is not something anyone could have predicted would ever escape the screen or book.
Other media were also affected. The first teaser for Sam Rami’s Spider-Man, as seen above, had to be pushed aside because it has Spider-Man using the Twin Towers as a giant spider web trap, with the helicopter serving as a fly for visual points. The comic the movie is based on is very proud of its New York roots, and the movie also used the landmark as part of their promotion. Channel 11 out of New York also used the Twin Towers in their promotions because the two towers looked like two number ones close together.
Additionally there was a scramble to remove images of the Towers from other works. Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation had scenes of the New York skyline and the Towers removed from some DVD releases. The first episode of Transformers: Car Robots opens with Destron leader Gigatron introducing himself by literally crashing a party in New York by smashing through the Towers in his silly giant hand mode, which has to be altered for Predacon Megatron II to make his own party crash when translated to Transformers: Robots In Disguise. In fact some other scenes were altered and episodes removed due to a fear of triggering children who witnessed the event live or through television. You couldn’t avoid the images and discussions for days before networks resumed regular programing. There’s a scene in Power Rangers Time Force where the villain Ransik goes on a blowing up buildings spree and despite having been aired before Saban had to do what they could to re-edit the scene to retain the impact of Ransik’s attack while not using those imagery. (Buildings blowing up is nothing new in the franchise. There must be a lot of Sundays in Angel Grove and the surrounding cities.) And those are only the examples of stuff I was paying attention to at the time. Studios still worry about past work or stories set in the past when the Towers still stood.
My third example is the tamest of the bunch. Loosely based on the novels by Richard Hooker (a pen name for the author, who actually served in a MASH unit in Korea) and the movie by Robert Altman (Gary Burghoff was the only actor from the movie to reprise his character in the series), M*A*S*H followed the exploits of the fictional 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital serving during the Korean War. It was interesting timing as the series began near the time of the Vietnam War, and that was in no way planned. The movie did well enough to create a series. It’s not the only time this kind of kismet has taken place but it’s quite rare. While the war itself didn’t play into the story, at least during the first season, the themes the show explored involving questionable military practices versus medical practices and the focal character Hawkeye’s rejection of the war he was forced to be part of fit in well with objections to Vietnam, which were probably shared at least some of the people working on the show.
And tell me you didn’t watch some wrestling event, game show, or talent competition that featured a wall of faces and didn’t think some dystopian future in the past two years? Heck, a deadly plague was the cause of many of those dystopias with walls of mystery people or people locked down in their homes. Then you have the problem of one of your actors dying, being sick for a live performance, or getting in trouble with the law. That’s even harder for the writer to prepare for, but that’s not his or her problem, it’s the director’s. though it may require a last-minute rewrite.
This not something you can expect, or you’ll end up afraid to write anything. It’s not something you can plan for because the world rarely gives you direct indication that the fan’s about to take on a manure coating. It’s always possible that its going to happen, even if it’s a warning not to let it happen. The “atomic bomb” was named for a weapon in an H.G. Wells story that Wells was trying to warn against being made. It’s just something you have to deal with when the time comes, especially if current events are fueling the stories you’re telling. It’s rare and you can’t predict it so take the chance and keep telling stories. Just make sure the positive events of life influence your work as much as the negative. The world is full of both.