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'Third Watch' weaves terrorism into premiere

Monday, October 15, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

In the world of scripted television series, there's a fine line between exploitation and being true to your premise. It's a line "Third Watch" executive producer John Wells ("ER," "The West Wing") hopes to successfully walk in upcoming episodes.

Entering its third season, "Third Watch" tells the stories of police, paramedics and firefighters who work the "third watch" (3 to 11 p.m.) in New York City.

To continue the show without addressing the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that so devastated these real-life rescue ranks, would seem wrong, Wells said. But dealing with the attacks and their aftermath presents its own concerns.

"Third Watch"

When: 8 tonight on NBC.


"If you portray something like this, someone can always take the position you're exploiting it for personal gain," Wells said in a teleconference last week. "You'll have to tell me whether its exploitative."

Tonight's two-hour premiere is not a typical "Third Watch" episode. Rather than featuring the show's regular cast, Wells turns the camera on the real-life police, firefighters and paramedics who were part of the rescue operation. He compared it to an episode of "China Beach" he filmed a decade ago that featured interviews with real-life Vietnam War veterans. (Wells and other producers will donate their salaries from tonight's episode to various relief funds.)

"For the first 10 days [after Sept. 11], like everyone else in the nation, we were just kind of numb and unsure of how to proceed," Wells said.

Then they started making calls to check in with the rescue personnel who, in addition to their regular jobs, act as technical consultants, extras and actors on "Third Watch."

"We had a lot of firemen and police encouraging us and saying, 'You've got to talk about this, some of the things coming up for us can be brought to a larger audience,' " Well said. "They were most anxious for us to get back on the air.

"We decided in no way did we want to fictionalize [the events of Sept. 11]; we didn't want to make it disrespectful or inappropriate," Wells said. "But when we talked about it, we thought it would be appropriate to allow the people we work with to tell their stories."

Half of those interviewed tonight have worked on "Third Watch" in some capacity. The rest were rescue personnel who simply wanted to relate their stories.

"As we got to fire stations [to conduct the interviews], people lined up," Wells said. "They really wanted to talk. We took the position that as long as we didn't get in anybody's way, we'd put anybody on camera."

Wells said he hopes tonight's "Third Watch" won't just emphasize the losses of Sept. 11 but the successes as well.

"The numbers are so tragic that we're forgetting this is an extraordinarily successful rescue operation," Wells said. "Tens of thousands of people's lives were saved by these men and women who were willing to risk their lives.... They had a kind of courage and dedication I'm not sure I would or could ever possess."

Before the terrorist attacks, five new episodes of "Third Watch" had been filmed. The first two will be significantly edited prior to air to excise a story about an Arab-American store keeper who shoots and kills an African-American shoplifter and the neighborhood riot that erupts afterwards.

Two episodes rushed into production will replace the episodes originally intended to air early this season. Next week's episode, "September 10th," airing in the program's new 9 p.m. time period, shows the events in the lives of the series' characters before the attacks.

"You see how normal their lives are, and I think it's important to remind everyone they were just doing what they always do," Wells said.

The Oct. 29 episode, "New Beginnings," picks up 10 days later. Plotting that episode required much discussion among the show's writers and producers.

"Some of the people we work with took us down to the site of the World Trade Center and drove us around. For anyone who hasn't been there, it's shocking, the scale of it and the devastation," Wells said. "There's something sacred about it. It's a place of tremendous grief.... We were very concerned about how we would portray [our characters'] involvement."

"New Beginnings" will address "the physical, mental and spiritual toll taken on" the "Third Watch" teams in the wake of the attacks, according to an NBC press release.

"Some of our characters will have been down there [at 'ground zero'] at various times, some won't," Wells said. "It's clear they were not there at the beginning. If they were in the fire department and had been there, it's very unlikely they would be alive."

Changes will be made to additional upcoming episodes that have already been filmed.

"We're pulling scenes and writing new scenes to deal with what happened to make sure there's continuity so it doesn't seem like we've forgotten about it," Wells said.

The aftereffects of the tragedies are unlikely to go away on "Third Watch" or in other forms of entertainment anytime soon.

"In television, film, symphonic music, performance art, sculpture and painting, artists, writers, sculptors and painters are all going to respond because this is what we're all thinking about as a nation," Wells said. "We're going to see it through all our culture."

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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