Disasters never really make sense. Part of the brilliance of Damon Lindelof’s HBO adaptation of “Watchmen” was its ability to recognize this, and weave the purposefully inane chaos of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s comic into ordinary human experience. In the original story line, half of New York City is killed by a giant squid, a plot point so sociopathically goofy that Zack Snyder’s 2009 movie replaced it with a tasteful explosion. But Lindelof followed through. What would the aftermath of that attack look like — the trauma, the fear, the desperate tourism campaign?
In the show’s fifth episode, we see a focus group watching a proposed ad. “We came back for all the hit Broadway shows!” says a woman in front of a theater, Playbill in hand. “We came back to hike through Central Park for hours and not see another soul,” says a man in full hiking gear. “It’s so romantic!” The dorky, tragedy-blind campaign contrasts with the terror everyone still carries about post-squid New York. One character, watching the focus group pretend-chuckle at a joke about calamari, looks ready to dash his head against the wall.
When this episode first aired, in 2019, it felt like a framework for grappling with 9/11. But by the time I first saw it, in the summer of 2020, the squid had become a metaphor for the coronavirus. And by June 2021, the New York Department of Economic Development had released an alarmingly similar ad. Slow pan over the skyline as Sinatra’s “New York, New York” trickles in. Central Park. A lingering shot of the Statue of Liberty at evening. “Come back,” the “Watchmen” ad begged. “Come be a part of it,” the real ad pleads.
The state’s $40 million blitz was paired with $30 million from the city, in what The Times called a “Please Come Back” campaign. The Broadway League threw in a $1.5 million sweetener with its “This Is Broadway” campaign. In one of its ads, Oprah’s voice reassures viewers that it’s safe to return, as archival photos flood the screen, essentially asking: Don’t you trust Lin-Manuel Miranda and the dancing sailors from that Cole Porter thing? In Times Square this month, there was a three-day extravaganza of panels and show-tune singalongs, with Miranda himself rushing out of the Richard Rodgers Theater to lead a surprise rendition of “New York, New York.”
On the “This Is Broadway” website, neon quotes about the magic of theater drift across the screen. “The theater is life,” says Chita Rivera, making you think anxiously about the ways in which the theater was, until recently, death. A chyron on the site flashes “BUY WITH CONFIDENCE,” making you pause — why wouldn’t you be confident? A kidnapped-sounding Idina Menzel quote got caught on my phone, reappearing three times in a row: “I will never leave the theater,” it threatened.
New York City is a soup of tropes — half-remembered dreams of movies and cultural references and self-congratulatory songs about the distinctiveness of the city, all of them oddly indistinguishable. It is an actual place that is also conterminous with a brand. So it isn’t too odd that a real tourism ad for New York and a parodic one would end up in the same place. Whether Covid-era or post-squid, every “reawakening” ad operates in the enormous shadow of 9/11.
It was called the “New Normal” back then, too. Gov. George Pataki announced a $40 million “I ❤ New York” campaign, and Broadway producers united to declare “I ❤ New York Theater.” In an ad broadcast on more than one hundred stations nationwide, a then-less-deranged Rudy Giuliani asked viewers to “come see New York united in its finest hour.” “And you’ll say it, too,” Pataki added, before the two men droned together, with the peaceable boosterism of people paid to be in a Magic Bullet infomercial, “I love New York.” As for the Broadway producers’ ads: unbelievably, another chorus singing “New York, New York.”
For a brief time last year, at the height of pre-vaccine Covid, New York was both less New York than ever before — no tourists, no shows, no working water fountains for some reason — and more New York than it usually has the chance to be. In this creepily tranquil interregnum, we had a vision of New York as just a place and not an idea, a city and not a performance of a city.
Any city famous enough to have a brand is always performing that brand in the public imagination. Thom Andersen’s film-essay “Los Angeles Plays Itself” made this point back in 2003. When people think of L.A., Andersen argued, they see a snarl of cars in the sun, a moody shot of Jack Nicholson, a city that looks more like “Dragnet” and “Blade Runner” than a shaggy, living place. “Los Angeles is where the relation between reality and representation gets muddled,” he observes; landmarks become movie locations, and movie locations become landmarks. New York’s public image is only slightly less self-consuming. When we think of New York, we see the Empire State Building, the Rockefeller Christmas tree — features with no functional relationship to New Yorkers’ daily lives — and Broadway, which plays itself every night.
A part-time copy editor once told me he was in New York “for the energy.” He was living in a shared basement in Queens. In the years since, I’ve thought about “for the energy” as a kind of Zen koan for whatever it is that makes us put up with New York. Lately businesses have lobbied hard for their own vision of “the energy”; they argue that remote workers will miss out on whatever creative magic a shared Keurig provides, invite us back to brunch and shopping with the girls, warn that our callousness will be the death of midtown. Underneath rhetoric about workplace synergy and the lunch-hour rush is a terrified attachment to the Old Normal. Like tourism ads, these arguments push New York’s timeworn brand of hustle and bustle, lights and crowds. But it is baffling how infrequently they refer to anything else actual New Yorkers feel affection for: dive bars and public pools, Ravi Coltrane at the Blue Note and Korean ceramics at the Met, the dollar racks at the Strand and vendors selling bagged mango at Broadway Junction. Some of those things rely on visitors, who help sustain our nightlife and great institutions. But others don’t, or don’t have to. What could we be if we let go of Vessel selfies, “The Phantom of the Opera,” meetings that could have been emails?
You can imagine a future for New York as just a city, no longer relentlessly performing itself, free from expectation. Or you can imagine it as all performance, a depopulated theme park, with tourists foraging Central Park for familiar images while locals collect in whatever affordable pockets they let us keep. Post-9/11, post-Covid, you wonder if New York might feel like America’s haunted house, where everything is somehow sad and tinged with death. Reading climate reports, I dream of a half-submerged Atlantis of subway geysers, the closing bell chiming groggily from the depths of the Hudson. In a hundred years, we could be an attractive environment for a colony of giant squid. They’ll love the energy.
Jamie Fisher is a writer whose work focuses on culture and literary criticism. She is working on a collection of short stories.
Source photographs: Getty Images; screen grab from YouTube.