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Nuclear Porn, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love '24'

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WARNING: CONTAINS A SPOILER FOR EPISODE FOUR OF '24'

When I was a kid, my parents forbid me to watch a TV broadcast of a movie about nuclear war called "On The Beach.' C'mon, Mon and Dad, I pleaded. It doesn't even show any atom bombs or burned bodies or anything.

But mom and dad were sternly unimpressed. I tried to peek from the landing on the stairs, but I was caught and sent to bed. The message from my otherwise permissive parents was clear: There really are some things better left unseen, at least by 10-year-olds.

Today, all-out nuclear annihilation is less likely than it was during the Cold War. But the detonation of a terrorist nuke in an American city is far more likely. Some experts warn it's almost inevitable.

So what are we to make of this year's hottest trend in prime time entertainment: The thrill of the Big One detonating during the children's hour? Two of my guiltiest pleasures this season, 'Heroes' and 'Jericho,' are built around this premise.

'Heroes' has repeatedly shown New York being blown to thermo-nuclear smithereens, at least in the fevered imagination of its future-seeing protagonists.

And 'Jericho' debuted with an actual mushroom cloud erupting over Denver. As the season progressed, viewers learned that a dozen major cities had been incinerated that same day by nuclear terrorists. The arc of the show concerns the predicament facing a small town as America dissolves around it.

And this week came the biggest boom of all.

'24' is perhaps my guiltiest guilty pleasure. Each season is a cleverly constructed race against disaster, and Lord knows I have several seasons of white knuckles to prove it, despite various implausible plot twists I love to quibble about.

But this season, 24's desperate chase gave way to ultimate disaster right at the end of Hour 4 (tick...tick...tick). As we watched in horror, a one-megaton nuclear device incinerated a sunny corner of LA, about 10 miles from where I live and about zero distance from where anyone lives in the imagination of suburban America.

There's an old truism in Hollywood: Audiences love to be scared, but they don't like to be too scared about things that genuinely frighten them in real life. About a zillion pitch meetings have gone up in smoke based on that caveat.

Yet Heroes and Jericho had solid debuts this season, and 24 is a multi-season hit that keeps growing.

So what gives? Have producers cynically decided that big booms equal boffo box office, so why not give 'em the biggest? Is this just nuclear porn, the equivalent of network snuff flicks?

I can't speak for everyone, but I do not think I'm responding to these shows because of prurience, or because I simply like to see things blow up. (Frankly, I often skip traditional action films out of sheer boredom.)

I think I'm responding because I really am afraid that this is going to happen. And I'm interested and curious, repelled and attracted, to think through how it could happen, and what would happen afterwards.

From childhood until well into my 30s, I used to believe that I would not want to survive an all-out nuclear war. The idea of crawling around in a Mad Max moonscape without hot showers or 8-track tapes was so appalling I really hoped I would find myself at ground zero and be done with it.

But after 9/11, we learned that really, really bad stuff can happen, innocents can die, the nation can be shaken to its roots, and the next day you have to take out the garbage, feed the dog and pay some bills.

Sure, 9/11 was a pinprick compared to a nuke. Or even several nukes. But the truth is that - unlike an all-out nuclear exchange with the USSR - America would survive a nuclear terrorist attack.

The real question is, how would we survive? With or without civil liberties? With or without the rule of law? With or without our humanity?

These are genuine, pressing questions. But they are not Mad Max, fantasy questions. They're not even On The Beach questions.

They are legitimate questions about a survivable and plausible event, and they are questions that every American should be thinking about. Now. Before it happens.

Our political leaders are not asking us to think these questions through, although they should. I guess the subject doesn't poll too well.

But these Hollywood shows shove our faces in them. Maybe not Heroes, which is at heart a glorious comic book, but certainly Jericho. And now, certainly, '24.'

The fact that these story lines passed the corporate gauntlet and were made at all suggests a surprisingly gutsy willingness to tackle extremely tough issues that network TV is famous for avoiding.

But the fact that they are also popular hits is even more significant. It suggests a deep interest in, maybe a hunger for, a way to imagine the unimaginable, a collective, post 9/11 tensing of the gut.

And the fact that they are cast as a struggle for American values of liberty and decency in the face unspeakable horror is, at the very least, instructive.

The ancient Romans used to gird their citizens for battle with the gladiatorial games. The idea was, if kids grew up watching blood spout in the Coliseum, they would be less likely to freak out on the battlefield.

That's hardly a value we would endorse today. But the principal of girding people for the worst in order to bring out the best if, god forbid, the worst happens, endures.

That, I think, is one reason we keep watching. Not to revel in despair, but to prepare, to gird, to tense our guts.

Now, if Chloe could just ditch that annoying boyfriend...