One of the signature TV series of the Bush/Cheney years is back. What relevance, if any, does it have in the new age of Obama?
The hit thriller series 24 is back, with a four-hour season premiere spread out over two nights having just concluded. The show, which scored big at the Emmy Awards in its fifth season in 2006 and endured a notably sub-par sixth season in 2007, was supposed to be back a year ago. But the writers' strike, and the need to retool, wiped out 2008 for the show. So now its seventh season begins, amidst questions about its relevance.
The show had increasingly embraced torture as a foolproof means to get information. While that's a useful story-telling crutch for a TV show with a ticking clock motif, it's not a serious reflection of how things work, nor a worthy policy for America.This CNN report discusses 24's real-world impact regarding torture.
While there has always been a less remarked upon yet powerful lefty side to the show, let's talk first about fictional agent Jack Bauer's propensity to torture, a relentlessly hardball approach that has made him an icon to many on the right, and the show's inevitable amping up of the terrorist threat.
The Bush/Cheney Administration essentially adopted the thriller approach to politics. What underlies that? The knowledge that most anything seems plausible if you keep things moving too fast for the audience to think about it.
We saw it again in the just-concluded season premiere of 24, when Bauer (played by the terrific Kiefer Sutherland), told a balky agent: ''You're running out of time -- you don't have a better option.''
If that's how you define the logic of the situation, then extreme measures always seem more plausible.
24 took the thriller genre and amped up the adrenaline even further with the show's format, in which everything takes place in a 24-hour period, ostensibly in real time, with hour-by-hour episodes replete with not only the requisite fast cuts and handheld cameras of the modern thriller genre adding to the urgency but also regular split screens and a ticking clock motif.
The entire premise of the show is that a terrorist disaster is just about to happen, usually several disasters in the same day.
What the Bush/Cheney Administration did politically was to add a superstructure on top of the 24 premise. They adopted what author Ron Suskind calls "the one percent doctrine," Vice President Dick Cheney's notion that if there's a one percent chance of a terror plot existing, it should be treated as if it is a certainty.
This is akin to basing your approach to intelligence as if every situation is an episode of 24.
That's hysteria masquerading as rationality.President-elect Barack Obama, introducing his intel leadership team, denounces torture and Guantanamo.
Real life is not an episode of 24, which has backed off some from its increasing torture motif. Under pressure from U.S. Army brass, including the dean at West Point, which told the hit show's producers that their easy storytelling crutch was giving the troops in Iraq the wrong idea about how to get information.
On the evidence of the four-hour season premiere, the series hasn't really backed away from torture as a good way to get important information. Though I doubt it will be as prevalent as it became in the show under its departed creator and former showrunner Joel Surnow, who is definitely way over on the right, having produced the mercifully short-lived Fox News comedy Half-Hour News Hour, which debuted with President Rush Limbaugh and Vice President Ann Coulter.24 fan and former President Bill Clinton discusses the show.
The characters this season debate torture, even as they begin again to employ it, with main character Bauer adopting a new stance that what people like him do shouldn't be kept secret, it should be brought on in the open for the public to decide when and where to draw the line.
With regard to torture, this is where keeping things moving really fast to keep that suspension of disbelief going is terribly important. Because if you think about it, all the bad guy has to do in 24, since it all takes place in a day, is tell a lie that holds up for a very short period of time. In other words, until the bomb goes off, the target is assassinated, the biological warfare agent is released, etc.
24 started out somewhat differently. In fact, its roots are actually in the Clinton years, when terrorism was a significant problem, as it's been for decades, but not an obsession. That was before we were so dramatically attacked on 9/11. Before, as it happens, the Bush/Cheney Administration cared much about terrorism at all.
Let's not forget that the report of the US Commission on National Security, appointed by then President Bill Clinton and chaired by former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, which predicted a major terrorist attack inside the US, was ignored by the new administration. Or that then national security advisor Condi Rice was about to give a speech on what the White House saw as the prime national security threat -- missiles in the hands of hostile nations -- on 9/11 itself.The first season of 24, depicted in this German trailer for the global hit, was about fictional agent Jack Bauer's quest to prevent the assassination of the first African American with a serious chance at the White House.
The first season of 24, which began airing after the attacks on New York and Washington, was about a threat to assassinate the first African American with a serious chance to become president, a youngish, idealistic-sounding basketball aficionado named David Palmer, played by the estimable Dennis Haysbert. Jack Bauer's mission, after some early confusion, was to protect Palmer -- who oddly prefigured Barack Obama before any of us had ever heard of Barack Obama, then a state legislator -- from assassination on the day of the California presidential primary.
In season two, Bauer's mission was to protect Palmer again, as Palmer struggled to prevent a war with an unnamed Arab country that was secretly fomented by a cabal of oil traders and arms dealers.
In fact, the bad presidents on 24 have been Republicans. The good presidents have been African American Democrats, first David Palmer, then his brother Wayne, who after playing RFK to his brother's JFK, worked for peace with a former Islamic terrorist.
The worst president was a fellow named Charles Logan (played memorably by the Emmy-nominated Gregory Itzin), a vaguely Nixonian weasel who had David Palmer assassinated and conspired to create a fake terrorist attack in order to gain more power over the country and serve shadowy business interests.
This season, the show has another new president -- presidents don't tend to last long on 24, what with all these constant mega-crises -- a resolute, idealistic-sounding Hillary-like figure. You could say the producers guessed wrong there. Or that they'd already had not one but two Obama figures in the White House.
Does the show still have relevance in the new age of Obama? Sure. It's still a dangerous world, though not as dangerous as the ideologues pushing the strategy of constant hysteria would have us believe. Plus, the show, in its own way, prefigured Obama by presenting an African American president who was every bit as credible -- in the context of TV -- as The West Wing's Jed Bartlett. The ratings are down, but commensurate with all TV ratings being down. The old ratings system doesn't factor in time-shifting, online viewing, or DVDs.
Besides, the show looks entertaining again. As long as people understand that torture is a very unreliable means of getting information -- and an extraordinarily foolhardy national policy -- as 24 fan Bill Clinton has pointed out.