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Thursday, November 07, 2002

Thoughts on 24

Inspired by the NRO article. My television viewing has been on the decrease ever since our internet access began. Then came Maddie, and I've seen the spew from the receiver in a different light ever since. I'm much more inclined to keep it off now. Now, I've basically budgeted my limited viewing hours for a select few shows, VHS (and now DVD) rentals, and news/special event TV. Babylon 5 was a viewing staple until Sci-Fi decided to move it from 7pm to 5pm. Now I never see it, unless I happen to have the day off. [Sci-Fi was one of the easy compromise channels for Heather and me--B5 and the shaggy-mutt likeable Invisible Man were our equivalent of must-see TV]. Fortunately, the DVD revolution has not passed B5 by.

Last year, a new show entered the can't miss list--Fox's 24. For the unitiated, the premise behind the show is a "real time" telling of an action-thriller story based upon the exploits of Jack Bauer, an agent for a fictional federal "Counter Terrorism Unit." One minute of show time means Bauer has one less minute to foil the terrorist plots of his adversaries. The conceit is that it plays out during the course of a day, hence "24."

Bauer is superbly played by Kiefer Sutherland, who deserved, but did not get, the Best Actor Emmy last year. Instead, it went to Michael Chiklis (yes, a talented actor, but...) on a critics' favorite and wildly overrated sex-n-violence craptacular called "The Shield."

Last year's drama centered on an assassination attempt being made against U.S. Senator and Presidental candidate David Palmer, who is also well-portrayed by Dennis Haysbert. As the story unfolded, it was clear that the assassins were also going after Bauer, his wife and daughter. Added tension was provided by the fact that there was a mole inside CTU assisting the assassination plot. As it turned out, the assassins were genocidal Serb nationalists attempting to avenge an assassination attempt gone wrong against their leader, Victor Drazen, played by Dennis Hopper. The attempt killed Drazen's wife and daughter, but not Drazen himself, as originally had been thought. The attempt had been approved by Palmer's Committee, and carried out by Bauer--explaining the revenge targets. Ultimately, the plot was foiled by Bauer, who killed Drazen, but lost his pregnant wife, who was killed by the mole. The last episode was some of the best television I have ever seen, but the series as a whole was also markedly intelligent, with the exception of the ill-advised amnesia subplot (I refuse to say anything more about it). Villains made intelligent decisions, were often successful, good guy characters also made intelligent choices, etc., and Bauer....Well, Bauer was a revelation--an action hero forced to rely more upon smarts than bullets (although there were plenty of the latter), doing so while "on the clock." Plus, the moral quandries he was put into--ordered to shoot a co-worker by the original assassin, who could verify it through witnesses, he complied: though quick wits ensured she would survive, albeit with devastating consequences. Then he had to carjack an innocent waitress into helping him. And so on.

This year's edition ratchets up the moral stakes considerably: the opening story features a terrifying torture scene, carried out using a disturbingly efficient machine where the victim is strapped in, his feet and hands kept in bags of fluid to help facilitate the torture. The torturers are Asian, as is the victim. The victim finally breaks, and utters information to the torturers, one of whom runs quickly to another room. We learn then that the torturers are "the good guys," members of the South Korean military, who inform their American colleagues in the room that Middle Eastern terrorists have a nuclear weapon.

Which they intend to detonate in Los Angeles.


Ripped from tomorrow's headlines, eh? Palmer, now President, is informed, and calls the still-grieving Bauer back to duty. Bauer initially refuses, until he sees a young mother walking down the street with her happy toddler son. Then he goes back to work. A shooting and an implied beheading follow, plus there's an unnerving subplot involving a man of Arab descent who may (or may not) be a terrorist.

As I said, what makes this year's model of 24 compelling and disturbing is the moral questions it asks about the price we are willing to pay to win the war on terrorism. Do we condone invasions of other people's privacy--especially if they're of foreign origin? Torture? Illegal detention? Threats of nuclear annihilation against other nations that support the terrorists? Even the deliberate killing of admittedly rotten people unassociated with the terrorists, if it gives us an advantage? All this has occurred in the first two episodes of the season.

24 has given me considerable reason to think, and discomfort with the answers. The real world resonances can't be ignored. Start watching now--You can still catch up.

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