Sunday, January 17, 2010


It doesn't take a national security expert to know that hands-free phone calling makes it easier to coordinate special ops. But no one appears to have told that to Jack Bauer and the other counter-terrorist agents on the hit FOX series "24"--entering its 8th season tonight--who rarely use Bluetooth or other telephone headsets while driving. You'd think that 20 months in a Chinese prison--from which Jack emerged a couple seasons ago--would have left him ample time to meditate on more effective phone usage. Apparently not. Which is all to say, sometimes "24" is just too ludicrous to believe. 

Maybe that's not such a bad thing, since each season of the show dramatizes a terrorist attack that unfolds over the course of 24 hours--until now, always in Los Angeles, poor Los Angeles--and you want to watch it with more distance than you would watch news about a real attack. 

Phones are just the tip of the unbelievable iceberg. Jack Bauer can often get wherever he's going in L.A. in about 10 minutes, with minimal traffic. Maybe I'm misinformed, but I thought cars were kind of a big thing there. And for being so well trained, CTU staff seem to be lacking in common sense. In season two, Jack Bauer's daughter and underling, Kim, decides that the critical hours before a biological weapons attack would be the perfect time to have a heart-to-heart chat with her dad about the co-worker she's dating. Further complicating matters that season is Chloe, the communications specialist who finds time in her busy day to have a babysitter swing by with an infant and occupy the office with an "are you my mommy?" drama. Such goofs prompt the boss to say, with only the mildest tone of disapprobation, "Let's try to ease up on the mistakes for the rest of the night, as there are millions of lives depending on this." 

Fortunately for those millions, the counter-terrorist agents in Jack's organization are able to organize complex operations in the time in would normally take to tie your shoe. In under an hour, they set up a video monitoring system at the workplace of a suspected terrorist's daughter, drug her, and replace her with Kim in costume. Agents recover from wounds at a speed you'd only see otherwise on Star Trek. Jack Bauer can go full-tilt for 24 hours without eating, drinking, using the bathroom, or yawning, much less sleeping--unless you consider the "nap" he once took when he was tortured until his heart stopped. After a defibrillator treatment, he was back to climbing drainpipes in hot pursuit of subjects. Such high-pitched happenings make for good drama, but still, the more that "24" asks us to suspend disbelief, the harder it is to keep us in suspense. 

Details aside, there's the really incredible stuff. In season one, terrorists bring down a planeload of people so that an assassin can assume the identity of one of its passengers, a photographer en route to document presidential candidate David Palmer, whom they want to kill; wouldn't it have been easier just to shoot the guy? Palmer is elected, and in the next season, after one terrorist attach, his vice president and cabinet rush to override him and launch a counter-attack against a possibly innocent country. If that weren't ridiculous enough, we see that the agresssors are controlled by a conspiracy of oil interests. To fight them, Palmer relies almost exclusively on the counsel of one person, whose main political experience is being Palmer's younger brother. Evidently, that was enough to propel the younger Palmer into the presidency, which position he occupied several seasons ago. 

Once you finish an episode, you realize that maybe it isn't quite so crazy after all. Preposterous as the specifics of "24" may be (and ill-informed and loathsome as its politics often are), the bigger questions of terror, the use of torture, political dynasties, and power all feel uncomfortably plausible. Thankfully, the new season strains credulity so much that we can relax and enjoy the show: it takes place in New York City. Honestly--an attack in New York City? How unbelievable is that? 

(This piece was published in a slightly different form in the San Francisco Examiner 1/20/07, view it here.) 

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