Thursday, May 27, 2010


Can I just tell you something? I love "24," the FOX-TV program which has Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU) agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) running around shooting people and speaking in a husky whisper and sustaining grievous bodily injury with nary a whimper -- all in the name of protecting the national interest, whatever that may be. I love the driving (if sometimes cheap) suspense, aided in no small part by Sean Callery's excellent music. I'm wild about all the soapy, broad-brush characters. The show toys with big issues, but the silly side dramas are the most fun -- the romances, the moles that infiltrate CTU, and Jack's daughter Kim getting threatened by cougars. 

I love the show, but loathe its politics, such as they are. I think that "24" has been more balanced in its politics than some say, and that, whatever else he may be, the character of Jack Bauer is deeply empathic; he gets inside the mind of the people he's fighting against and fighting alongside. But it's hard to get around the frequent use of torture. There's been a lot of discussion about whether "24" has made real-life torture more palatable to Americans. Maybe it has. Of course the show's torture is sanitized and stylized, and in almost every case the audience knows that Jack Bauer has the right guy, and it's just a matter of Jack's inflicting enough pain before the suspect gives up the information he needs to stop the slaughter of countless innocents. In real life, naturally, there's plenty of doubt about whether torture victims actually are who the government believes they are, whether they know anything of value, and whether torture will help extract that intelligence. Still, whether "24" has falsely portrayed torture as effective is less interesting to me than the appeal of seeing that and other violence on TV.

In "24" the stakes are always so high (imminent disaster by nuclear explosion, biological warfare, assassination) or so personal (spouse threatened, family in danger, life goals at risk of being shattered), and time is so tight (each season's plot unfolds over the course of 24 hours), that only drastic action can solve the problem. OF COURSE Jack has to shoot that person in the knee, the story requires it! If I were in Jack's shoes, and I knew for a fact that the verifiably malevolent person in front of me had intelligence that would help me prevent the imminent murder of my family and the destruction of my city, and the only way to get that information would be to put a cap in his shoulder, or dunk his head in a toilet -- would I do it? Gosh, I hope so. It's practically like asking, "Would you have killed Hitler?" Like any fiction, "24" requires that the audience suspend disbelief in order to enjoy it. The trouble here is that "24" not only gets you to suspend your disbelief, it also gets lefty viewers like me to suspend our beliefs. The action in "24" is framed in a way that is so unambiguous that I often find myself yelling at the screen, "Do it, shoot him!" It's the same impulse as yelling to the dimwits in horror movies who, of course, have no second thoughts about entering an unlit old cabin at midnight in the woods where any idiot would know a mass murderer is lurking.

So, could there be such a thing as a liberal version of "24"? Something that lefties would enjoy watching with the same fervor with which I watch "24," only that ennobles progressive political values, rather than requiring that we surrender them? None other than "The West Wing" springs to mind. There again -- high stakes, clash of titanic political forces, personal dramas and other factors came together to make a compelling political drama. (I was a fan of that show, too.) Still, "The West Wing" was a pure Clinton-era fantasy of noble people doing noble things in government, not quite the sort of thing you yell at the screen about. Whereas "24," which premiered shortly after 9/11 and was at times a conservative take-no-prisoners fantasy, prompted a more visceral reaction, in me at least. Isn't there anything more base about progressive viewers, anything that would prompt us to say "hell, yeah!" Something as powerful as the impulse to shoot someone's foot? Or something akin to the interest in running around on rooftops and picking off baddies with a rifle? "24" has all the appeal of a shoot-em-up video game, and for that reason I suspect drew a disproportionate share of teenage boys as viewers. 

Still, could the impulses that drive audiences to watch "24" be harnessed to better ends? "24" appeals to the viewer's desire for a fight, for purpose in life -- the stakes are high, and at times like these, you've got to fight, even if it's just a heated debate rather than a fist fight or a gun battle. Also, "24" was suspenseful in a way that "The West Wing" never was. Progressives would be well-served by tapping into the need for suspense -- high stakes, an uncertain outcome, and our participation making a difference in that outcome. Not that a TV show is going to change the world, but the appeal behind a show such as "24" has something to teach us about how to do politics. Still, I would like another compelling program to replace "24"!

Both "The West Wing" and "24" outlasted the presidential administrations in which they were born, and both tapped into the dreams and fears in the zeitgeist. What's the next "West Wing" or "24"? Can it combine the nobility of political dreams and the baser desires that animate those politics? Somewhere out there in TV land, I suspect Obama-era producer is thinking "Oh yes it can!"

(I recently read Stephen Duncombe's fantastic 2007 book "Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy," about how fantasy and spectacle can aid progressive politics. It informed this li'l blog post.) 

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