I’m endlessly fascinated by the television show 24, its emotionally scarred superhero Jack Bauer, and what the show says about America.
1. 24 is the ultimate American venture. It’s about the American government, and its role as the one remaining true superpower on the face of the Earth. 24 deals with huge issues. The show is endlessly fascinated with the role of modern terrorism in a post-9/11 society. What does 24 have to say about the modern struggle between American democracy and a world that increasingly sees American influence as imperialistic treachery? Absolutely nothing! It’s all just an excuse for sheer Hollywood popcorn entertainment. Terrorists blew up the World Trade Center in September of 2001, and by November of that same year, American creative ingenuity figured out a way to make a profit from it with a really entertaining television show.
Steven Spielberg had to wait nearly forty years before turning the Nazis of World War II into great cartoon action villains. Sylvester Stallone had to wait at least a decade before he got to re-fight the Vietnam war, but the producers of 24 were on the modern terrorism angle in less than two months! Does 24 trivialize the important issues it supposedly revolves around? Sure, but it’s so much fun, who can really complain?
2. Another really American thing about 24 is its lone cowboy hero Jack Bauer. Americans hate to have anything solved by a team. Teamwork kind of implies Communism. Americans love when everything is done by one really resourceful guy. 1988’s Die Hard is easily one of the most influential movies of the past 50 years, and 24 is simply Die Hard on crystal meth. Die Hard recast the lone American cowboy hero into the modern day action hero (yippie-ki-yay!). The film had a team of brilliantly scheming terrorists (who like most of the terrorists on 24 were actually just trying to get paid) defeated by the resourcefulness of that one true humble American hero. It can’t be underestimated how much Americans love this stuff. Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones practically won World War II all by himself, and heaven knows that we would have won in Vietnam if we had just let John Rambo do what he had to do.
3. Jack Bauer is just like the American heroes of Die Hard, Dirty Harry, and Top Gun. He’s a brave rule breaker of exceptional talents dealing with the organizational incompetence of, well, everyone who is not Jack Bauer. Jack is always going rogue, and he’s constantly being harassed by people who can’t see that you should just let Jack Bauer save the country for the sixth time and stop hassling him. If anyone on the show ever actually listened to Jack right away, the show would still be shot in real time, but instead it would be called 60 Minutes. Everyone usually agrees that if the world could have a brilliant, all-knowing, humanitarian dictator that things would work a lot better. We can’t find that hero in real life, but Hollywood never tires of selling us an on-screen version. Look at Jack Bauer and Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan. They’re both basically fascists, but fascists who nonetheless are thrust into extraordinarily black and white scenarios where they alone are incorruptible enough to save the day.
4. 24 understands “villain inflation”. Villain inflation is what happens to any type of serialized hero. In the first issue of Superman, it was entertaining enough to just stop muggers and other miscreants, but the hero eventually needs to be challenged by bigger and tougher foes. 24 set its stakes full to the hilt from “Day 1”. Jack Bauer is essentially charged with saving millions of lives and the entire American way of life every single season. Jack’s saved the globe so many times that even true fans find it hard to remember the order in which he did so. Did he stop the nuclear bomb before the weaponized virus or after? I can’t remember either, but in the end all that stands between the United States and complete annihilation is Jack Bauer.
5. Jack Bauer’s life sucks. Stan Lee set the standard for the eternally un-thanked hero with Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider-Man. No matter what Peter did to save New York that day, he went home broke and knowing that not a single person appreciated his efforts. Again Jack Bauer takes this concept to its apex. Jack has literally saved the lives of hundreds of millions of people over and over again, and they haven’t even so much as had a testimonial dinner for this poor sap. Jack’s been fired, he had to fake his own death, he was captured and tortured for years in China, and seemingly the only people who really understand the truly epic nature of his past heroic deeds are all dead or more than likely not paying attention.
This year they want to throw Jack into jail for torturing some people. Now torturing suspects is a serious issue (well, not on this show), but given that we’d all be radioactive toast without Jack Bauer, it’s sort of like complaining that the secret service agent who took a bullet for you wasn’t wearing regulation socks that day.
6. Even Stephen King has written a column discussing 24 and torture, but it’s all such a silly issue. You don’t have to be Dennis Kucinich to admit that if the entire planet is going to blow up that maybe it’s alright to taser the guy who is trying to do it. In truth, the amazing thing about 24 is that torture is never really, truly debated; it’s just an accepted practice. Each agency even has its own sort of minister of torture to take care of this dastardly business. Innocents have been tortured; Jack tortured his own brother; the head of the NSA was tortured by the President of the United States. It’s not really an episode of 24 unless someone is tortured.
7. The only thing I don’t understand about television torture is this: they always do it a different way. Now I understand that when Jack’s in the field that he needs to improvise with a pen, or an electrical outlet, or with his teeth, but if governments are doing all this torturing, why haven’t they figured out how to do it efficiently? Shouldn’t we have figured out the one best way to torture information out of someone? On 24 each governmental agency does their torture completely differently than the others. Can’t we do a study and figure out whether we should be using needles, or water, or electricity, or water and electricity, or a two-by-four? If we’re going to be torturing people, let’s at least do it right.
8. Jack and others always seem to be working on a provisional basis. “Well, you were convicted of treason, Agent Almeida, but since terrorists are trying to eliminate all the water in America today, we’ll reappoint you on a provisional basis!” How much do you get paid when you are working on a provisional basis? Is it like just one day’s pay? Jack’s saved the entire planet like six times now, and yet he’s actually just put in about a week’s worth of extraordinary work. Provisional pay should at least be comparable to what Alex Rodriguez gets for a double header.
9. Does Jack even have a bank account? Does he file taxes? My guess is that if there weren’t a crisis going on that Jack would be hard up to pay for a Whopper at Burger King. He’s had no real job in years. He’s been presumed dead. He’s been stuck in China for a couple years getting daily beatings. I’m almost hoping that Jack winds up in jail, because at least I’d know for sure that he had some place to sleep that night.
10. Modern television shows get more and more absurd the longer they run. How many prisons can Michael Scofield escape from, and indeed how many times can Jack Bauer raise his voice loud enough to yet again save all of humanity from the most dastardly of ends? Nevertheless, wrapping up 24 seems like a very simple proposition to me.
“Day 28” — a mad religious cult leader wants to bring on the apocalypse. At the end of the 24th hour, he grabs a remote control to blow up the earth, but Jack Bauer is a yard away from him and reaches out to stop the madman. Suddenly, his heart goes out. He falls to the floor dead. The earth blows up. Everyone dies.
Can’t someone at least give poor Jack Bauer a celebrity roast before he falls to this inevitable fate?