Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Last year was not a good year for either Jack Bauer or the creators of the Fox TV series 24. Season 6 started out with a bang (ha ha) with LA getting nuked and Jack Bauer going canibalistically, fratricidally bonkers in what this Guantanamo hating, bleeding heart liberal loving TV watcher must confess was hella entertaining television. The season couldn't live up to its early apocalyptic shark jumpery and spun out into a jumbled boring mess.

As if imaginary world was not bad enough, the creators, by this time trying to film season 7, suddenly found themselves with the dual obstacles of a writer's strike and a leading man in jail. That would be the literal jail Keifer Sutherland found himself in for, good lord I can't even remember. Drunk driving or drunk drinking or drunkenly molesting a Christmas tree...something drunken, I do believe. They also got word that the African location for season 7, where they'd already started filming, was too expensive and Fox threatened to shut them down.

Then executive producer Joel Surnow, arguably the main person responsible for 24's gently right wing, torture is groovy tone, declined to renew his contract with the show. It's possible his departure from the show had something to do with the news that A) ranking members of the military including the headmaster of West Point had visited the show specifically to request, in person, that the show either tone down the use of torture or at least show an example of torture backfiring and B) when they arrived Surnow declined to meet with them. Or maybe it was just a vast Left Wing Conspiracy!

Personally, I like to imagine Surnow throwing all his possessions in the back of his Hummer, trading in all his riches for Bearer Bonds and racing for whatever country it is conservatives threaten to move to when they lose elections. (Where is that, anyway? Saudi Arabia? China might actually provide them a comfortable mix of Darwinian capitalism mixed with the authoritarian police state they seem to venerate, but then there's the whole feeding Christians to lions thing which would totally screw up their Christmas.)

So the 24 team did what any reasonable group faced with such odds would do and pulled the plug, deciding to retool the whole season. There was, however, no reason to throw away the work already done, which also, conveniently, would provide a nice story bridge from Season 6, with Jack Bauer's empty shell of a man disappearing into the vasty nothingness, and Season 7 which will now, apparently, involve Jack Bauer on trial. So this week we got our little 2 hour mini-season, 24:Redemption.

The gist of the story, and what you need to take with you to appreciate next season, is that Jack has spent a year or more on the run through the world, ducking a Federal grand jury subpoena which, theoretically, will require him to sit in judgement for his various torture related sins. He eventually washed up at a boys school located in Sangala, Africa, run by an old Special Ops buddy. Sangala is a peaceful democracy which is about to be overthrown by a military junta from the ubiquitous land of "across the border". This junta has already been making raids into Sangala, kidnapping boys to help build their army. I think you can see where this is going.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, the US is about to inaugurate the nation's first female President. (Lest you think 24 has somehow missed the zeitgeist on this one, recall that the 24-verse has already had not one but two totally adequate black male Presidents. (Ok, well, the one was kind of inadequate, but brother suffered a stroke. Cut him some slack already.) Sangala contacts the outgoing President Daniels for help, but he declines to send aid and orders all US and embassy personnel to evacuate.

Incoming President Taylor disputes the call, but she's not in charge yet. Besides, it appears that President Daniels is holding back information which may or may not have to do with...Future President Taylor's son, who appears to be friends with an investment corporation lackey who has been helping his boss, and his boss's mysterious employer, funnel funds to...the evil across the border military junta now terrorizing Sangala. Dun dun DUUUUUN!

Jack's driving responsibility in this episode is to get this group of boys to the US embassy in "the city" to get them on the last helicopter leaving Sangala (similarities of poignant shots of US helicopters abandoning throngs of helpless citizens to their fate and Vietnam are totally intentional) while simultaneously avoiding the capture that surely awaits him at the very same embassy. Always the multitasker, that Jack. This plot gives us plenty of opportunity to see Jack the humanitarian and there are plenty of moments in his interactions with the boys in his charge that one gets to see the veriest whisper of moisture entering his usually arid eyes. It would be beyond exaggeration to call them tears, but this is as close to Jack's Iron John moment as one may ever see.

The main problem with 24:Redemption is that ultimately, there's no hiding what it actually is: a pastiche of already filmed scenes originally intended to tell a bigger story. The urgency that generally suffuses the show and makes it so darn entertaining just never materializes. Is there a chance that Jack wont get the kids to the embassy, or that he will evade capture? Not bloody likely. We know he has to come home, and there's not much chance he's going to avoid that Grand Jury, either. This is Obama-world people. Let the Truth and Reconciliation begin!

 Because we know this is a 2 hour blip, it's hard to know what, if anything, to care about as far as the story being unspooled back in the US. There's obviously a shady businessman who is up to something nefarious, and there's not much chance he's going to be unmasked by the end of the 2 hours. So, should we pay attention or assume that whatever he's up to, if it's important we'll find out in January?

It will be interesting to see how 24 transitions into this brave new world of respect for rule of law and general human decency we assume will follow from an Obama presidency. A friend of mine who is, I'd like to point out, more of a raving left wing lunatic than I am, says flatly "the world will regret the day they demanded a kinder, gentler Jack Bauer". 24:Redemption only seems to confirm this. But Kati, you ask, how can you, a card carrying liberal loving, Obama voting, torture hating fearer of right wing whack jobs, not support forcing Jack Bauer to abide by the Geneva Convention? Well, I'll tell you, I don't watch 24 to have my liberal conscience gently stroked. I watch it for the same reason I watch James Bond and Jason Bourne: they entertain me. For entertainment purposes, nothing really beats a slap angry Jack Bauer, hopped up and off the rez.

When the New Yorker article which detailed the above incident with Surnow and military personnel was published somewhere around the middle of last season, I read it with interest and not a few opinions of my own. The article certainly caused a stir, and it definitely tapped in to the anger that all of us still have about Abu Ghraib and the general sense of frustration at a government run amok. On the one hand, I think Surnow is a genuine fascist Fruit Loop and there's no arguing I don't find his politics repellent. It would be enough for the creator of any show that deals with incendiary issues to say, hey, it's entertainment, you know. The creators of House don't run around claiming Gregory House is the solution to the health care crisis, after all. But Surnow cheerfully acknowledges that he thinks torture is a totally reasonable means to an end, usually with a slightly wistful air that suggests he only regrets his Hollywood lifestyle will never give him reason to water-board someone.

But on the other hand, part of my job and honestly part of my fiber is a respect for artistic expression coupled with an absolute belief that movies and television and music do not cause behavior. I remember a long interaction I had with a patron who was hysterical over the film Heavenly Creatures. This film, she was certain, would teach children that it is OK to kill their parents. I wanted very much to suggest to her that if she was in fear from her children, she had bigger problems than this movie, and perhaps social services should get involved. At a distance it's easy to chuckle, but at the time it was truly difficult to communicate to the woman that watching this Kate Winslet movie would no more cause teens to commit matricide than watching Titanic would cause them to drown.

It's a recurring theme in our culture that that when a work of entertainment shows something we don't like to point to it and say "See, there's the problem right there". If it weren't for the Matrix and video games Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold would even now be contributing members of society instead of infamous slayers of classmates. The certainty that 24, a clock-is-ticking action show where the main character occasionally resorts to unpleasant means to get a bad guy to "TELL ME WHERE THE BOMB/MY DAUGHTER/THE CURLY FRIES I ORDERED ARE!!", was somehow part of the reason that our entire military seemed to have gone Truknutz for prisoner abuse was only made worse by how much Surnow and some of the other producers clearly relished the notion that they might be somehow influential in it as well, and wasthen reinforced by the very public military visit to the show.

With all due respect and sympathy for the headmaster at West Point, 24 was never the problem. After all, no military tribunal ever approached Aaron Sorkin and said look, Aaron, you have to back off this "gays in the military" thing. Our cadets are refusing to hand over their hair gel and some have started "bedazzling" their uniforms. 24 may have tapped in to an ugly American cultural moment, but Joel Surnow vastly overestimates his abilities if he believes he ever did more than create a work which reflected it. The real architects of that moment were always a President and Vice President who cheerfully wiped their tushies with the Geneva Convention and a politically compromised Justice Department charged with creating legal grey areas in which waterboarding and extraordinary rendition could reside.

Long before Abu Ghraib, there were news reports of Justice Department directives to find weasel room in our anti-torture provisions which, up until that moment, most Americans had not considered in desperate need of revision. As red flags go it was something like discovering a Federal budget line item for 5 billion in Christ-centered sex ed. One need not wait til little Jimmy brings home a Bible and chastity belt from kindergarten to recognize a harbinger of things to come. As devastating the news may be to the fascist Fruit Loop, it was not, nor will it ever be remembered as The Surnow Doctrine.

So where does that leave our poor beleaguered Jack, or his audience who have spent years of enjoyment watching him save the world with .0002 seconds to spare? Despite his evident flaws as a member of humanity, Joel Surnow did create a heckuvah entertaining show. Removed from politics, the key to the appeal of Jack Bauer is similar to the appeal of the castaways in Lost: how do people behave when all meaningful things are wrested from them and their backs are against the wall? Do they give up? Lash out? Or do they get very focused on the immediate task at hand? It's actually a mistake to say that 24 does not show the negetive side of torture, because we see the negetive side pretty consistently reflected in Jack Bauer's face. This is a man who has had every good thing in his life turn to ash, over and over again. He's like Job with a side arm.

While the idea of compassionate Jack, volunteering at the soup kitchen and planting tree house trees for orphings to repent for all the misdeeds that his employer requested him to do, might make for an interesting Aaron Sorkin project, it would not be the 24 we all know and love (you know you do...confess already!). While Jack Bauer deserves a nice day just as surely as the American people deserve a government that will not shame them anymore, I hope the new rulers of 24 resist the urge to gently stroke our lefty consciences. Let Jack be Jack, and let the crazy, whacked out show go on.

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