Tuesday, January 16, 2007

If the neocons think 24 is working for them, they don't know Jack.

A great article from Time about Jack Bauer and the series 24 which is often ctiticised for being republican in nature (despite the fact they've had a black President and an evil Republican President).
One of the best television shows anywhere and will be looked upon in decades hence as genre defining.

Jack's about to have another very bad day....

The Evolution of Jack Bauer
By James Poniewozik

Last June in Washington, the conservative Heritage Foundation held a forum on terrorism with a panel of august authorities. There was Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff. There was a pair of think-tank terrorism experts. And naturally, there were Chloe, Tony and the evil President from 24.

The panel--"24 and America's Image in Fighting Terrorism: Fact, Fiction or Does It Matter?"--was not exactly Foreign Affairs journal material. Moderator Rush Limbaugh planted a full-on mouth kiss on actress Mary Lynn Rajskub (a.k.a. tech geek Chloe), and actors and producers took softball questions as audience members cheered what Limbaugh called the show's "pro-America" stance. (Among the crowd were pundit Laura Ingraham and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.)
The weird spectacle put a point on a raging question in pop culture: Is 24 just a TV show or right-wing propaganda? Or, to turn Jack Bauer's frequent refrain on him: Who are you working for?

Certainly 24, which debuted just weeks after 9/11 and returns Jan. 14, comes as close as anything has to being the Official Cultural Product of the War on Terrorism.

Co-creator Joel Surnow is a rare Hollywood Republican, and John McCain has done a cameo. Dick Cheney is a big fan too, and you can understand the Administration's wanting to associate itself with Bauer's badass competence. (He nabs nuclear masterminds; we get Jose Padilla.) Most damningly to critics on the left, Bauer's means of gathering intel (grab terrorist's finger, snap, repeat) make 24 a weekly rationalization of the "ticking time bomb" defense of torture.
So is 24 a conservative show?

Yes, in the sense that the thriller is a conservative genre.
Ticking time bombs and pure-evil bad guys make for exciting TV. Working patiently to improve America's image in the Muslim world--not so much. (Maybe Aaron Sorkin could spice it up with an office romance and lots of walk-and-talks.) Muddy a terrorism thriller with liberal concern over root causes and you get Syriana, whose plot audiences couldn't follow with a GPS device. "The politics of the show," says executive producer Howard Gordon (a registered Democrat), "are narrative politics."

But beyond that, things get more complicated. As the war has dragged on and become less black-and-white, so has 24. In 2003 it featured a conspiracy to provoke a Middle East invasion using bogus WMD evidence. (Yellowcake, anyone?) Last year's villain was the President, who had his predecessor assassinated. In the new season, a string of suicide bombings has led, chillingly, to federal "detention centers" for Muslims, much like in the liberal pre-9/11 movie The Siege.

Then there's Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), who has seen his wife killed, executed an innocent man to stop an attack, tortured people (sometimes mistakenly), been tortured and spent two years in a Chinese prison. Unlike James Bond, who just gets younger and tougher, by the new season Bauer is tired, disillusioned and wondering how much longer he can fight the Long War. His scars are not only physical; his work has cost him relationships and perhaps some part of his humanity. He has been changed and damaged by every compromise he has had to make. By extension, he forces us to ask if we have too.

He keeps fighting, of course (he has 24 episodes to fill), but for people, not politics. 24's ideology--Jack Bauerism, if you will--is not so much in between left and right as it is outside them, impatient with both A.C.L.U. niceties and Bushian moral absolutes.

This season, Bauer allies with Hamri al-Assad, a (putatively) reformed terrorist leader, to stop an attack. He thus displays a better grasp of realpolitik than has the Bush Administration, which resisted the Iraq Study Group's recommendation to work with Iran and Syria. A fellow agent asks Bauer if it matters that al-Assad has murdered hundreds of people. "I don't know what means anything anymore," he answers. "The playing field has changed."

That playing field can change again, and probably will. On 24, there are a few very good people, a few very bad ones and in between, a lot of question marks who can upend the plot (and the political analogies).

That may be the biggest lesson of 24 in the Iraq era: don't stubbornly hang on to your preconceptions when the facts on the ground change. Undoubtedly, Bauer will continue to give liberals and libertarians conniptions before his latest day is over.

But if conservatives and neocons think 24 is working for them, they don't know Jack.


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