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The Morality of “24″

May 25th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon


After 8 seasons, Monday night was the last night of the series, “24.”

Most times, no matter its popularity, a TV series is just a TV series. But in the case of this TV show, when the series’ main character, Jack Bauer, was referenced more than once on the floor of Congress, and Bauer’s actions were trotted out as an exhibit A in the middle of a panel discussion about torture and terrorism law, by none other than Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and then in 2007, the Dean of West Point, Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, along with some FBI interrogators and representatives of Human Rights First, traveled to LA to ask the show’s creative team to tone down the torture scenes because of the impact they were having both on troops in the field and America’s reputation abroad. ….I think we can safely say that we’re in some other kind of realm that transcends the “it’s only a TV show” trope.

The series showrunner and exec-producer, Howard Gordon, was on Fresh Air on Monday and had his own answer to the controversy:

“To say that we’ve been some … mouthpiece for some political point of view — it’s not only specious — but I promise you, it is insane. Any fly on the wall and anyone who’s been there would tell you the same. So unfortunately, look — the show is a show for one thing. It’s a thriller in the vein of Bourne Identity or Rambo or Dirty Harry. And the hero finds the bad guy and shakes out of him where the bomb is. And again, the real-time scenario lent itself really well to that. Frankly, for the first five years, I don’t think you could find a single article or op-ed piece that used the word ‘torture’ or described that this was somehow morally repugnant or corrosive or anything. I think what happened was, when Abu Ghraib happened and Guantanamo happened — the show certainly benefited from some kind of post-9/11 wish fulfillment; you had a guy who cut to the chase, who did whatever was necessary, and again there was some wish fulfillment involved — I do think the show experienced some of the blowback. We did understand that the climate had changed, because of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, it had changed. … [A]nd it put us into a conundrum. Honestly, at the end of Season 6 — where Jack had been acting a certain way — we had a choice: Either we renounce the series and admit we’re a bunch of torture-mongering, morally corrosive torture pornographers or we find a way of confronting this issue and this changed world that we’re in. And, in a strange way, it gave us fodder for the seventh season.”

Yes, well…

As a die-hard “24″ fan I have long been ambivalent about some of the show’s script choices, but have hung in faithfully because the delights of the series seemed always to outweigh its unsettling downsides.

(That is with the exception of 2007′s notorious Season 6, which went completely and creepily off the rails, both in terms of its over embrace of brutality, and frankly, in terms of the quality of the writing in general. But then, as Gordon said, it recovered in Season 7 where it articulated some of the moral issues around torture, plus had some very nifty plot twists, so all was forgiven.

Or sort of forgiven. It was somewhat vexing that both Fox and Friends and Glenn Beck—whose moral compasses, such as they ever were, seem to have long ago rusted—became so ooozily enamored of the show in Season 7, that they failed to perceive its ambiguities and still managed to use it as ajustification for torture not a caution against it.)

And, nearly any pronouncement from former “24″ producer, and co-creator, Joel Surnow, was enough to make some of us wonder if we were, oh, I don’t know, risking the health of our immortal souls by watching the show at all. But Surnow is thankfully long gone.

Now the last few hours of Season 8 have taken us into what is, in many ways, the darkest place of all.

In hour 20, we had to watch as Jack coldly executed the latest CTU insider traitor, Dana Walsh. (“24″ has pioneered a whole new class of evil broads—13 female villains in total. They have ranged from the queen of them all, Nina Myers, through the very, very bad first lady, Sherry Palmer, to this season’s Dana Walsh, who managed to project a sort of sloe-eyed, sexy spawn of Satan look that became its own kind of special effect.)

In hour 21, there was the matter of Jack disemboweling the Russian sniper/assassin who killed FBI agent and Bauer paramour, Renee Walker—AKA Jack’s Last Chance for Happiness. Now most of us might honestly have wanted to disembowel the guy too, but most of us also, I trust, would have stopped short of it (even if there was the vague justification of getting the guy’s recently swallowed cell phone sim card).

Hour 22 featured Jack clad in an Imperial storm troopers-like outfit as he prepared to kidnap the divinely Nixonian ex-President Charles Logan who, after seeing the scarily helmeted Bauer approach in the distance, screams in high hysteria to his secret service agent “That’s Jack Bauer, he’s coming to get me!” (A great “24″ moment, as were nearly all of actor Gregory Itzin’s scenes this season.)

Finally, there was the very last two hours—which I am reluctant to give away here if you haven’t yet watched the finale. I can tell you that the poet Rumi was quoted well in a crucial moment of foreshadowing—and that, in the end, everything came down to Jack and Chloe O’Brien—Mary Lynn Rajskub’s sour-faced and fabulously courageous character creation.—which was exactly as it should be.

I can also tell you that, for me anyway, the finale was a worthy two hours with which to cap the best of the eight seasons—complicated, multi-shaded, possessed of the courage of its convictions, and fraught with the knowledge that cleaving to what is just and right and true is the only worthwhile path, no matter the cost (and that there will be a cost), but when the cleaving grows too single-minded and brittle, it has its own soul corroding moral dangers.

So what, in the end did it all mean? Was it only a TV show as its producers say? Was it a pop cultural reflection of our desire for good and evil to be clearly demarcated with bright, shining lines in a manner that real life rarely provides? Or did it start to actually affect in troubling ways the culture it purported to merely reflect in fantastical broad strokes (with no meal times or bathroom breaks)?

Or was it all of the above—and, on occasions, like Monday night, satisfyingly more.

I’ll go with the latter.

What do you think?

Posted in art and culture, arts, Civil Liberties, torture, US Government, writers and writing | 30 Comments »

30 Responses

  1. sbl Says:

    Gordon calling anyone who attributes a POV to the show “insane,” but then claiming it’s a product of the public’s “wish fulfillment” following 9/11/Abu Ghraib/Guantanamo, is quite something. He’s got a point though that the public may project onto Bauer their desire for a hero who is willing to do ANYTHING to get the job done, but for the same reason, his comparing it to the likes of Bourne Identity is way off, since Bourne never DOES “anything” and everything however gruesome, like disemboweling the Russian ostensibly to get his memory card. To the contrary, he’s the standard “good guy” who tries to maintain a moral superiority over those he’s fighting, which is the classic norm when it comes to the “heroes” of these kinds of shows.

    Lately we’ve been seeing more series on channels like this and HBO where the “hero” sinks into moral ambivalence or even crosses to the other side “to get the job done” which our morally queasy government agents, with pesky constitutional checks and balances, fail to do. Maybe THAT is where the show gave the public what it wanted, what Gordon calls it’s “wish fulfillment.”

    Maybe too, it’s just a little MORE wish fulfillment for those from the conservative right, the ones who think it’s wimpy of the Obama Administration to concern itself with issues of constitutional liberties when it comes to “terrorists,” who see that as a “liberal” wimpiness which ties our hands too much when it comes to doing “what we need to do.”

  2. no name collins Says:

    Scalia needs a shit and a shave. Always had a five o’clock shadow. Looks like he’s constantly constipated. Has always looked shady… like he’s selling condoms on the street.

  3. Joe Says:

    Wow, now that both “Lost” and “24″ are done, what on earth is going to be on television anymore?

  4. Sure Fire Says:

    While the left never or rarely speaks of the atrocities committed by our enemies and engage in their own “wish fullfillment” of this being a “all is roses” world.

    We need more Jack Bauers and lest appeasement by the weaklings on the left like our president.

  5. Randy Paul Says:

    While the left never or rarely speaks of the atrocities committed by our enemies and engage in their own “wish fullfillment” of this being a “all is roses” world.

    Proof? No, just more sweeping, unsupported generalizations.

  6. Sure Fire Says:

    Would you really like me to fill this site with stories you never hear from the media or anyone else on the left Randy?

  7. sbl Says:

    SF proves my theory, especially the last para.

  8. Randy Paul Says:

    Would you really like me to fill this site with stories you never hear from the media or anyone else on the left Randy?

    As long as it’s okay with Celeste, it’s okay with me. At least then I could vet them.

    Better yet: consider starting your own free blog.

  9. Sure Fire Says:

    If you think I worry about you “vetting” anything of mine you’re in la-la land Randy. None of your theories matter SBL, you both are way too hung up on your own theory of being superior to conservatives, it’s really pretty funny to watch.

    You sure I don’t have a blog Randy?

  10. Randy Paul Says:

    If you think I worry about you “vetting” anything of mine you’re in la-la land Randy.

    Why are you so touchy? Honestly, I tried to be civil with you here and you answer with hostility.

    I would love it if everyone sourced their claims. That’s one reason why I try to do so.

    As for whther or not you have a blog, it seems to me that if you do you would want to have people reading it and would include the URL (as I do) in your comments.

  11. reg Says:

    If God didn’t want us to disembowel bad guys to get their sim cards, He wouldn’t have invented cell phones.

    I loved 24. It brought the Western up-to-date, way beyond anything Leone or Peckinpah ever imagined – but also going straight back to High Noon for context and character. Comment #4, however, shows the difference between adults and children in dealing with these fictional morality plays.

    That is all.

  12. Mavis Beacon Says:

    Surefire is totally, provably wrong. I can show oodles of instances where atrocities are documented by organizations I think he’d consider left.

    Check Human Rights Watch on Iran: http://www.hrw.org/middle-eastn-africa/iran

    Or Amnesty International on North Korea: http://www.amnesty.org/en/region/north-korea

    And while Venezuela is hardly an “enemy” – their country is run by a leftist with dictatorial impulses and human rights watch is documenting that as well: http://www.hrw.org/americas/venezuela

  13. Walt Says:

    Never watched 24. Right now I’m too busy with Breaking Bad, and getting caught up on Friday Night Lights. Eventually will get around to Treme.

  14. sbl Says:

    SF @9, just more absurd generalizations – from someone who lumps anyone to the left of Dick Cheney in a “camp” that’s “so far to the left.” Being “hung up on your theory of being so superior to conservatives” makes no sense, since I have no “theory” about that, you do (not that feeling superior to the brand of hypocritical, opportunistic and downright deceptive and two-faced brand of conservatives we have in So Cal wouldn’t be difficult to manage).

    My “theory” as clearly stated, was that Jack Bauer appeals especially to the brand of conservatives who blame the Obama administration’s “‘liberal’ wimpiness which ties our hands too much when it comes to ‘doing what we need to do’”: then you came along and said EXACTLY that: “We need more Jack Bauers and lest (sic) appeasement by the weaklings on the left like our president.” You’re just too intent as usual on blind blaming everything on “liberals” to even see that.

    (Never mind that it was Bush/Cheney who “lost” Bin Laden and turned him into a folk hero of the radical anti-American Islamists; who blundered into Iraq because they somehow blamed Saddam Hussein for 9/11 when that was linked to his enemies in the Taliban, so they alleged stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction which they hadn’t proved; who then naively and with a total lack of understanding of history and relative historical development among nations, believed they could create a 1989 “fall of the wall” in Eastern Europe, movement in Iraq; and of course, it was Bush Sr. who chickened out of going after Saddam Hussein in the first place after driving him out of Kuwait…) Whatever. Have a nice day.

  15. Celeste Fremon Says:

    SF, I always enjoy your opinions, but it’s been starting to veer into the personal again. Please don’t let that happen. We can honorably disagree without impugning each other’s character, or the character of one entire political group or the other. So let’s keep it at a good faith battle over ideas. Thanks in advance.

    *************************

    “If God didn’t want us to disembowel bad guys to get their sim cards, He wouldn’t have invented cell phones.”

    How true, Reg. Admittedly, I cannot possibly argue that.

    I loved it too. The last two hours were particularly perfect. For a while, I wondered what in the world they were doing with Cherry Jones’s character. I figured she’d have to have a last minute OMG-what-have-it-done moment. But they pulled it off quite skillfully, crafting the arc that takes her through the sale of her soul “for the greater good,” and then its last minute and very public redemption, at great cost—with the grief-stricken and cosmetically flawless Dahlia Hassan glowering elegantly throughout.

    The last few moments with the gigantic shots of Jack through the drone’s camera….a terrific gimmick—and exactly right for the mythic tone.

    Finally Chloe says, “Shut it down.” Arlo does. And, after 8 seasons and 9 years Jack is well and truly gone.

    Cue movie trailer.

    PS: Walt, I realize I’ve got to rent the first two season of Breaking Bad to get caught up. In the meantime, I’m deeply committed to Justified.

  16. Sure Fire Says:

    Personal, give me a break Celeste. Randy says I’m not even an adult in one post and you say nothing yet I’m getting peronal? Randy claims taht I’m hostile because I tell him that him vetting me doesn’t worry me is silly. Talk about “touchy”.

    Seriously Celeste, that’s total b.s. I’m always nice.

  17. Sure Fire Says:

    “Randy’s claim that”…just woke up.

  18. reg Says:

    I love Justified’s Gangstagrass theme song, Long Hard Times to Come. Tim Olyphant is terrific – Deadwood and now this. I think he’s one of the great screen cowboys. And like Deadwood, the show’s also got terrific bad guys and an utterly bleak landscape. But Deadwood had more and better scarlet women.

  19. Celeste Fremon Says:

    SF, okay both of you avoid the personal.

    Reg, agreed. Tim Olyphant is flawlessly cast. I also love, love, love Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder.

    I’d not focused on the theme before. You’re right. Brilliant.

    “Gangstagrass.” Geeze. Where’ve I been? I missed an entire genre.

  20. reg Says:

    The guys – Rench and T.O.N.E.-Z I think – actually have a “Gangstagrass” fusion album out. It’s pretty cool but it doesn’t have the Justified theme. You’ve got to get that seperately on iTunes.

  21. Randy Paul Says:

    We need more Jack Bauers

    Surely you know that torture is a crime, that our government has ratified the Convention Against Torture and incorporated its terms into the Torture Statute (TITLE 18 PART I CHAPTER 113C), which is the law implementing the Convention Agains Torture.

    Surely you know that Article 2 Paragraph 2 of the Convention Against Torture states the following:

    No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

    Why would you then make a statement like that unless you support certain criminal acts?

    Lest you think that opposition to torture is a liberal position, I urge you to read this article by Vladimir Bukovsky, a man who suffered torture and imprisonment in the USSR and allied himself with people like Richard Perle and Jeane Kirkpatrick.

  22. Sure Fire Says:

    We need more Jack Bauers. You think of it anyway you want Randy.

  23. randy Paul Says:

    No, I merely consider the source of that statement and realize you’re talking about a work of fiction. That tells me all I need to know.

    Perhaps you should listen to an American torture victim.

  24. reg Says:

    I would like more Lone Rangers and more Batmen.

  25. Celeste Fremon Says:

    Definitely Batmen.

  26. Randy Paul Says:

    My two cents: we need more Bob Newharts, Bill Dalys and Suzanne Pleshettes

  27. Sure Fire Says:

    They were crime fighters?

  28. randy Paul Says:

    They made us laugh and I think we need to do more of that.

  29. Sure Fire Says:

    I’d agree with that.

  30. Randy Paul Says:

    Comity! :-)

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