Over an exact period of twenty-four hours — each episode in real time — federal agent Jack Bauer gets shot, stabbed, electrocuted, tasered, burned, choked out, attacked by dogs, infected by a killer virus, killed twice, and endures various other health hazards all in the name of America. That’s usually before breakfast. He is part of CTU, the fictional Counter Terrorist Unit located in Los Angeles, and we’re privy to the worst days of Bauer’s life. The show uses splitscreen, a running clock, ridiculous plot twists, and a you-are-there handheld madness with zero slow motion for a show that my friend described as “a speeding train with no brakes.” But perhaps the best part of the show is Bauer himself, played in a determined, dogged performance by an incredible Kiefer Sutherland.
Also starring Mary Lynn Rajskub, Carlos Bernard, Dennis Haysbert, Xander Berkley, Elisha Cuthbert.
Very dark themes, cursing, occasional sexual content, a paranoid atmosphere, and at times extremely violent, e.g. open wounds, gunshots, broken necks, stabbing, eye gouging, and Jack Bauer not eating for 24 hours straight.
Why You Should See It:
Debuting the same time that the World Trade Center was attacked, 24 was an American catharsis for a wounded, vulnerable nation. It fueled our sudden demand for justice by any-means-necessary. Jack Bauer was the means. He was an unstoppable force, a projection of our twitchy national outrage who did whatever it takes, and became our vicarious Monday night superhero. Everything we’ve always wanted to do to the bad guys, without daring to speak them out loud, he does. At first glance (and second and third and fourth), 24 plays out like every patriotic, flag-waving, terrorist-hunting fantasy.
But the show doesn’t downplay the harrowing effects of Jack Bauer’s methods. He slowly devolves into a dehumanized, haunted soul with nine seasons of regret (plus a TV movie). A life of torture brings about a tortured life. Bauer’s only tether to “normal” is his put-upon daughter, who both loves him and is repelled by what he does. Fans complained that Bauer became more unlikable as the show progressed, but of course this would only make sense: Bauer and guys like him were never destined for happily-ever-afters. He secured such endings for everyone else at the expense of himself, and even worse, for those who got too close to him. This dreary subtext was too often obscured by Bauer’s more sensational tactics.
**Some spoilers follow.**
It’s too simplified to say 24 was “that show with all the torture,” but because it really had all the torture, 24 unwittingly placed a cultural spotlight on how we approach “good and evil” in the political square. The show has been criticized for glamorizing torture and surveillance, and even for giving “tips” to the military for carrying out their interrogations. The show’s impact can’t be overlooked: 24 has made its way into the national dialogue of Presidents, Supreme Court Justices, military leaders, and lawmakers, both for and against torture, with a surprising amount of philosophical discourse asking how-far-is-too-far.
At one point, 24 showrunners came under fire in the fourth season for advertising with a billboard about Muslim terrorists, with the tagline, “They could be next door.” A disclaimer was aired with Kiefer Sutherland during that season, explaining, “The American Muslim community stands firmly beside their fellow Americans in denouncing and resisting all forms of terrorism. So in watching 24, please, bear that in mind.” (I remember watching this when it aired, and it was just as clumsy as it sounds.) And certainly, the torture scenes are portrayed with a sort of gratuitous action vibe, pandering to our bloodlust, always underlined by a heroic pumping score that has us cheering despite ourselves.
But as John Oliver wisely points out, fictional torture is exactly that: a device to move the plot along. It’s a writer’s trick. The screenplay manufactures a ticking-time-bomb scenario where we already know the bad guy knows something, when in real life, any confession under duress is either fabricated or unreliable.
The fact that 24 even entered into the arena of serious dialogue might have simply exposed our shallowness about “the enemy.” It may have only shown that we crave a black-and-white binary narrative to give permission for violence against a so-called enemy, all while catering to our fear for a hyper-vigilant “safety.” It feeds into a sort of savior-complex that we may each be the “lauded hero of the story,” necessitating an archetypal villain, which leads to idiotic moves like evacuating an airport for wedding favors that looked like cartoon bombs, even though real terrorists would never label their weapons like Looney Tunes, or arresting school children for making a watch that looked like, once again, a cartoon bomb. Like so much other entertainment, 24 hasn’t just cultivated a vigilante mentality, but has dug up the ugly, barbaric, fear-mongering instinct in all of us. We can be a hero if we have an enemy — one who fits a stock narrative of the lowest common denominator — to fear, demonize, and destroy.
The reality is, 24 has been given too much plausibility. It’s been cited in (too) many actual discussions about how to deal with evil and how to negotiate the gray-space of fighting fire with fire. Certainly, real enemies like ISIS do exist, and we cannot afford to romanticize them with a Hollywood montage of reconciliation. But a Hero-Savior Syndrome breeds suspicion and paranoia that has us jumping at shadows, until the slightest hint of “wrongness” leads to Orwellian conclusions. It’s no coincidence that Kiefer Sutherland, who had mainly played villains (a deranged vampire in The Lost Boys and a typical Stephen-King-ish bully in Lean On Me), was chosen to play with the blurry boundaries of anti-heroism. The show itself had been saying from the first episode that its own methodology is not to be trusted.
If anything, the more I watch the show (and I’ve seen every season at least three times), the more I’m convinced that it condemns such retributive justice. The anxious handheld camera sees it as unworkable vengeance, a sort of unstable hell. 24 has had one consistent argument: that brutality against another will always cost too much on every side. For Jack Bauer, it costs him his family, his co-workers, his sanity, his peace, his hope for a settled-down life. All around him, people are saying, We need a guy like him, but in the most pitiful moment of his life, Jack Bauer is screaming at his mentor in season six, “The only thing I did, the only thing I have ever done is what you and people like you have asked of me … I’m not interested in what you think this country owes me. I want my life back, and I want it now.” Even as he says the words, he knows it’s futile. The choices he has made have collapsed him into a cursed monster. In season seven, Bauer admits to a senator who’s pressing charges, “I regret every decision and mistake I might have made that resulted in the loss of an innocent life. But you know what I regret the most? That this world even needs people like me.”
If we’re examining 24 as a serious case study for a worldview, I’m unsure how anyone might conclude that 24 promotes torture, much less a neoconservative outlook. 24 might offer one of the most balanced takes on both conservative and liberal approaches, showing the advantages (and deficits) of either side.
On the surface, 24 has had both Democratic and Republican Presidents, both good and bad, including two African-American Presidents (the first, David Palmer, who has largely been credited to opening the door for President Obama) and the first female President, Allison Taylor, played by a magnificent Cherry Jones, who won an Emmy for her performance. The bad guys have ranged from radical Muslims to separatist Russians to American defense contractors to Jack Bauer’s very own family, but in the end, has almost always led to a vaguely white or European Big Bad “only in it for the money.” Nearly every government authority figure that’s stepped into CTU to “clean up the mess,” initially seen as pesky interference, has come around to cooperating with one another, from Karen Hayes of Homeland Security to Lynn McGill from the White House. Yet the US government itself as seen as corrupt in every nook and cranny, all the way to the top.
In perhaps the most intriguing twist of the first season, Senator David Palmer finds out that his race is not a factor in the attempt on his life, but a personal grudge from a covert mission that he oversaw. Seasons two, four, and six have multiple Muslim characters who actively fight terrorists, including two major terrorists who convert into allies. Season seven, in a bit of a tongue-in-cheek twist, sets up an innocent Muslim as the patsy, and season two reveals that a tiny white girl has been the terrorist all along (which is apparently based on Patricia Hearst). Jack Bauer, at the end of season seven, consults a Muslim priest for a deathbed prayer (which I can imagine only caused serious M.C. Escher loops in the brain-folds of many viewers). Producer Joel Surnow is a Republican while Howard Gordon is a Democrat.
If we’re to go even deeper, 24 is rather balanced in its philosophical politics of good versus evil. Stephen King, on the literary deconstruction of politics, says, “The horror movie is innately conservative, even reactionary” — in other words, an evil must be obliterated by good so that we return to a “normal.” The Wicked Witch must be killed, the giant must be slain, the One Ring must be destroyed. In much more liberal-minded fare, like Frozen, X-Men, Les Miserable, or even The Lego Movie, the bad guys are given reasonable motives and can be converted, and perhaps the bad guys are a product of a broken system that must be fixed from the top-down. In the world of 24, we get plenty of bad guys, but we also get plenty of bad guys turned good, plenty of anti-heroes, plenty of “good bad guys” who call themselves patriots, and broken systems undone. The best plot-twists are not when a mole is discovered, but when villains are given a last-minute redemption like Samson. Some are unequivocally irredeemable and some, like Bauer himself, are constantly atoning and growing.
Bauer’s most telling monologue, filled with seething and sorrow.
In Season Six, the most maligned season by fans, we actually find a subtle, well-scripted mantra that reoccurs throughout the day. It’s easy to miss because of that season’s clumsy screenplay, but viewing the season back-to-back makes it clear (and this is one of those shows that improves when it’s watched quickly). In the opening episode we know Jack Bauer has signed his life away, and he tells the CTU director: “Do you understand the difference between dying for something and dying for nothing? … Today I can die for something; my way, my choice.” Jack Bauer manages to escape this predicament only to find that a man he had previously put away for treason — having risked his life to do so — is living on a giant farm, while Jack Bauer had spent twenty months tortured in a Chinese prison because of this very same traitor. The entire time, Jack Bauer’s face says it all. He risked everything to lock up this evil man, but now the man is living large. Was it all for nothing?
Later Jack Bauer finds the man has been reading the Bible and he reads this verse:
He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. (And the whole passage says quite a lot on this theme.)
He views it intensely for a moment. The scene passes, never brought up again. But we sense Jack Bauer, the noble hero, has not suffered for nothing. As many times as he falls into the mud, he must stand on the rock again. He fights because no one else will. We need the guy who fights even when he loses, or we’ll lose the very reason we’re fighting, too. Indeed, the world doesn’t so much need Bauer’s results, but his character. When everyone else is full of compromise and cowardice, he feels no choice but to do what is right. We could only hope to stand so strong.
It’s not difficult then to see Jack Bauer as a skewed Christ figure, a man who goes into the darkest depths of depravity to save the world. There’s a moment in the seventh season when Bauer takes off his shirt in front of the CDC after he’s exposed to a virus, and everyone present pauses at his scars, wrapped around his body from neck to knee. Bauer says quietly, “This is not a reaction. I’ve had these scars.” Sutherland’s line reading is crushing, instantly conveying the entire weight of his sacrifice and service.
Even more, there’s a recurring theme of Bauer getting betrayed by his closest friends, with a twist in the first season on the level of Judas. (This becomes a bit of a narrative trick by the fourth season, as we expect a mole within every fold of the operation. We’re sometimes surprised by who it is, but never surprised that it happens.) Bauer runs into exploding buildings long before Ben Affleck’s Batman ever did, and at least once per season, Bauer volunteers to exchange his life for the lives of others, most especially in the iconic final shot of the very last episode.
His monologue in the first episode sums up everything about him. It speaks to us about who we wish to be.
“You can look the other way once, and it’s no big deal, except it makes it easier for you to compromise the next time, and pretty soon that’s all your doing, compromising, because that’s the way you think things are done. You know those guys I busted? You think they were the bad guys? Because they weren’t, they weren’t bad guys, they were just like you and me. Except they compromised — once.”
A breakdown of 24’s politics:
**Some minor spoilers follow**
Season 1 — The most bipolar of all the seasons. The Presidential candidate is an African-American (before President Obama was elected), and if you don’t watch your daughter every second, someone will kidnap her probably. The bad guys sound like Dracula. In one of the only torture scenes of the season, Bauer totally messes it up and it doesn’t pay off.
Season 2 — Much more conservative. Torture abounds and pays off. There are some really offensive Muslim stereotypes (and they wouldn’t be the show’s last). An evil cougar shows up (yes, a mountain cat). But the bad guys turn out to be oil tycoons and mostly white faces, and President Palmer is a glorious African-American president. There’s also a Middle Eastern character who teams up with Bauer and quickly became a fan-favorite.
Season 3 — Another bipolar season, with both uneasy conservative and liberal stereotypes. The bad guys are Mexican and British, and nearly every African-American character in this season is stuck in a sloppy, unrelated soap opera. However, there are a few great twists that instantly turn around your view of certain characters and their motivations, simultaneously flipping the political barometer. The last shot of the season also shows the devastating stress and strain on Bauer’s terrible day, before he has to re-compose for another one.
Season 4 — The most outlandishly neo-conservative and Bauer at his most unlikable. This is the season that got the show in public hot water. At one point, a lawyer shows up to prevent his client from getting tortured, and the lawyer is portrayed as weak and ineffectual. When someone is not tortured, it’s seen as a mistake. However, Bauer inadvertently starts a war with China due to his sloppiness and he loses two very close friends directly related to his torture-happy bravado. There are also two great Middle Eastern characters that show up who become equals with Bauer.
Season 5 — The best and most balanced of all the seasons. There are several times when torture doesn’t work, which affects the plot, and some of the more liberal “bleeding heart” decisions end poorly. The bad guys also call themselves “patriots,” but they’re not necessarily one-dimensional cartoons. The main bad guy of the season will also surprise you and not surprise you.
Season 6 — This season tries to make a point about Bauer’s own torture (20 months of imprisonment), but it stumbles badly when he easily resorts to his old methods by the fifth episode. Once again, the Chinese are comical villains. But there’s a Middle Eastern terrorist who turns himself in as he de-converts from his radicalism. Bauer’s own family is also a bunch of corporate bad guys. The one redeeming moment of the season is in the finale, when Bauer has an incredible honest confession about his “cursed life.”
Season 7 — This season is absolutely the most liberal, with the first female President, an FBI portrayed as very unwilling to use violence, a court hearing meant to imprison Bauer for his abuse of the law, and very confrontational (and not subtle) dialogue about why torture doesn’t work. It’s all unabashedly clumsy and you can see the screenplay on the wall, but Renee Walker (one of the best new characters of the show) has a wonderfully resolved arc-plot that involves this very issue. The moral ambiguity is a plus; we can clearly see both sides of the argument. The government as seen as thoroughly corrupt, and at one point Madame President is ready to torture a guy. But Bauer also ends up trusting the Senator who is holding the court hearing against him (and who is actually not a corrupt politician). The season also ends with a very moving moment between Jack Bauer and a Muslim priest.
Season 8 — A conservative season, as Bauer snaps and takes out bad guys left and right in a bloodthirsty rage. It does, however, lead to one of the most iconic scenes of the show, with Jack versus a former nemesis in a tunnel. Also, there are Middle Eastern characters in the show that are neither entirely “good” or “bad,” but given fully fleshed-out dimensions.
Season 9 — This is a mostly balanced season, with Russian and Chinese bad guys, a morally complex Snowden-like figure, a corrupt American politician, an African-American who is obviously framed, and Middle Eastern terrorists who are more ambiguous than earlier seasons. Bauer is much more weary this season, who dispatches bad guys instantly, but also realizes he needs to work with government oversight to get things done.
The first and last conversation of two of the best characters on 24.