Two months after 9/11 crypto fascist fantasy 24 premiered. In a TV landscape that was bereft of action and ripe for some cathartic ass-kicking, a show about counter-terrorists where each episode played out in real-time as an hour in a single day was a real head-turner. B-list movie star Kiefer Sutherland was Jack Bauer, the main character. It should have been outrageously awful; but, by the end of the first episode, when a woman has sex with a man on an airplane then blows it up while safely parachuting out, viewers knew they had something special on their hands.

24 is wildly entertaining and perhaps one of the most compelling shows in television history. It plays on Americans’ fears of terrorism, on the human desire to “know what happens next,” and even pure bloodlust. The show’s most-used formula is simple: There is a terrorist plot to assassinate somebody or to blow something up, and usually both. Jack Bauer, either aided by CTU (Los Angeles’s fictional Counter-Terrorism Unit), or perhaps under duress, goes out to complete a task that usually involves his being shot at, threatening to shoot someone, or shooting someone. If Jack isn’t captured (he will be at least once a season), he will either apprehend or kill the suspect. Unless the suspect is bleeding out (because Jack shot him), Jack will take him back to CTU and go against protocol to torture him for the next bit of information.

Wait, torture? Yes, torture, and lots of it. In the first five seasons of 24, there were 67 scenes of torture. 24 posed the moral question of the “ticking time-bomb scenario.” If a suspect has a piece of information that could help save many people, is it okay to torture him for it? Society, and actual observations from real-life torture would say no, torture is ineffective. 24, on the other hand, would say yes, as long as it’s Jack Bauer doing the torturing, because Jack has his reasons. Jack is depressed; his job has cost him nearly all of his personal relationships, including the lives of many loved ones. Yet he cannot back down from protecting the country. He loves the USA that much. He is emotionally tortured, which is what makes his threatening to cut out a man’s eyeball so fun to watch. He’s not doing it because he wants to, he’s doing it because he has to. And we’re behind him, all the way, even cheering him on: “What are you waiting for, Jack? Torture the jerk!”

Although the show has become famous for torture, it offers so much more: It has procedural drama, subplots upon subplots, villains behind villains, terror plots behind terror plots, cell phones upon cell phones, romantic entanglements, political debate, blackmail, conventional yet controversial choices for terrorists, complex characters, cliffhangers at every commercial break, and killing galore; as of this week’s episode, Jack Bauer alone has killed, on-screen, 226 people.


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Of course, the shows lacks in corresponding areas: It has virtually no sense of humor (Why would it? Terrorism is serious, people!), very little clever dialogue, huge plot holes, logical inconsistencies, formulaic structure, clichéd plot techniques, endless repetition, and no scenes of people eating, sleeping, or going to the bathroom—you know, the usual stuff that happens in a 24-hour period. They probably do that during the commercial breaks.

Although most seasons are resoundingly similar, this time around, Jack Bauer just wants to catch a flight back to LA so he can begin a new life with his daughter and his granddaughter. Unfortunately, Arab terrorists from the fictional country of Kamistan (Durka-durka-stan was taken) are planning to assassinate their leader, Omar Hassan (Anil Kapoor of Slumdog Millionaire), who is at the UN to sign a peace accord, and, while they’re at it, get their hands on a nuclear bomb. Everyone at CTU is too inept to handle the situation, so Jack has to put his retirement on hold and step in. The first five hours have proven to be 24 at its best. Tension, close calls, and just the right amount of murder are moving the plot along with a feverish pace. Of course, we’ll see how the show does during its notoriously slow middle.

If you’ve never seen 24, it’s not too late to jump in on this season. You won’t be confused; half of the show is spent by characters summarizing the plot. Also, this may be your last chance. Although they want to make another season, and Sutherland is open to it, he has recently said, “there’s only so much you can do to Jack before you lose realism.” Hopefully, that’s the alcohol talking, because it we wanted realism, we’d watch C-SPAN. Now that’s real-time.

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