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by Danny Bowes
May 15, 2013 1:53 PM
18 Comments
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Why We Don't Need More '24': The Torture-Happy Jack Bauer Should Stay Retired

'24' Fox

When "24" limped off into the afternoon at 4pm on its eighth and (as yet) final day/season, it did so as a shadow of the series it had been upon its debut a decade earlier. It's easy to forget, after its years of making a gradual shift from mere television show to avatar for an entire political belief system, that "24" began life as one of the most aesthetically daring and fiercely compelling series ever to be seen on the small screen. Its writing, acting and especially filmmaking were all top-notch.

The first step backward "24" took was from being noteworthy for the quality of its craft to being first and foremost an action show, one that grew slightly dumber and offered only the most cursory nods to its real-time, two dozen hour-long episodes adding up to one full day conceit. In this subsequent incarnation it was very popular, more so than in its first season by far. And as this change continued, eventually the wheels came off and "24" bore no resemblance at all to any recognizable reality. Then it ended. That Fox is bringing the show back now as a 2014 limited series is -- however unsurprising such a might be in a market-driven industry -- a largely monetary decision, but not exclusively. What's worrisome, and what may ultimately doom it as an investment, is the political element to the decision.

It's impossible to separate "24" from 9/11, nor the show's aesthetic trajectory from the political climate that ensued. This is both blessing and curse, for without our country's increased interest -- to the point of obsession -- with terrorism, a series about the adventures of the Counter-Terrorism Unit may very well have been filed away in the "ambitious but commercially shaky" drawer with so many other projects. But absent the collective cultural thirst for revenge that drove "24" and its protagonist Jack Bauer (played at a steady growl by Kiefer Sutherland) to ever fancier flights of bloodlust, perhaps the series would have had a chance to be remembered for its artistic merits as exquisitely filmed action thriller cinema, and escaped its ultimate fate as a deeply problematic cultural artifact.

The central problem with "24," from which countless others then sprang, was torture. In the show's first season, the corners Jack Bauer cut had a purpose, albeit one that was personal as well as professional, and one the show never fully endorsed: he was trying to not only save the life of a presidential candidate, but those of his wife and daughter. The moral ambiguity made for drama richer than the suspense of a ticking clock or slick editing, and the startling twist of having Jack's wife not survive the season finale struck a tragic, resonant note.

When Jack returned to duty in season two, he was a changed man. His chief investigative tool was to bellow "WE'RE RUNNING OUT OF TIME!" and proceed to inflict pain upon someone while shouting "WHO ARE YOU WORKING FOR?" (That's only a slight exaggeration.) Jack's shift from conflicted family man to crazed loose cannon was immediate and irrevocable.

It would have been one thing if this shift was accompanied by any kind of serious attempt at character study, but aside from the occasional brief shot of Kiefer Sutherland staring silently off into the middle distance to the strains of Sean Callery's score, Jack's main motivation seemed to be resisting the attempts of various insufficiently testicled bureaucrats to stop him from simply whipping out his gun and blowing people's kneecaps out to encourage them to tell him who they're working for.

This wouldn't have been a problem if not for the show's popularity (aided by its slow but perceptible edging toward the political agenda of Fox's infamous cable news channel) leading to public officials becoming fans of the show and publicly -- and even more shockingly, wistfully -- pining for a real-life Jack Bauer. One of the most noteworthy such statements was Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who after hearing that a Canadian judge said, "Thankfully, security agencies in all our countries do not subscribe to the mantra 'What would Jack Bauer do?'" reportedly turned to the other Supreme Court justices and said, "Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles... He saved hundreds of thousands of lives... Are you going to convict Jack Bauer? Say that criminal law is against him... is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer?" His answer? "I don't think so."

It's impossible to separate "24" from 9/11, nor the show's aesthetic trajectory from the political climate that ensued.

The difference between Jack Bauer torturing people and getting all pertinent information in five minutes and reality was, and is, not to put too fine a point on it, vast. Time and again, the use of torture in real-life interrogation yielded little to no usable information, not only prolonging the War on Terror to the point of absurdity but actively undermining it by employing useless tactics. But in spite of the immense amount of empirical evidence to the contrary, an all-too-large bloc of Americans persisted in regarding torture as cutting the Gordian knot and Jack Bauer as Alexander, when in fact it's been proven ineffectual, the refuge of those too lazy or filled with rage to do real detective work.

When its inefficacy was not only proved but increasingly public knowledge, the backlash against "enhanced interrogation" was such that even more measured approaches to the depiction of torture in cinema, like Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," met with vehement visceral condemnation from the political left. The confusion between depiction and endorsement that ensued can, in large part, be blamed on "24," which frequently employed superficially similar cinematic tools and technique (with lesser skill than Bigelow) to explicitly endorse torture many times over. Although "Zero Dark Thirty" was moderately successful at the box office, its reputation was severely tarnished by the torture controversy, and despite great critical acclaim and winning numerous awards before that controversy had time to fully bloom, it ended up tying for the only Oscar it managed to scrape, splitting Best Sound Editing with "Skyfall," and will no doubt be remembered as "that torture movie."

This is the culture in which "24" is being reintroduced, and in which its producers hope it can find some measure of its former success. One item to note is that it's returning as a limited series, 12 episodes, with the president of Fox, Kevin Reilly, stating that it's "compressed over 12 weeks. It will go chronologically over the day, but it will skip hours." Though still in "real" time, this kind of abandonment of the series' principal noteworthy characteristic, and the seed from which it originated creatively, is worrisome.

It may not spell doom for the revived "24" in terms of audience (many of whom are no doubt content to see Jack blow one more hole in one more kneecap and once more bellow the dulcet refrain "WHO ARE YOU WORKING FOR?") But the chances of "24" having the kind of cultural resonance it enjoyed a decade ago are slim at best. Barring a major shift in tone and interrogative tactics, the show is doomed to the kind of culturally assonant scrap heap its first season, by dark fate, so narrowly escaped. If Jack must be back, let it be one who has seen the error of his past ways. Otherwise he will be a dinosaur -- and not one of the cool ones that eat people either, but a sad and painful anachronism.

18 Comments

  • Josh | May 5, 2014 5:30 PMReply

    Wow, I'm not familiar with this site (found this through a search for "24 torture") but I see it lives up to the stereotype of Internet commenters. I'd describe the comment section here as a cesspool, and I don't know why I'm wading into it. Probably just to say that I actually agree with most of what the author says. I stopped watching "24" after awhile, as I couldn't support it's pro-terror agenda any longer. And of course, the quality of the show went downhill as the plots became more absurd and they took more and more liberties with the real-time format.

  • Matt | May 3, 2014 11:26 PMReply

    Talk about an agenda! Christ, what a long winded pile of horse crap this article was. You are a pompous, US lothing weasel, with nothing better to do but push your bullshit liberal agenda by disguising it as some sort of entertainment review. The show 24 is fiction and (shocker) an ACTION show. You floored me with your line in here about how the show some how 'lost itself' and 'became' an action show.

    I don't give a shit what your political agenda is. Neither does the rest of America. You are a delusional idiot, and it's too bad you found a way to get your article onto some website so you could stand upon your soapbox and spew your liberal garbage all over.

    The show was great, and ended much too soon. This show has much more potential than the likes of a CSI, or a Law & Order, which have been on TV for decades. 24 should be on its 12th straight season - not coming back from the dead. Glad to see great entertaient coming back to the television.

  • Jenna | March 25, 2014 10:31 PMReply

    I think jack bauer AKA kiefer Sutherland is really cute who would not resest him he is that cute.

  • Nato | February 3, 2014 12:34 AMReply

    Wish I could make money writing my opinions and having them published. Two seconds in the real world where situations like 24 portrays and Mr. Bowes would be having a mental breakdown. Oh....and if his loved ones were about to die and someone like Jack Bauer were their only hope....lets see his position then. I'd say he'd do it but I suspect he is just another mouth without a body.

  • Jon | October 19, 2013 1:33 PMReply

    Agreed, this article is a waste of time. Danny Bowes, I'm sure absolutely no one agrees with you who has actually watched the show, which its obvious that you haven't. Wow, get a new job.

  • Allen | October 19, 2013 1:26 PMReply

    Danny Bowes, you should change your title to "Why I don't need more 24." Question: why spend time writing an article about a successful TV show you clearly don't like? Also, many people do want to see more of Jack Bauer and the show 24, look at how many seasons there are and it's coming back in 2014, and look at the ratings. It's all about the action, and hopefully, mixed with some element of realism, but mainly just action. You mentioned the torture aspect and yes, the show has torture, boo hoo. But it doesn't dive into any particular detail about torture, which is a good thing. But to criticize the show because it has torture is missing the overall point of the show. Torture is a part of war, most countries do it, whether they admit to it or not. It has always been this way, read a history book. Extreme situations, extreme methods, and a show that's trying to be extreme with elements of realism. Keifer Sutherland does a great job, I'd like to see you act in over 200 episodes of kicking ass, and trying to keep it intense. He does a good job for how long the series was on the air. Your article sucks man, and your ability to critique is too biased towards one end. Anybody knows a good writer or film critic looks at all angles. Hope you aren't writing anymore one sided, boring, and uninformed crap.

  • Robert | July 15, 2013 8:34 PMReply

    "Too lazy or filled with rage to do real detective work." You're missing the whole point of the show man. There is only 24hrs until something drastic happens..... there isn't enough time to get DNA evidence. It's a fun show.

  • Robert | July 15, 2013 8:33 PMReply

    "Too lazy or filled with rage to do real detective work." You're missing the whole point of the show man. There is only 24hrs until something drastic happens..... there isn't enough time to get DNA evidence. It's a fun show.

  • Robert | July 15, 2013 8:32 PMReply

    "Too lazy or filled with rage to do real detective work." You're missing the whole point of the show man. There is only 24hrs until something drastic happens..... there isn't enough time to get DNA evidence. It's a fun show.

  • Robert | July 15, 2013 8:31 PMReply

    "Too lazy or filled with rage to do real detective work." You're missing the whole point of the show man. There is only 24hrs until something drastic happens..... there isn't enough time to get DNA evidence. It's a fun show.

  • Robert | July 15, 2013 8:30 PMReply

    "Too lazy or filled with rage to do real detective work." You're missing the whole point of the show man. There is only 24hrs until something drastic happens..... there isn't enough time to get DNA evidence. It's a fun show.

  • Jenna | March 25, 2014 10:32 PM

    Do u think there will be another 24 season

  • pol | May 16, 2013 2:53 AMReply

    Guy repeats Bigelow's bullshit excuse verbatim without once mentioning that Bigelow and Boal FABRICATED the scenes and LIED to audiences. Whether they were duped by CIA at the time or not is still unclear. But the b.s. that torturing led to bin Laden drove the protests. So get the story straight if you're going to posture like some kind of expert on this.

    ZDT Scandal Files
    wp.me/pwAWe-YR

  • Josh | May 15, 2013 11:07 PMReply

    The Following gets viewers, there will always be a market for 24.

  • Tommy Maguire | May 15, 2013 7:26 PMReply

    What a nonsense article! I mean I can see the error on the 24 ways, season six was shocking. But season seven was a great return to form. Was it that impossible to build a constructive criticism on the merits of its fictitious premise??

    Pretty much a waste of anyone's time reading this. Talk about trying to make something from a big pile of nothing. If this is typical of what Indiewire churns (my first visit) I won't be reading anything again from this site.

    Poor Danny, and pointless exercise in trying to be controversial by playing on controversial themes. The parallels you will realise, if you have ever watched 24, don't even exist let alone make sense.

  • BCush1 | May 15, 2013 5:21 PMReply

    Danny.... not sure if you know. '24' is FICTION!!. It's not real. Did you honestly just wonder whether government agencies might actually want to copy Jack Bauer's actions? Seriously? Oh and by the way, Zero Dark Thirty's reputation WAS NOT tarnished by the torture scenes,and neither was 24's. What a pathetic waste of time reading this was.

  • James | October 26, 2013 2:33 PM

    It may be fiction, but it is a telling fiction. Just like the character of Walter White, I can not picture a time when the public would ever embrace, cheer, or consider a show "entertaining" that featured a protagonist engaging in the same behavior that was not a white man even if it is FICTION.

  • Washington | May 15, 2013 8:26 PM

    Tell that to judge scalia, or any of the countless impressionable idiots who think jack bauer is "awesome."