It’s rare that a fictional character deals so directly with America’s demons. And by directly, I mean like how Superman fought Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan. It’s also rare that such a character perfectly encapsulates his zeitgeist of origin. Superman came to prominence in the 1940s – a time of intense patriotism, for obvious reasons.
The beginning of the decade saw an intense spike in patriotism, following the devastating 9/11 attacks. While Americans were quickly split on how to respond, there was no disagreeing that we needed to respond. Unknowingly, Fox had created a character through which to chronicle this ongoing struggle, a struggle we’re still in the midst of today.
In 2001, 24 debuted on Fox. Kiefer Sutherland played Jack Bauer, a member of the fictional Counter Terrorist Unit (or CTU) with a checkered past, tasked with rescuing his wife and daughter and stopping an assassination on a presidential candidate. Fox originally ordered thirteen episodes and then quickly picked up the remaining eleven of the season. This, however, led to the season’s second half being written in the wake of 9/11.
Originally a show about the longest day in one man’s life, 24 now had no choice but to become bigger and badder each year, often to its own detriment.
On the surface, 24 is a show about a gimmick. It unfolds in “real-time,” meaning that each 60-minute episode (roughly 44 minutes sans commercials) represents the same amount of time in the world of the show. The infamous 24 clock bookends commercial breaks, informing you how much time passed while Dennis Haysbert tried to sell you State Farm insurance. Scenes often take place with multiple shots on the screen at once. A feeling of simultaneity permeates every hour. There’s some disbelief that needs suspending, of course. People only go to the bathroom to make secret phone calls. Nobody’s ever hungry. And all national crises can be discovered and resolved in exactly 24 hours. It’s not realistic, no. But neither is reality TV.
What made 24’s first season so good was that it didn’t rely on the gimmick. Jack’s quest was personal. His family was in trouble. He had personal connections to the antagonist. It felt like a tight web of intrigue, not the sprawling mess of later seasons. What’s at stake is not some idealized, abstracted America. It’s a man’s family.
Post 9/11 things got a little dicey. 24 had to acknowledge that the world outside the TV had changed. CTU’s powers and responsibilities expanded. Muslim extremists became an increasingly dire threat. And they (the writers) set off a nuke. In the second season. They detonated a nuclear weapon on American soil in the second season of the show. There’s no turning back from that. Your protagonist must now serve as America’s protector from certain doom, a job previously held by one Kal-El of Krypton.
24, in its attempt to up the ante each season, has fallen prey to its own ever-elaborate plots. Characters die in one season only to crop up as antagonists the next. Tony Almeida, played by Carlos “I Don’t Know How Not To Whisper” Bernard, switched sides so many times during Season Seven it gave me whiplash. It’s not surprising that a show born out of a real-time formula has gotten so formulaic. There will always be a major plot resolution around the twelfth episode. Some sort of bomb analog will go off circa episode twenty. Someone the president trusts will inevitably turn out to be a douchebag and push a woman down a flight of stairs. In attempting to depict an America in perpetual crisis, the writers have entered into a feedback loop of predictable plot points and shock-and-awe cliffhanger tricks.
Let me admit, however, that I am a perennial 24 apologist. I tune in for every episode. I revel in Sutherland’s Emmy-winning screaming. And I enjoy complaining about each season’s inevitable low points. But I’ll also concede that the show is spinning out of control and has gone completely insane attempting to follow a season wherein the bad guy is (Season Five Spoiler Alert) the President himself.
The show has become less about Jack Bauer the Character and more about Jack Bauer the Construct. His use of torture has been widely discussed and often criticized. He believes he is doing what must be done to protect America, even if it’s the wrong thing to do. Season Seven, attempting to balance the issue, opens with Bauer before a Senate subcommittee hearing that has him on trial for his actions. It’s extremely topical, though not in a Law & Order, ripped-from-the-headlines way. Some fans of the show, myself included, may find themselves rooting for Jack despite their own personal feelings on the practice. Hopefully, that’s what the writers are going for, and they’re not simply churning out conservative propaganda. Perhaps Stephen King is right, and “Jack Bauer's face — increasingly lined, increasingly haggard — suggests that extreme measures eventually catch up with the human soul.” In that reading, 24 becomes more Greek tragedy and less Michael Bay.
Bauer’s struggle through each unending day is America’s struggle with itself. Particularly, the new millennial struggle of a superpower unsure of how to behave in a world of hidden enemies and global threats. Over the past decade, reality has forced 24 to accept that one man’s story is not enough. It is now about a nation. A nation that needs its own superman.