Tuesday, January 16. 2007
I have a couple brief observations on Fox television show 24. I don't watch much TV -- the active list right now is 24, Battlestar Gallactica, and Rome. Laura's raved about 24 since its beginning. I finally relented and tuned in two years ago, figuring it has something to do with cultural attitudes toward politics and terrorism, and that might be interesting even if more likely appalling. That's about what it is, at least based on the two seasons plus four hours I've seen.
For folks even more out of touch than me, the set up is that each season consists of 24 episodes, which map to real time in one long day: one hour episode equals one hour real time, with 20 minutes or so knocked out of each hour for commercial breaks. Each day/season starts off with the first of a cascading series of terrorist attacks, and follows agent Jack Bauer and the CTU (Counter Terrorist Unit) as they eventually thwart the attacks almost exactly 24 hours later. Aside from CTU, the other center of activity is the White House, where Presidents and conniving subordinates hysterically overreact, often making things worse, sometimes deliberately.
There are two basic things to understand about the world of 24. The first is that the one-day-real-time format forces gross distortions on the storyline. I don't know whether it is the cause or effect of having a super-packed action series, but it severely limits the potential for any kind of development. This may have less to do with the real time mapping than the fact that episodes are reliably packed into one hour chunks, often ending with a partial resolution as well as a dangling thread to be picked up next hour/episode. So not only have they reduced some pretty cataclysmic events to a single day, they've chopped them up into 24 single-hour packages. There is an upside to this in terms of action dynamics -- nothing gets stretched out dramatically, as always seems to happen with movies -- but it means they keep having to think of more things to promote more action. So their format itself forces a major distortion on the real world of terrorism: they have to vastly amplify the skills of terrorists in order to fill up 24 whole hours. In fact, terrorists almost by definition are incapable of implementing the sort of cascaded events that 24 depends on. Moreover, even if they could do it, there's no reason they would or should.
But even if we can somehow bracket the format-induced distortions, there is something very strange about the world of 24. This is shown first by the existence of CTU itself, by its methods, and by its relationship to the White House. 24 takes place in a world that sort of looks like ours, but is really quite different. The main difference is that terrorists in 24 are everywhere, in vast numbers, operating with a high degree of professional skill. In fact, many of them are strictly professional mercenaries. It's possible, for instance, for terrorists to hire a former USAF pilot to steal a stealth aircraft to shoot down the President's plane. It's possible to hire CTU double-agents to spy and sabotage. It's possible for terrorists to ally with US military contractors, and it's not always clear whether the shots are being called from the within the US government or by its alleged enemies. The curious thing about this overstatement of the world of terrorism is that it is a logical, albeit somewhat paranoid, projection of trends in existence today: the privatization of the "war on terror" and the lack of controls over covert operations. 24 is science fiction is that it shows us a world based on assumptions that are not true now, but it is also political critique in that it shows us how unchecked trends in our own world could turn out.
There are other aspects of the show that map roughly onto current concerns, although one should be careful and not expect much one way or another. The most conspicuous is CTU's fondness for torture, which Jack Bauer has quite a knack for, and everyone else gets no value out of whatsoever. It's unlikely that the Bush administration actually uses torture in anything like this way, but it's not exactly out of the question, and certainly not off the wish list. So it may be one of those projections from our current political malfeasance, or it may just be an artifact of the format: the dire need to move things along as fast as possible, which requires the equally fast discovery of clues. (Torture also adds to the violence quota, something the producers no doubt appreciate.)
Another trendline comes from the politicians, who repeatedly have to act rashly on ridiculously incomplete and often fallacious info -- to call this "intelligence" would be an act of torture not even Bauer could stomach -- and as such almost invariably make things worse. (I missed the first President Palmer, who presumably was more skillful, or maybe just luckier.) This again has more to do with the format's needs than political reality. Even Bush, who seems uniquely disposed to wrecklessness based on ignorance, would balk at some of the shit these guys have to swat back.
Still, even more profound than what happens on each of these season-days is the big slice of time that separates them. We barely know anything that happens then, which isn't such a big thing as far as the show is concerned. People do come and go, but nothing really changes, so every season starts from the same premise, the same fantasy world. But what's more important is that nobody ever learns anything from what happens. The first season I watched left me wondering what all those people would make of the day in the coming days, weeks, months. But of course they never made anything out of it, because they weren't on camera. And the next round took off so fast there was barely time to figure out who was who. After my second year, it mattered less to me, because I started realizing there was nothing real going on anyway.
Still, there's no reason why we can't learn something: terrorism is a rare event, the acts of people with limited power who feel deep grievances they can't find any better way to deal with; they can be marginalized by providing other means for such grievances, and by providing a more decent, more equitable model for the world. This follows from the fact that terrorism is most often a reaction against the violence and injustice of the state. But then if anyone did learn lessons like that 24 would lose its reason for existence. So no good educating the likes of us.
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