‘24’ as Reality Show
By JUDITH WARNER
“I hope people will make the distinction between television and reality.”
Jack Bauer stood with his back to the sea, the variegated light of early evening playing upon the features of his careworn face. Pondering the future, he lifted a cigarette to his lips, its golden ember a searing reminder of his perpetual courtship of death ...
Sorry, I got confused.
Let me start again.
Kiefer Sutherland was smoking a cigarette and fielding reporters’ queries at a Fox TV party on the Santa Monica pier last week, when the issue was raised of how, well, freaky it is that his show’s first female president will make her debut just in time for the Iowa caucuses.
There is a difference, he suggested, between “24” and real life. “But,” he went on, “I can tell you one thing. We had the first African-American president on television, and now Barack Obama is a serious candidate. That wasn’t going to happen eight years ago. Television is an incredibly powerful medium, and it can be the first step in showing people what is possible.”
I giggled a bit nastily over this at first. What was next — claims that fingering China as a one-nation axis of evil on “24” had presaged the country’s exposure this spring as the source of all perishables tainted and fatal? That screen first lady Martha Logan’s descent into minimadness anticipated Laura Bush’s increasingly beleaguered late-term demeanor? (Has anyone but me noticed her astounding resemblance to Dolores Umbridge in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”?) That foolish Vice President Noah Daniels’s narrowly averted war with the Russians had its real-life equivalent in recent Bush-Putin wrangling over Eastern European missile defense systems?
Silliness upon silliness. But still, something about this idea of “24” as a political crystal ball spoke to me. So, eager to get some advance notice on what we might one day see in a woman president (What to Expect if You’re Expecting Another Clinton), I went to the show’s Web site, looking for season seven clues.
I didn’t find any. Instead, I spent a marvelous afternoon browsing through “research” files on Joint Direct Attack Munition missiles, suitcase nukes, hyocine-pentothal (a fictional drug), C-4 explosives, A.A. sponsors and Air Force Two (not technically a plane). I learned, to my surprise, that Jack Bauer has a bachelor’s in English literature, and that Audrey Raines — not surprisingly — is a product of Brown and Yale. It was like shopping in a mall without windows, gambling in a casino without clocks — a total, disorienting departure into a self-contained alternate reality.
Kiefer Sutherland and I may both be silly, but we’re not the only people guilty of blurring the boundaries when it comes to “24.” In recent weeks, a surprising number of journalists have seemed ready to play along with the conceit that the fictional creation of the show’s first female chief executive could actually have some bearing on the American political scene. The Hollywood Reporter, for one, proclaimed this change “could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
I don’t remember people holding their breath for major political developments every time a new season began on “The West Wing.” There’s something different, I think, about “24” that gives its cartoonishness a bizarrely compelling sense of reality.
The past six or so years — the years of the show’s existence — have given us a parade of imagery seemingly tailor-made for Bauer’s TV world. The crumbling of the World Trade Center, Saddam Hussein in a hole, stress-deranged U.S. soldiers-turned-prison-block-pornographers — the dividing line between what’s believable and what’s not, between fantasy and reality, has become utterly permeable.
What was once unimaginable, or imagined only for entertainment value in “Die Hard”-type thrillers, is now all too real. Anything is possible in a world of falling towers and Abu Ghraib. Kiefer Sutherland’s magical beliefs about his show’s potential impact on politics are forgivable. Even quaint.
The big difference, unfortunately, between real life and small-screen fiction is that, on “24,” Jack Bauer actually catches the bad guys and saves the world. Good guys are incorruptible; fatuous politicians are made to pay for their sins. There is redemption; there is comeuppance.
Oh, and torture works.