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Getting Dirty in Real Time

The last we saw of special agent Jack Bauer -- played by Kiefer Sutherland -- he was walking into a California sunrise and headed for the Mexican border.

By 8.17.05

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This article appears in the July/August issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, please click here.

THE LAST WE SAW special agent Jack Bauer, he was walking into a California sunrise and headed for the Mexican border, a classic Western hero on the run from the corruptions of law and government. He's given up his identity as Jack Bauer and is, at least until the next season of 24, the new Man with No Name. He doesn't have Clint Eastwood's poncho and cigarillo, but he does have a cell phone with a scramble filter.

As played by Kiefer Sutherland, Bauer is a character of amazing gusto, a fall-on-his-sword patriot whose efforts to save America involve actions that would normally be considered criminal, and that even under the conditions in which he works are at least morally debatable. In the 24 season just past, Bauer held up a convenience store in order to keep tabs on a "hostile"; temporarily quit the Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) so that, no longer a federal employee, he could freely torture a suspect for information; led a commando raid on the Chinese embassy to abduct a Chinese national with knowledge of a terrorist plot; and forced doctors at gunpoint to abandon medical treatment for an innocent American, the estranged husband of his girlfriend, in favor of saving the Chinese national, who was wounded in the raid. Under the circumstances, saving the American would have been a merely sentimental choice.

"He's unorthodox, but he gets results," one of Bauer's colleagues says of him. "You're going to have to trust me," Bauer often says. Both statements apply to 24 as well.

The show, which completed its fourth season in May, is known for its innovative structure, its suspense, and its plot twists. Each season represents one day during which a cataclysmic terrorist plot is about to unfold; each episode represents one real-time hour. A clock appears on the screen at different points to mark the time. More striking even than its innovations, though, is the show's political and moral toughness. It regularly plunges into issues like torture, deceit, and even murder as a way of getting at some enduring truths: that war affords few opportunities for moral purity; that we must still have the courage to make distinctions between unpleasant options, and act on our choices; that one does not have to be innocent to be right. As one character puts it, "This is a dirty business, and we're going to have to get our hands dirty if we want to fix it."

At least as concerns America's role in the world, this is not a message the left is comfortable with. But then, the left can't be terribly enamored of a program in which the Secretary of Defense ends an altercation with his left-wing son by snarling, "Spare me your sixth-grade Michael Moore logic!"

Since its plots often involve Islamic terrorists, 24 has run afoul of political correctness and some Muslim lobbying groups. When the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), an organization with a dubious record condemning terrorism that still manages to get White House invites, protested, Kiefer Sutherland taped a public service announcement urging viewers to remember that Muslim Americans are on our side in the war against terrorism. It is a message one urgently wishes to believe, but since the terrorists the government is fighting in real life are Islamic, 24 is only depicting reality. Sutherland himself conceded this point in an interview around the same time.

The protests clearly had an effect, though. A subsequent episode featured a few Islamic Americans giving earnest speeches expressing their desire to fight for America. No doubt such people exist, but the script still read as if authored by CAIR. Fortunately, such effects did not linger long. 24 is like a ring brawler who has a few bad rounds but then comes back swinging again, apparently rejuvenated.

The most recent season pulled no punches, for example, in its portrayal of the terrorist mastermind Habib Marwan. He does not turn out to be, as he might have on some other shows, a soulful human being fighting for a cause that, in the subjectivist's moral universe, can be readily defended. Rather, he is a ruthless killer who is like many jihadi front men in that he preaches the virtues of death and sacrifice while making elaborate plans for his own survival. He is also attuned to the emphasis liberal democracies place on rights and due process. When one of his men is apprehended, Marwan rings up a lawyer from "Amnesty Global," who quickly helps secure his release. It's a delicious slap at the organization that recently branded America's efforts to detain terrorists "the gulag of our time."

By the time Bauer tells Marwan, "For all the hatred that you have for this country, you don't understand it very well," the effects of the CAIR protests seemed to have long since dissipated.

THE SHOW'S RESILIENCE owes a good deal to Sutherland's mesmerizing portrayal of Jack Bauer. Perhaps somewhere a critic is attempting to explain how the son of one of Hollywood's renowned lefties has become an iconic star by playing a fearless terrorist fighter. Bauer is basically a superhero, but more in the fashion of Marvel comics than DC comics -- he brings the gift of freedom to others, but mostly ruin to himself and those he loves. However over the top his adventures may sometimes go, he is one of the most stirring characters the small screen has ever produced, and certainly on a short list of great TV patriots.

24 as a whole is patriotic in its honesty about the nature of our adversaries and its refusal to indulge in the moral equivocation favored by most critically lauded television dramas. You never hear CTU characters wondering while perched over their computers, "Why do they hate us?" or fretting that "we're just as bad as they are." 24 is also refreshing in its lack of interest in the standard hobby horses of gender and race. Though some read feminism into the show's gallery of can-do, deadly females (others read misogyny), the show doesn't speechify one way or the other. Likewise, America's political leaders are too busy trying to stop nuclear holocausts to give potted speeches about race. One of the program's enduring characters is David Palmer, the country's first black president. His character faces all kinds of stress, including coup attempts engineered by his own staff, but his race is never discussed.

The most serious problems with the show are its often implausible plot twists, like the presence of a mole within CTU every season or the curious inability of almost any CTU commando to survive field operations, other than Jack. Being a TV show, 24 also makes occasional stops into soap opera romance, often at the most unlikely times. Jack is not above pausing at high-stress moments to try patching up his always disastrous love life over his always-charged cell phone. But most of these problems fall within the realm of suspension of disbelief. It's still TV, after all, though its scenarios are distressingly real.

While 24 is becoming a pop culture institution, it remains to be seen whether it will flourish in reruns. Its cliffhanger nature has the immediacy of a sporting event, and as any sports buff can tell you, watching a game on tape just isn't the same. There is also the matter of the program's serial structure, which is not compatible with the one-off format of a typical drama or sitcom. The appeal of reruns is the ability to flick on and flick off, getting resolution in a matter of minutes and moving on to other things. 24 does not reward occasional involvement.

Reruns will have to wait, though, as Fox has renewed the show for two more seasons. Whatever its future holds, for sheer audacity it may never top a moment from the second season.

Jack Bauer is questioning a small-time criminal who has turned informer against a group that Bauer had previously infiltrated. The group in turn has ties to the terrorists plotting that season's mayhem. Bauer realizes that he will have to re-infiltrate the group to get information, but first he'll need to regain their trust. He decides that he'll need to bring them the informer's head. In the interrogation room, Bauer shoots and kills the informer, to the astonishment of his superior, CTU director George Mason. When Mason excoriates him, Bauer replies, "That's the problem with you, George, you're not willing to get your hands dirty. I'd suggest you roll up your sleeves."

But this is about as much pontification as we ever get out of Jack Bauer. As befits a man of action, he immediately gets down to the practicalities of the situation. Perched over the dead man's body, he looks up at George Mason and utters perhaps the show's most memorable line: "I'm going to need a hack saw."

And come next season, a new name.

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About the Author

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.