What Would Jack Bauer Do?

Article excerpt

[all terror, all the time]

Fox's hit drama normalizes torture, magnifies terror, and leaves conservatives asking why George W. Bush can't be more like 24's hero.

AGENT JACK BAUER has tortured his own brother, used household appliances to electrocute a terror suspect, staged the execution of a child, and even shot a man's wife to get information from him. On any given day, he will disarm suitcase nukes and presidential assassins. The orders of superior officers at the Counter Terrorist Unit don't deter him, the rule of law and even the threat of death do not diminish Bauer's iron will to defend America.

But this hero isn't real. He lives for one suspense-filled hour each week on Fox's cult series 24.

It's not just Bauer's over-the-top methods that keep audiences gripping their barcaloungers, it's also the show's novel format, which relies on "real-time" storytelling. Each episode reveals the events of one hour; each season adds up to one frenetic day. The common thread is terrorism-that constant existential threat demanding self-sacrifice and frequent disregard for the polite rules of procedure and diplomacy. It's Us or Them.

In a gentler time, conservatives would have deplored this gory primetime fare. But now, finding a worldview consonant with their hawkish tendencies, they have embraced Jack Bauer as their pop-culture icon, his name uttered as an invocation of the grit and guts needed in the Age of Terror.

Now in its sixth season, #4 claims ever more critical and commercial success. Nominated for 12 Emmys in 2006, it won four, including awards for Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Lead Actor for Keifer Sutherland's Jack Bauer. The latest season premiere drew nearly 16 million viewers, its largest audience ever.

For those unfamiliar with the pace and tone of the show, an example: in one story arc, Jack Bauer, retired from counterterrorism and still grieving the loss of his wife, is brought back into the CTU by a personal phone call from the president. Based on information obtained through torture under the rules of rendition in South Korea, the commander in chief begs the old soldier to save Los Angeles from an imminent threat. Within an hour Bauer suits up, shoots a witness, demeans his boss's unwillingness to "get his hands dirty," and just before a commercial break grabs a dead man's fleshy neck and announces, "I'm gonna need a hacksaw." Using the severed head to infiltrate a domestic right-wing terror group, he participates in the deaths of 30 co-workers and shoots a half dozen bad guys (and their pitbull) to obtain information about an impending nuclear attack. All this before lunch.

Producers Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran originally conceived 24 as a way to shake up the police procedural genre by replacing violent crime with terrorism and compressing the drama with their real-time gimmick. It was a shot in the dark. Sutherland told Interview magazine that he didn't believe the show would get picked up, owing to its unusual structure and multilayered plotting. But during production, before the show aired, the perennial topic of 24 was seared into America's consciousness. The first season debuted just eight weeks after 9/11, initially attracting a small but passionate audience and then emerging as a cultural phenomenon, inspiring slick references on ESPN and humor websites celebrating the cartoonish antics of the protagonist: "Jack Bauer has been to Mars. That's why there's no life on Mars."

Even though 24 has millions of hardcore fans, conservative opinion makers have distinguished themselves among fervent devotees of the show. Bauer's shade lingers over their imagination. Last May, Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor of National Review Online, asked What Would the Founders Do? author Richard Brookheiser, "Does the 8th Amendment suggest ... that the Founders would not side with Jack Bauer (pro) on torture?" In September, giving the impression that books make her think of television shows, when interviewing Washington Times national security reporter Bill Gertz about his latest tome, Lopez said, "Most of us think Jack Bauer nowadays when we think of counterintelligence. …