Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Presidentialism, Political Fiction, and the Complex Presidencies of Fox's 24

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Presidentialism, Political Fiction, and the Complex Presidencies of Fox's 24

Article excerpt

This article explores how the Fox television network program 24 offers a compelling yet oddly ambivalent vision of the U.S. presidency. Specifically, 1 examine 24V articulation of presidentialism in depictions of the nation's chief executive and reveal how those depictions are actually quite complex and layered. Ultimately. I suggest that as 24 continues to circulate as a meaningful popular culture text, it may also continue to influence how Americans see the presidency, offering its audiences a sense of the presidency that is conflicted and complicated, yet strangely reassuring in its vision of presidentialism and presidential authority.

The first season of the highly popular, very controversial Fox network program 24 took place, as viewers were told at the beginning of every episode, "on the day of the California presidential primary." And on that day, Senator David Palmer, the likely winner of the primary and the odds-on favorite to be the next president of the United States, was having a very bad time of it. Two assassination attempts were just the beginning. As the minutes and hours of the program's first 24-hour day ticked by, Palmer learned that his son was implicated in the murder/death of his daughter's rapist; that his wife was an unethical, controlling manipulator who orchestrated his own seduction by a campaign aide; and that Serbian terrorists were trying to engineer his death and political demise.

As he ponders the end of his marriage in the midst all of the turmoil engulfing him, Palmer receives sage advice from his chief of staff Mike Novick. "Let me explain something to you," Novick tells Palmer. "Once you're in the White House, everything defers to the office. It's what you need to do the job. If it's your marriage that helps you, that's great. But if not, that's okay too. You can have whatever you want, David" (Surnow and Loceff 2001). It is tough to be the president on 24, and Novick's advice to David Palmer proves prescient. The nation's chief executives, as they are portrayed on this dramatic program, face an array of significant, even existential, national threats that demand their immediate action and attention. They are killed and injured, stressed and

relieved, decisive and vacillating, noble and venal. But however they are depicted over the show's eight seasons, "everything defers to the office," and the presidency plays a critical role in the program's action-packed days of adventure and suspense.

24 debuted on November 6, 2001, after a week's delay because of the 9/11 attacks. For eight seasons over 192 episodes (along with some additional "special" episodes and movies), viewers of the Fox network program watched as Counter-Terrorism Unit agent Jack Bauer along with a his co-workers, family, and friends confronted an array of terrorist threats, from nuclear bombs to chemical nerve gas, from random suicide bombings to biological weapons. As Bauer relentlessly pursued terrorists of every hue and nationality, various government agencies, from Homeland Security to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, as well as other state and local law enforcement, assisted him or impeded his efforts. At the same time, 24 also depicted over its eight seasons seven presidents and their administrations, often devoting considerable plot and character development to these American chief executives. This analysis takes seriously 24's depictions of the U.S. presidency and offers a critical reading of the various meanings and messages about the presidency offered by the program.

Reading 24 Critically

Much of the critical attention paid to 24 as a significant television text concerns the management and negotiation of torture by the program's primary character, Jack Bauer. From a variety of angles--from ethics to political and critical theory to legal analysis to gender--critics have scrutinized the program's discussion of torture in the context of public concerns about terrorism. …

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