The Real Reality TV
Alston, Joshua, Newsweek
Byline: Joshua Alston
In the new season premiere of the real-time terrorist thriller 24, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is a former federal agent trying to leave behind his run-and-gun past to spend more time with his family. Just as he's preparing to board a plane out of New York, a hot lead falls into his lap--there's a terrorist plot afoot, lives are at stake, and every second counts. If this sounds all too familiar, it's because it's the same just-when-I-thought-I-was-out narrative device 24 has used season after season to do what it does best: imperil the American way of life and task Bauer and his by-any-means-necessary techniques with neutralizing the threat. By 24's sixth season, television critics (present company included) wondered publicly if the show's rigid conceit and post-9/11 histrionics had constrained it to the point of diminishment. Yet here we are at season eight, and suddenly 24 feels as absorbing, vital, and relevant as ever. What a difference Christmas Day makes.
Had the 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab not allegedly attempted to bring down a Detroit-bound commercial jet with a hidden explosive device, viewers might have bemoaned this season of 24 as more of the same. But now, more of the same is exactly what viewers will want to see--an agent like Bauer, who knows a thing or two about tricks with explosives, using his instincts and wherewithal to thwart terrorists even as his superiors bungle. What's more, we spent several episodes in season two thinking an Iranian character was a terrorist, but (surprise!) it was actually his perky white fiancee, which suggested that the threat of terrorism defies the stereotypical Middle Eastern profile, as Abdulmutallab bears out. The show now has an advantage not seen since the first season debuted just two months after 9/11: a real-world reminder that an exaggeration of risk doesn't mean there is no risk at all.
But the truth is, topical dramas have an advantage across the board: they are succeeding everywhere (unlike, say, talk shows on NBC, which will almost certainly be in the market for this kind of programming in its post-Leno world). The roots go deeper than the ripped-from-the-headlines plots of crime procedurals such as Law & Order. In Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston plays Walter White, a mild-mannered high-school chemistry teacher who uses his science savvy to become a crystal-meth kingpin. Why? He's contracted lung cancer and wants to provide for his family in the event of his death, rather than leave them saddled with astronomical medical expenses. A month before the series premiere, while the show was still in production, a Bakersfield, Calif., chemistry teacher was arrested for--guess what?--producing crystal meth on school grounds. Now the shows are not only ripped from the headlines, the headlines also seem to be ripped from the shows.
No matter which tributary of the zeitgeist you find relevant, there's most likely a scripted drama trading on your anxiety. …