Friday, April 02, 2010


The news came out this week that the current season of 24 will be its last one. I've been watching 24 for seven of its eight years and after four or five seasons, it was easy to see scenes being recycled over and over. For its entire existence, the show has been interesting for what it supposedly says about the limits of counter-terrorism, with both sides plausibly making cases for being represented by the hero of heroes Jack Bauer.

What makes the show so compelling, especially at the start, was its use of real-time to create what was an absurd day that consisted nothing of action, with no time for sleep, rest, eating or bathroom breaks. That in itself was a commentary on torture, I suppose, along with its countless other depictions of torture, interrogation and the tension between legal process and outcomes. As the show wore on, however, it made more sense to stop pretending that everything was in real time, since it seemed increasingly absurd.

The wane of the show also exposed the limits of terrorism. Though it ranks very high in the minds of many, it's really not that deadly. Yes, millions of people might die, but conventional war is still far more deadly. After a few seasons where nuclear or biological attacks were threatened by plausible villains of all sorts, there was really nowhere to go with terrorism except to rehash the same threats and the same interrogations, interactions and so on.

One frightening possibility that the show never addressed and, fortunately, has never occurred in real life, is that of many small-scale attacks that would likely be impossible to stop. Nothing, let's face it, is stopping (or can stop) someone from walking into a mall, subway station, department store or the like and shooting as many people as possible. After this happened in Moscow recently, Slate had a good look at why this frightening phenomenon doesn't occur in America, even though it can.

24 was certainly not without its flaws, but it had startling bursts of creativity and an ability to protract and complicate plots in ways that became disorienting by the end but were thrilling at the start. Its comical repetitions of faux technobabble, Jack Bauer insisting that some pencil-pushing bureaucrat was going to have to trust him because "right now I'm the only one that can lead you to the nuclear material/virus/terrorists", his calls for a medic, and the Jack Bauer body count, all became endearing by the end.

The wrinkles are obvious, such as when you consider that Jack Bauer has killed 123 people in eight days, which, if you follow closely, have occurred over a span of about 20 years, making him about 60 years old in the current season. In this case, 24 is really like an aging athlete whose rapidly accelerating decline you try not to notice, for whom retirement would be a blessing that would preserve his legacy.

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