Sugar Water: “24” and the Enhanced Techniques of Viewer Torture

Written by Current Events, Sugar Water, Television

In February 2007 The New Yorker published “Whatever It Takes,” an article by Jane Mayer about the Fox series 24, and how the politically conservative views of the show’s creators, Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran, have influenced its use of torture scenes. “The truth is, there’s a certain amount of fatigue. It’s getting hard not to repeat the same torture techniques over and over,” said Howard Gordon, the show’s head writer, or “showrunner,” who described himself as a “moderate Democrat.”

In that same month, Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, announced he was running for president, while on 24 there was already a black president in the White House: Wayne Palmer, the brother of ex-president David Palmer, who was assassinated in season five. That’s right — two black presidents in a span of three fictional terms of office. Pretty liberal, huh? (Author and NPR favorite Sarah Vowell is a fan, and former Air America radio host Janeane Garofalo was a regular cast member this past season.) And how about all those scenes of indestructible government agent Jack Bauer using “enhanced interrogation techniques,” forcing terrorist suspects to talk so he can find whatever ticking time bomb is set to go off before the end of each season? Pretty right-wing, huh? (Rush Limbaugh’s a fan — and a good friend of Surnow’s — and Senator John McCain made a cameo in season five.)

24 is a bleeding-heart-liberal show soaked in the blood of our freedom-hating enemies. Everybody wins! Everybody except the show’s fans, who, regardless of their personal politics, know the once riveting show’s best days are behind it, and not just because the post-9/11 cultural zeitgeist can no longer lend 24 the kind of collective-unconscious off-screen urgency it used to. Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury summed it up nicely in a strip earlier this month, in which a CIA applicant who asks about “ticking time-bomb exemptions” is told, “Everyone’s over ’24.'” The truth is, there’s a certain amount of fatigue on both sides of the screen when it comes to the long-running series.

Yet time isn’t up for 24 in the sense that terrorism and torture are still hot topics in the news and on editorial pages around the world. One of President Obama’s first official acts in office, one that was hailed by the left and condemned by the right, was ordering the January 2010 shutdown of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where methods of “enhanced interrogation,” such as waterboarding, have reportedly been used on terrorist suspects since they were first approved by the Bush administration following the 9/11 attacks.

The president has faced setbacks, though. Without a clear plan in place from his administration for closing the prison and transferring its detainees to “supermax”-security facilities on U.S. soil, the Senate voted 90-6 on May 20 to block funding for the project, meaning those suspects won’t be going anywhere for a while.

Hooray! The world is safe from alleged evil once again! Or is it? (No. Alleged evil is always a threat — allegedly.)

24 spent a great deal of time this past season — its seventh — defending Jack Bauer’s (Kiefer Sutherland) use of torture, beginning with a Senate subcommittee hearing condemning Jack’s illegal actions in the name of patriotism. But in every instance in which our hero used “enhanced interrogation techniques” against the objections of President Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones) or his FBI colleagues, he got the information they wouldn’t have gotten through gentler, legal methods. So even though 24‘s showrunner told The New Yorker two years ago that torture scenes were becoming a crutch for the show’s writers, they were still willing to defend Jack’s right to be sadistic to the bitter end this season, even if it meant lots of redundant scenes of Jack essentially saying, “Told you so!”

In Mayer’s New Yorker article, cocreator Robert Cochran said, “Most terrorism experts will tell you that the ‘ticking time bomb’ situation never occurs in real life, or very rarely. But on our show it happens every week.” U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan went further and pointed out that in real life a fanatical Islamic terrorist wouldn’t be fazed by a Jack Bauer type doing “whatever it takes” to make him talk as time runs out: “They know if they can simply hold out several hours, all the more glory — the ticking time bomb will go off!” On 24, Jack is the only character who never “breaks,” even after 20 months of torture in a Chinese prison between seasons five and six.

On May 21, the day after the Senate’s vote, President Obama spoke at the National Archives, defending his original plan to shut down Gitmo and still pledging to transfer some of its occupants to the U.S., while admitting that “prolonged detention” of dangerous terrorism suspects who can’t be tried is “the toughest issue we face.” (Earlier, on May 15, he said he would restart Gitmo military tribunals, which he had once opposed, by September.)

Elsewhere in D.C. that day, former vice president Dick Cheney spoke at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, and implied that the current administration’s security policies are making the nation vulnerable to another terrorist attack. Columnist David Brooks pointed out in the New York Times the following day that the Bush administration tried to close Gitmo during the president’s second term as Cheney’s power was beginning to wane, and that it was the CIA, not the Obama administration, that tried to put an end to waterboarding as early as 2003. But as Cheney said in his televised speech last Thursday, when dealing with terrorists there can be “no middle ground.”

Meanwhile, under the ground in North Korea on Monday, a nuclear bomb went off. It was the country’s second nuclear test, despite the U.S. and the UN sending leader Kim Jong-il to bed without supper after the first one in 2006. Now U.S. officials are worried that Naughty Korea’s nuclear arsenal might fall into the hands of terrorists — like the Taliban fighters who’ve attacked three cities in Pakistan over the past couple days, perhaps? And doesn’t Pakistan have the bomb too? And how’s that uranium enrichment coming along in Iran?

Yes, these are still nerve-jangling times, even without the economy to worry about, but to give credit where credit is due, detonating that bomb was a clever move on Kim Jong-il’s part, seeing as how 24‘s seventh season ended on May 18 with Jack lying in a coma, waiting to die from an incurable disease brought about by exposure to a lethal bioweapon. Until he wakes up, bad guys around the world, real or otherwise, are free to do whatever they want.

Crack open a nondomestic brewski — it’s Militant Time!

When Jane Mayer’s article ran in The New Yorker in 2007, 24 was a month into its sixth season, riding high after winning the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series in the fall of ’06. The accolade was well deserved, but the award-winning fifth season did quite a bit of damage to the series down the road in its quest to raise the creative stakes as high as they could possibly go. By killing off former series regulars like President Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) and Michelle Dessler (Reiko Aylesworth) in the opening minutes of that season, followed in subsequent episodes by the deaths of shy intelligence analyst Edgar Stiles (Louis Lombardi) and the Counter Terrorist Unit’s number-two hunk, Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) — at least until he resurfaced this season, alive and kicking and shooting and killing, and providing the one genuine shocker of the year when he revealed his true intentions — the show became a cannibal, feeding off the dead to keep itself alive.

I read an article during season five — I’m sorry to say I can’t find it now — about the impact of this decade’s reality shows on scripted shows: viewers who liked Survivor, The Bachelor, and other programs in which a contestant is voted off each week had started to expect the same from serial dramas like 24 and Lost. (The same could even be said for movies like X-Men: The Last Stand, which came out at the tail end of 24‘s fifth season and killed off several of its heroes from the previous two installments.) But reality-show fame seekers are a dime a dozen; well-rounded characters aren’t. By thinning out its ranks for the sake of a few good shocks and emotional death scenes, 24 suffered in the long run.

Sutherland even claimed that he wouldn’t mind Jack being killed off if that’s what it took to keep the show from becoming predictable, but that development seemed unlikely. The story is the main attraction, but Sutherland is 24‘s star, and Jack was one of the best characters on TV before he was turned into Jesus at the beginning of season six, complete with long hair and a beard, after being tortured in China. His initials are one letter away from “J.C.,” but J.B. is the name of Archibald MacLeish’s play based on the Book of Job, and Jack Bauer certainly qualifies as a man who’s had his faith — in God and country — tested.

His initials are also the same as those of Jason Bourne, Robert Ludlum’s amnesiac assassin who debuted on movie screens in The Bourne Identity a few weeks after 24‘s first season ended. Together they became the template for the decade’s dominant action hero: physically lethal but emotionally damaged, with a complete absence of James Bond-style one-liners. Speaking of that other J.B., Bauer and Bourne’s influence could be felt in the most recent Bond film, 2008’s mediocre Quantum of Solace.

Jack has seen his fair share of death, including the demise of his wife, Teri (Leslie Hope), in the final seconds of season one; his bad brother and worse father (more on them in a minute); and many of his friends and colleagues. In some ways he’s already been dead for years, having numbed himself to the psychic pain that’s always right around the corner. Bullets have never stopped him, but that bioweapon looked like it would give him a chance to finally rest in peace. He was exposed to its nerve gas in the episode that aired March 23, but his cause for concern was a cause for celebration among viewers who’ve been watching 24 since it debuted and who suddenly had hope that it could go out with the biggest bang of them all — the death of its reluctant yet relentless hero.

Unfortunately, on March 24 it was announced that 24 would be returning for an eighth season, with Sutherland in tow. Longtime viewers knew the show wasn’t surprising them on-screen like it used to, but now it was clear it didn’t care about surprising them off-screen either. To quote the title of a more recent addition to Fox’s lineup: Lie to me! At least pretend there’s a chance he could die!

After being estranged from his daughter, Kim (Elisha Cuthbert), for several seasons, they reconciled when she discovered she’s Jack’s only hope for surviving the disease. But the potential cure involves a risky stem-cell procedure, and the season finale ended with Kim defying her father’s wishes to save him. It’s safe to guess that when season eight begins next January, Kim will have died to save her father, giving 24 a reason to keep going with Sutherland at the helm, as well as giving Jack yet another reason to quietly suffer at the hands of fate — and the clock.

But you know what’s nice about being a government agent who suffers quietly? You can drown out the silence by making terrorist suspects suffer loudly. Dick Cheney defended the Bush administration’s post-9/11 policies on CBS’s Face the Nation on May 10, saying that “perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives” were potentially saved by their “intelligent interrogation program,” i.e. torture. (His wife, Lynne, is an avowed fan of 24, whose debut was delayed for several weeks after 9/11 because of its terrorism-focused storyline.)

Joe Conason of Salon.com believes, however, that Bush and Cheney’s thumbs-up to torture was mainly used to justify their invasion of oil-rich Iraq in 2003. In particular, Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired U.S. Army colonel and former State Department aide to Colin Powell, said that when “harsh interrogation” was given the green light in the spring of ’02, “its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qaida.”

A similar blood-for-oil plot was used in 24‘s fifth season in 2006, but the president, Charles Logan (the terrific Gregory Itzin), was aghast when he discovered a top aide was behind the plot — except it turned out Logan himself was complicit in planned terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, giving 24 the chance to play off the conspiracy theory that 9/11 was an inside job.

The president was brought down at the end of the season, and because Itzin resembles Richard Nixon, it was easy to think the show’s writers were having fun with the notion of using a former president who believed nothing’s illegal if the commander-in-chief does it and transferring his likeness to the then-current president, who shared Nixon’s philosophy. (Even though 24 doesn’t reveal its characters’ political-party affiliations, if you accept that David Palmer was a Democrat, that would make Logan, originally the VP to Palmer’s successor, a Republican.)

The popular belief that President Bush was merely a puppet controlled by Cheney or a “shadow government” was also addressed: Logan answered to mysterious power mongers, one of whom was identified the following season as Jack’s brother, Graem (Paul McCrane). And that’s when 24 really went off the deep end.

The idea of mysterious billionaires controlling the White House’s every move is tons of fun, especially on a suspense drama like 24, but once a variation on Cain and Abel was introduced in season six, pitting self-sacrificing patriot Jack against self-serving Graem, who also considered himself a patriot (the American bad guys on 24 always do — the mark of a good villain is that he believes in his cause, but it’s grown stale in this setting), it felt far too convenient in thematic terms. As Howard Gordon said to the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2007, “I told the writers, ‘This is probably a crazy, terrible idea, but what if Jack’s brother is Paul McCrane?’ It was preposterous, but almost instantly, we all decided it was too good to resist.” No, you were right the first time.

Graem was just a weasel, though, not truly evil. That adjective went to his and Jack’s father, Phillip (James Cromwell), who was also involved in the conspiracy from season five. After Jack tortured Graem to get him to talk about the “suitcase nuke” that had gone off in Los Angeles earlier in the day, Phillip killed his youngest son so he couldn’t spill any more beans. (Funny, the Bauers don’t look Greek.) At that point I prayed Jack’s mom gave him lots of hugs when he was little, because I’m pretty sure he killed the bogeyman in self-defense at age seven, thus beginning his lifelong quest to win the war on terror.

Maybe it’s just a case of the novelty having finally worn off, the formula exhausted. When 24 debuted six weeks after 9/11, it wasn’t an instant hit, either because terrorism-as-escapism wasn’t most people’s idea of comfort TV at the time or because the show’s unique format — 24 episodes, each played out in “real time” and representing one hour of an entire day — demanded that viewers pay attention and keep up each week. The format caught on, though, inspiring similar “serial” dramas like ABC’s Lost, Fox’s Prison Break, and NBC’s Heroes.

In some ways it’s a miracle 24 was as good as it was for as long as it was, especially since the real-time gimmick doesn’t allow for flashbacks, slow-motion gunplay, or even internal-monologue-style scenes in which Jack pieces the previous episodes’ clues together in his mind. The show’s producers considered switching to a format of self-contained episodes in season two, like what you see on CSI and its various spin-offs, but they decided to stick with their “hook,” and although 24 occasionally derailed in its first five seasons with plot developments like Teri’s amnesia or Kim’s bad habit of attracting hungry mountain lions — female characters on 24, especially in the early years, were often portrayed as either helpless, conniving, or just plain evil — its locomotive narrative quickly got back on track.

But when your show develops a reputation for being unpredictable, it has to be difficult to constantly keep viewers on their toes, especially after you reach 100 episodes. 24‘s unpredictability has become entirely predictable by now — Fox’s tagline of “So Dangerous” in promos this past season was laughable, unless of course you’re an anti-torture advocate like Patrick Finnegan (or Janeane Garofalo, who, when asked by Time Out Chicago if she thinks she has a responsibility not to cash checks from a show that goes against her outspoken political views, gave an unsatisfactory answer: “If there is, I didn’t live up to it … so I have disappointed that standard”) — making it difficult to overlook repetitive subplots involving government moles or interoffice love affairs, whether they’re happening at CTU headquarters in L.A. or FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., where season seven took place. In fact the current he-said, she-said drama surrounding Nancy Pelosi’s knowledge of waterboarding in 2002 feels like an underwritten 24 subplot that would be quickly abandoned after a few episodes.

Plus, this season’s attack on the White House by African terrorists was a retread of the three attacks on CTU headquarters in previous seasons. You wouldn’t think a counterterrorism agency would be so easy to break into, but since I used to make my Star Wars action figures travel to a third Death Star of my own creation when I was ten years old, I won’t pretend that 24 is easy to write. It’s just that narrative invention is no longer one of the show’s strengths.

(Like Star Wars, 24 is layered enough to inspire fan curiosity about its characters’ origins: the possibility of a spin-off series or movie featuring a much younger Jack during his days in the military might be a good way to “reboot” the show, just as the James Bond, Batman, and Star Trek film franchises have been given new life in recent years. One Internet rumor near the end of season six posited that the show got way off track that year because its best writers were busy working on a 24 feature film when it came time to write new episodes in 2006; they were pulled off the film, which has been in limbo ever since, once season six started to go downhill.)

Even during its first five seasons, 24 quickly adopted the “more is more” strategy of action-movie sequels. Season one centered on an assassination plot during a presidential primary, but subsequent seasons involved the White House and whoever is president on the particular “day” in which the storyline takes place. (The America that 24‘s characters live in is a scary-ass place, because in addition to potentially cataclysmic terrorist threats popping up every 18 months or so, there’s also massive corruption in the highest levels of government, and presidents don’t last long in office. In the dozen years, give or take a few, in which 24‘s narrative has taken place, there have been seven presidents occupying the highest office in the land, with David Palmer being the only one so far to make it through a full term.) More than halfway through season two, a nuclear bomb was detonated in a remotely populated area in the California desert, but in season six the suitcase nuke Jack questioned Graem about went off in the town of Valencia, 30 miles north of Los Angeles, in just the fourth episode, killing more than 12,000 people.

Scale back, 24, scale back! You’ve been bumping your head on the ceiling of “Wait wait, I can top that” for too long!

The original plan for season seven was a back-to-basics storyline, with Jack fighting genocide in Africa. But budgetary concerns dashed those plans, so a two-hour TV movie called 24: Redemption was made instead, acting as a “bridge” between seasons six and seven and airing last November. “Less is more” is always welcome on 24, but the idea of the white man saving all the helpless black people and therefore saving himself has been done before. Redemption‘s plot carried over into season seven, with those terrorists from the fictional African country of “Sangala” attacking the White House because President Taylor was planning to invade the country to stop further genocide.

If, as a viewer, you thought to yourself, “Is this some right-wing comment on Bill Clinton’s inaction in Somalia and Rwanda back in the ’90s?” you were correct (hooray for the right!), except that President Taylor has a Hillary Clinton-like resolve (hooray for the left!). And don’t forget that when the New York City-bound eighth season begins next January, the stem-cell procedure used on Kim to save Jack’s life (hooray for the left!) will most likely end up taking hers (hooray for the right!). Once again, everybody wins — except the fans.

In the final few scenes of 24‘s season-seven finale, a dying Jack told FBI agent Renee Walker (Annie Wersching) that she should “try to make choices you can live with.” A few minutes later, a Muslim imam Jack had asked to pray with him said, “We live in complex times, where nothing is black and white … Let us forgive ourselves for all the wrongs that we have done.” All of which seems to add up to this: break the law and beat up suspects if that’s what it takes to save the day, but don’t beat yourself up about it at the end of the day.

Fine, I forgive you, 24. But the choices you’ve made the past three seasons aren’t that easy to defend. And since it’s all too easy to pull my eyes away from the screen these days, I can’t really say I’m being forced to endure cruel and unusual punishment — but you are slowly killing your own legacy by staying on the air, which is its own form of viewer torture. Here’s hoping President Obama’s choices will be easier to support, since those will actually affect Americans’ lives in a world that may be free of ticking time bombs but is rarely predictable.