Why Jack Bauer is Hurting America
The first season of 24 was a bit of fresh air all things considered. It was serious, fast-paced action, the sort that usually you had to go to eighties movie theaters to see, but suddenly dropped out of nowhere on our collective post-9/11 asses. It was the perfect television show for that moment in time. It became a self parody almost comically quickly, with the first cracks showing during that first season, which we didn’t notice too much simply because the show kept moving so quickly that it kept you from thinking too hard about it.
It also landed at exactly the moment that TiVos and DVD box sets were starting to take over the television landscape. And since no one cared all that much about an action show starring some guy who hadn’t been in anything since Lost Boys except for the vastly underrated Three Musketeers, it felt like a show that snuck up on everyone. Hell, the idea of it surviving to even the second half of the first season was tentative enough that the first season’s entire initial storyline wraps up, conclusion and all, in the 12th episode, with the second half of the season serving more as sequel than extension.
Word of mouth got around, and I watched the entire first season while sweating my way through a studio apartment summer with no air conditioning. Three or four days and done. When you marathon shows you just tend to overlook the flaws a lot more, or at least make jovial drinking games out of them.
By the second season, the luster was deeply gone. Sure it ran for about half a lifetime longer, but it never had that same frantic absurdity of interest as it did in that first season. The moment where it really broke for good was in that second season, when in the wake of terrorists trying to nuke Los Angeles, it becomes clear late in the season that the recording of several Middle Eastern leaders discussing the plot was not only a forgery, but one created by rogue Americans.
Balloons under machine gun fire have deflated faster than my interest in those moments.
See, that’s the moment when the series made the decision that it would always take the easy way out. Oh sure, it would be massively convoluted with seven different twists between beep-boops, but at the end there would be a bad guy who needed a bullet in the head, and whose end would not in any way really change anything meaningful about the world. It became a sitcom drama at that point, one that would always reset the world rather than have anything evolve.
There’s a theory called linguistic determinism (sometimes referred to as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis) that in its strongest form posits that the language we have determines the way that we think about things. If you don’t have the words, you don’t have the concepts. So there are apocryphal stories about how the Aztecs could not process what they were seeing when the Spanish landed because they had no concept for boats or sails. It’s a theory that in its strong forms has been mostly discredited in empirical research, but it still has an important place in philosophical thought, especially its weak forms.
I think that stories work in a similar way. Stories are the ways that we process how the world works. Whether they are a reflection of our thoughts, an influence on them, or an exchange in both directions would require more work than I’ve space here, but it’s a lovely thought experiment.
For every villain, there is a hero capable of defeating him. Other than a minority of fiction in which the bad guy wins, we place our belief in a just world firmly into our fictions. The fact that the world doesn’t work this way, that the triumph of good is anything but guaranteed, is both a wonderful and terrible thing. Wonderful because by believing in something and living as if it is true, we make fictions realities. Terrible because accepting it at face value dooms us to the lazy conclusion that however bad things are, they will work out in the end whether we act or not.
Our fictions are not descriptive, they are prescriptive. They are the way we teach the next generation how the world works, not in a textbook level, but in the gut sense of how the world’s narrative unfolds. When these fictions are noble, then even when they are as effective as shaking a fist at the sky, they accomplish something by shifting what people believe the world can be.
And so we return to 24. It’s escapist fiction, I get that. It’s an expression of the wish that things were so simple that every tin pot dictatorship in the world is a SEAL Team away from apple pies and baseball. And there’s nothing wrong with wishing that were the case, but once Jack Bauer is cited on the floor of Congress, we’ve passed from the realm of silly escapism into deadly policy recommendations.
Insisting that the world is simple when it’s not, insisting that there are only stark extremes of morality and that the guys in white hats shoot the guys in black hats to save the day, does not make the world simple. It remains as complex as ever, no matter how many graves you fill.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.