Why Jack Bauer is Hurting America
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Why Jack Bauer is Hurting America

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | May 22, 2014 | Comments ()

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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.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Erik

    I love 24 and always will. Sure, as you say the first season is still the best, the rest of them are still pretty good (at least if you take off your thinking hat and just watch-it DEFINITELY helps to have a few or more drinks whilst watching).

  • blort

    for god sakes will someone during just one segment of 24 let jack bauer take a crap? Just once....

  • wonkeythemonkey

    I prefer the "Super-Worf" hypothesis, personally. It states that all concepts are infinitely cooler when spoken by Michael Dorn in Klingon makeup.

  • Halbs

    I don't know if 24 is that simple, it seems like Jack Bauer pays a pretty high price anytime he tries to help anyone. And he's been captured and tortured and nothing is really solved, so wouldn't that mean it's NOT saying that you just shoot the bad guys and problem is solved? Maybe I'm not processing your piece correctly.

  • Mathieu Queau

    You are totally right and I think you processed the piece correctly. SLW really didn't get the show imo, it is like we haven't seen the same show at all. I am very confused by this article that is just.... completely mistaken imho.
    Plus, judge a show on 2 seasons ?

  • Andrew

    I took a ton of linguistics courses in college, so yeah! Sapir-Whorf!

  • Pitry

    But... if you took linguistics courses in college, I hope they mentioned that Whorf never advocated for the hypothesis named after him and that Sapir had even less to do with it? The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is a misunderstanding of what Whorf was discussing :(

  • Really good piece, SLW.

    I agree with you that fiction, both great and not so great, is a reflection of its time. The Crucible and Dr Strangelove can only come out of the height of the Cold War and the Red Scare. The X-Men and Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" are reflections of the Civil Rights Movement. And so on.

    Where I think "24" really fell apart though was that it always felt the need to reset the world. If you have the number of terrorist attacks that the fictional America President Pedro Cerrano leads, America wouldn't go back to being all Land of the Free, BBQs and Myspace. There'd be changes on a national, state and local level.

    But "24" wanted to have its cake (There's terrorists everywhere! Be afraid!) and eat it too (But it's OK. We're America and everything will be back to normal soon). Instead of showing how constant nuclear and bio threats, terrorist attacks and the like would fundamentally change our country, they couldn't see themselves going down that road.

    Meaning, in the end, all the craziness was for nothing.

  • Tom

    This reminds me of Donald Trump insisting that all the US needs to do is "stand up to China" as if figuring out what that is, let alone doing it, is simple. I bet Jack Bauer could "stand up to China."

  • Enrique del Castillo

    Well...he spent some time in some random chinese prison so I think they beat him at that.

  • Repo

    Articulate as always SLW. However, Young Guns was a pretty good post Lost Boys flick too.

  • Cheetahdriver

    "vastly underrated overrated and awful Three Musketeers

    There, I fixed that for you. I fear you may have confused the exquisite 1973-4 version with his Disney "Young Guns go to Paris" version, although I am not sure how...

  • zeke_the_pig

    Linguistic determinism has long been one of my favourite mental footballs to play around with, and this was an absolutely fantastic piece, Steven.

    'Once Jack Bauer is cited on the floor of Congress, we’ve passed from the realm of silly escapism into deadly policy recommendations,' is especially worthy of note. Your country and its two-way/chicken-egg relationship with its own myths and narratives - and the way those are exported around the world - is a fascinatingly complex one. Though all countries and cultures of course have - and have always had - this relationship, the fact that your cultural dominance came of age at the same time as the greatest explosion of communications in history does put yours in a league of its own, both in terms of its nature and its reach.

    It did make me think of a quote by a great European philosopher of our times who had an interesting, outsider take on things:
    'Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he's John Wayne? Rambo? Marshal Dillon?'- Hans Gruber

  • Lord Inferno

    How about honoring a WWE wrestler on the floor of the House? Watch it till the end for a great awkward moment.



  • zeke_the_pig

    And this is only tangentially related, but I'm fond of posting it as a reminder of one of the few acceptable utterances in the British House of Commons:

    'That this House notes with sadness the 10th anniversary of the death of Bill Hicks, on 26th February 1994, at the age of 33; recalls his assertion that his words would be a bullet in the heart of consumerism, capitalism and the American Dream; and mourns the passing of one of the few people who may be mentioned as being worth of inclusion with Lenny Bruce in any list of unflinching and painfully honest political philosophers.'

  • zeke_the_pig

    Wow. Just, wow.

  • Jon Clarke

    Tried binge watching it on Netflix. Couldn't get through Season 2.

  • thatsmrsnyder

    I'd love to say how great and thoughtful a piece this is, as is the usual for you. However, I am completely distracted in reminiscence for how great that 1993 Three Muskateers was. Seriously, how is it only a 6.1 on IMDB!?

    Porthos: "Champagne? "
    Athos: "We're in the middle of a chase, Porthos."
    Porthos: "You're right - something red."

  • Jericho Smith

    I just came home from the library with that version of The Three Musketeers and cited that exact exchange to explain why I didn't want the newer version.

  • Cheetahdriver

    I had to walk away a bit before finishing the article. I scrolled past that hiccup so I didn't see it when I came back.

    And SLW seemed like such a nice boy too...

  • Fabius_Maximus


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