Saturday, April 03, 2010

Saying Goodbye To America's Post 9/11 TV Hero

By Claudia Rosett, 04.01.10, 12:01 AM ET

After eight seasons, the Fox series 24, starring Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, America's one-man do-or-die counterterrorism force--is due to go off the air when the current season wraps up on May 24.

I'll miss Jack. It's only television, but I think he's summed up something important about the American spirit: a will to defend his country, against all attackers, no matter what the odds. That fighting spirit is still evident among American troops on the battlefield. But in Washington's political quagmires, over the nine years since Sept. 11, it's been substantially snuffed out. Instead, policy revolves endlessly around denial of real threats and the impulse to Mirandize enemies on foreign fields of war and bestow upon them the rights of U.S. citizens at home--even if that means releasing them to kill Americans again.

24 is a thriller wrapped around a gimmick: Each season presents a single, action-packed day, spread out across 24 one-hour episodes (occasionally doubled up for an extra kick), all supposed to take place "in real time." Each second of the ticking digital clock is meant to correspond to a second in yet another day from hell for hero Jack, as he battles to save America from scheming terrorists and their weapons of mass destruction.

Conceived before Sept. 11, and scheduled to air in the initial fall lineup of 2001, 24's premiere was briefly delayed. The producers were worried that the subject cut too close to the horrors of the real attacks. In November 2001, they went ahead. 24 was a hit. America was ready for a hero devoted round-the-clock to foiling terrorists.

When I first tuned in, with the pilot show, I found the real-time premise ridiculous. Jack was working for the "Counter-Terrorism Unit" (CTU) in Los Angeles. If the show had lived up (or down) to its billing of horological verisimilitude, he would have spent most of the episode stuck in L.A. traffic.

But I also found the show utterly addictive. It takes more than gridlock to stop Jack, who will do anything and everything to honor his word, defeat the terrorists and save America. Moving at a hectic clip, communicating via an endless supply of cellphones with the faithful tech-wiz Chloe (his most enduring sidekick), Jack tackles at least one deadly crisis per episode, and usually more. Meanwhile, the subplots proliferate into love interests, treachery, coup conspiracies, shootouts, inter-agency rivalries, anguished decisions and--always--some weapon of mass destruction being hauled around, dickered over and primed to go off. Since 2002, the show has rung all the changes on major WMD, some more than once, from chemical to biological to nuclear weapons.

This season the chief setting is New York City with trouble spilling out from a summit at the United Nations. The weapon, courtesy of Middle East politics and the Russian mob, is a rogue cargo of nuclear fuel. Over the past 14 hours, Jack has already been knocked flat by an exploding helicopter, stabbed in the belly, tortured with electrical shocks and, above all, impeded by the usual in-house idiocy and conniving of CTU's latest bosses. Yet he goes on, apparently recovering from his wounds during the commercial breaks.

But as the episodes have stacked up, so have the controversies and the scars, both on-screen and off. Though he struggles on, our hero is weary. It's not just the extras who bite the dust. Every so often, major characters die too--felled by everything from poisoned gas and car bombs to radiation and bullets. Part of the suspense is that you never quite know when something is going to go mortally wrong. Since the show began, Jack has seen his wife murdered and close friends killed. Jack himself has suffered heart attacks under torture, acquired (and kicked) a heroin addiction in order to infiltrate a WMD-dealing drug mob, and received what should have been a fatal whiff of a horrendous bioweapon that would have killed anyone else on the planet.

Meanwhile, out there in the real world, there have been protests over Jack's no-holds-barred interrogation techniques--never mind that this is just a TV show. The producers have been increasingly at pains to weigh down Jack with angst and provide a multicultural parade of villains, including stock Hollywood variations on the motif that the worst enemies are those within. A recurring theme is perfidy among trusted characters, with shadowy groups and ruthless traitors--including at one point Jack's own brother--plotting to attack the country and seize the White House.

Some of this has been far more inane than the real-time premise. What's redeemed it, repeatedly, is the Jack Bauer character. Played by Sutherland as a modest guy sporting a T-shirt and beat-up leather jacket, Jack is the man you want in your fox hole. When he goes to work to stop terrorists, he doesn't quit. No matter if his bosses betray him, his colleagues shun him, Congress tries to pillory him and the terrorists just keep coming. He finds a gun, phones Chloe for some hi-tech backup and soldiers on.

That job has been getting ever tougher. In Season 6, three years ago, Jack returned to the U.S. dazed and angry after an interlude in which Washington let him languish in a Chinese prison. When Season 7 opened, he had the U.S. law on his tail and was living in self-imposed exile in Africa. The current season began with Jack in New York, newly become a grandfather, declaring he was fed up with counter-terrorism, and wanted nothing more than to fly back to California with his daughter and her husband and spend his days in tranquil retirement, dandling his grandchild.

But each time a fresh crisis yanks him back into action. He is the only man who can stop the next attack. Except after May he will be gone. It seems there are plans for a Jack Bauer movie to follow, also starring Sutherland. But that won't be the same as that weekly hour of escape that since Sept. 11 has allowed us to forget the endless absurdities of real-world politics and watch a guy whose mission in life is to protect us, no matter what obstacles the bureaucrats and politicians--not to mention the terrorists--throw in his way. That might just be the definition of a modern hero.

Claudia Rosett, a journalist in residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column on foreign affairs for Forbes.

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