‘24′ Cancelled: Kiefer Sutherland Reflects on the Controversial Show
“Can you imagine the horror when you’ve sat down to create, out of your imagination, the absolutely worst of fears to test a hero to the ultimate — and that fear and much worse becomes a reality this country was having to face?”
It was not a question. Kiefer Sutherland is recalling the signal moment in the history of “24” that seared itself on the minds of everyone involved in the show, not least its long-time writer and executive producer Howard Gordon. Both honed in on the memory in separate conversations Friday.
The writers had shot at least half of the first year of “24” before the terrible events of September 11, including the episode in which hijackers use an American airliner as their instrument of destruction, Sutherland recalled.
The show’s schedule meant airing that episode just six or seven weeks after the attacks.
They had to pare it back considerably, Gordon notes. “Even so, we felt when that calamity struck it may just have meant the end of the show — others did too, even at the network. There was a sense that people now just wanted blue skies stuff and music, after all this — I think they were using a Depression era metric.”
Things did not, of course, work out that way. What huge numbers of Americans wanted, and got in “24,” was that heroic guardian of our national security, Jack Bauer, who could undo the most horrific of terror plots ever conceived, however brilliantly designed — the impossibly complex nuclear device that would kill millions in New York or Chicago, the lethal gas to emanate from the labrynths of a cooling system — and, along the way, visit mayhem on the plotters as he extracted necessary information from them. That audience would doubless have relished Jack Bauer and those story lines even before the hijackers drove those fuel-laden planes and their passengers into the Twin Towers, and the Pentagon.
Afterwards was another matter. It was a new world — with a new, reality-scarred grasp of a malignant enemy plotting acts of destruction against us in far off places and also some much nearer, as we were to learn. It could have surprised no one that in such a time Jack Bauer and “24” vaulted to a special place in the American psyche.
It was a fact entirely clear to the show’s star — he knows what Jack Bauer meant to people and why. Even so, he’s impelled to stress a point clearly important to him.
Sutherland’s flow of argument is agile, swift, to a remarkable degree uninterrupted by ums, ahs, or any of the other innumerable verbal tics that afflict people talking to interviewers. His command of language is evident and it’s striking. That’s not just because it comes from the actor who created so memorably monosyllabic and tight-lipped a hero as Jack Bauer, but because it’s a capacity that stands out like neon in the era of “you-know”s.
“I’m a television actor, dealing with great drama,” Sutherland said of the accusations that the show exalted brutal interrogations.” We were being politicized by both sides of the aisle. You had Bill Clinton calling it his favorite TV show and Dick Cheney saying the same thing. In no way did we intend to justify any behavior in the real world.
For showrunner Gordon, the crucial turn in the accusations came with the events at Abu Ghraib and then, charges by New Yorker writer Jane Mayer that “24” stood as encouragement to the brutal interrogations of suspected terrorists in the real world. Human rights groups made similar complaints.
“Up to then we’d stayed clear of political controversy — Barbra Streisand loved the show as much as Rush Limbaugh did.” He added: “Jane Mayer had an agenda. I fear she used the show’s popularity to advance her point of view — she was piggy backing on the show. We did, in the end, find a way to get her into the show. We named that character after her — Senator Mayer.”
He had some regrets about reacting to those attacks, and yielding to the pressures, making significant changes in the show. Season Six, for instance, finds Jack Bauer examining his conscience, worrying about his life’s work. He felt more justified responding to the concerns that plot lines like the one about a Muslim American family of terrorists, could incite hatred.
“There was a big poster of that family on the Freeway—we were very proud of that plotline—but it inflamed Muslim advocacy groups who charged we were handmaidens of Islamophobia. We didn’t want to be that.”
In any case, good plotting required diverse villains, Gordon points out. “We were equal opportunity writers in that regard—there were Russians, Swedes, the Chinese, some white guy in the end, who was after the oil.”
There is much that the show’s star and its producer look forward to after the end of “24’’s eight season run, which may account for the unmistakable air of peace –- even pleasure — in their voices, as they talk about the decision to close it all down. It was the right thing, Gordon said.
And does he leave in good conscience, even after delivering a character like the addled dreamer, President Allison Taylor, clunking around the White House — one who could well undermine prospects for any actual woman candidate for the presidency?
“Keep watching,” he said, briskly.
It’s impossible to imagine not doing so. The clock ticks till May 24.
Source: WSJ by Dorothy Rabinowitz March 28, 2010