Just as “All in the Family” defined the cultural upheaval of the 1970s, “Miami Vice” the glitzy ‘greed is good’ ethos of the 1980s and “Seinfeld” the merry self absorbed nihilism of the 1990s, “24″ captured the paranoia and intensity of the 2000s.
Let’s face it. The 2000s didn’t start on January 1, 2000. They started on September 11, 2001. This was a decade that was defined by the war on terrorism and everything that came with it. No show captured the mood of the moment like “24″. The show was conceived and the first season was produced prior to the September 11th attacks. It’s premiere, in November of 2001, coincided directly with it. The first season capturing the travails of Jack Bauer and the counter terrorism unit struck a cord at the time with viewers.
Around that time, Dick Cheney talked about how America had to ‘go to the darkside’ to deal with terrorists. Bend the rules. Do what’s necessary to beat the terrorists and save American lives. In 24′s Jack Bauer, this attitude was personified. Jack Bauer was willing to do anything — whether it be chop a guy’s head off to restore his cover with a terrorist organization or fly a plane into a nuclear explosion — to thwart the various terrorist plans of the show.
In the early seasons, Americans cheered the show on, as they did the Bush Presidency when his approval ratings were up in the 90s. Kiefer Sutherland rejected the political implications, arguing it was “just a tv show”. Joel Surnow, the show’s creator, embraced the political overtones in a controversial interview with ‘The New Yorker’. Clearly, whether Kiefer liked it or not, 24 had struck a cultural cord and owed much of its success to it.
As Bush and the war on terror waned in popularity, criticism of the show heated up. Did the ends always justify the means, as Jack routinely argued?
No aspect of the show was more controversial than Jack’s frequent use of torture. In a ticking time bomb situation, Jack always argued that torture was necessary. Those who argued against it on the show were often seen as short sighted, or putting their career or political considerations ahead of saving lives. Jack was willing to shoot people above the knee, shoot their innocent wives above the knee, simulate the execution of terrorist’s families, etc. As Jack put it, he was “willing to do what was necessary”.
By the sixth season (2007), when the Bush administration had reached the depths of disapproval, criticism of the show was at its most intense. The 7th season (2009) was largely a response to many of these criticisms. The entire season was an inquiry into the efficacy of Jack’s methods. Was he even the good guy? Did he do the right thing? Working in conjunction with the FBI, could he get results without using torture?
The writers even put Jack in front of Congress to answer the complaints and criticism. Jack explains his position at the end of the season 7: “I know these laws need to be more important than the fifteen people [in danger of a terrorist attack] on the bus. But, my heart couldn’t live with it.”
“24″ never portrayed Jack’s methods as the gung-ho solution to everything. Jack’s actions, while they frequently ended terrorist threats, never came without consequence. Indeed, as anyone who watched the show could attest, no one bore the brunt of these negative consequences more than Jack Bauer, losing nearly everything that mattered to him throughout the course of the series.
The show was also not simply a right wing template for the war on terror as many of the critics contended. One of the show’s heroes, David Palmer, was an African American Democrat President. The show also frequently went out of its way to separate radical Muslims from mainstream Islam. In one season, an attempt to place Muslims in internment camps following a series of bus bombings is particularly vilified. In another, the President does everything in his power to prevent anti-Muslim violence following a nuclear threat originating in the Middle East.
“24″, in addition to capturing the intensity, fears and paranoia of the 2000s also captured the changes in information technology that accompanied the decade. The counter-terrorist unit was largely a product of the information age. Jack Bauer didn’t go into the field with watches that turned into helicopters, shoes that served as phones and cars with gun turrets. He went into the field with a gun and a PDA. CTU’s office wasn’t a bunch of scientists churning out gadgets and weapons, it was filled with computer nerds intercepting enemy communications and providing satellite telemetry. It was the first show featuring people talking on their cell phone and texting as much as they do in the real world.
If you didn’t watch “24″ during it’s run, I highly suggest that you give it a chance. The first seven seasons are available to watch instantly on Netflix.