The Continued Success of '24' Could Speak to American Values Many Liberals Fail to Recognize

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By Michael, Vanderbilt University

In the current American discussion about enhanced interrogation techniques and torture, one element of the debate has been conspicuously absent: FOX's smash hit television program, "24."

I am a recent convert to the show, having watched every episode this season (and excitedly anticipating Monday's season finale).


I am also in the middle of catching up chronologically via DVD. I have only seen Seasons 1 and 2 so far, but three seasons are certainly enough to generate an understanding about the show and its straight-from-the-headlines content.

Actor Kiefer Sutherland has insisted that "24" is just a television show, calling the sort of interrogations his character Jack Bauer performs as a "dramatic device to show the urgency of the situation." Sutherland's point is that the show is meant simply for entertainment.

Still, it is quite good entertainment. The show features excellent writing, solid performances from both lead and supporting actors and just enough believability to keep viewers wondering if some of this espionage really does happen. Small wonder that "24" has maintained and increased its audience nearly every season, a feat unmatched by other recent serialized dramas like "Lost" or "Heroes." In the smorgasbord of television program choices, the show is a consistent standby for that fickle 18-24 male demographic.

The entertainment factor is critical to the success of "24", but perhaps that success speaks to a larger cultural point about Americans' views on the use of torture. Plenty of people from Jon Stewart to Barack Obama consider the use of enhanced interrogation techniques as a betrayal of American values. The accompanying assumption is that perhaps most Americans believed such methods were necessary soon after September 2001 but "on a bright, sunny, safe day" in 2009, we naturally and unequivocally oppose this torture.

On the one hand, this seems like a reasonable assumption, given the political fallout from the Bush administration appears on the surface to be a repudiation of the Republican presidency and several of its policies. The country may be beyond the point where pointing out the problems with assumptions like these, such as the dishonest conflation of the Abu Ghraib torture crimes and the official happenings at Gitmo, does any good in the debate. President Obama, Democrats and many liberals within the media establishment would have Americans believe that the debate over torture is over. To quote Jon Stewart at his most emphatic, "we do not torture."

Does the continued popularity of "24" suggest that Americans are not in sync with that assessment? Perhaps. Political philosopher and professor Eduardo Velasquez, in his book, "A Consumer's Guide to the Apocalypse," suggests that as consumers of media, "we are what was ingest," meaning that our popular culture reflects our own morals and beliefs. Velasquez uses this assertion to criticize mainstream popular culture, but the same could partly explain why a television show about counter-terrorism is so compelling.

We so desperately want Jack Bauer to do whatever it takes to stop the bomb or to save the president. We keep tuning in even though some of his methods are harsh or even disturbing. When, in the current season, Jack tortures the traitorous congressional staffer Ryan Burnett with a taser (in the White House!), we are so concerned about the imminent attack on the president and the country that we are devastated when the law steps in just before Jack can get the information he needs.

Scenes like these are the secret to the popularity of "24." The conflict between government protocol and the need to stop attacks creates moments of fantastic suspense. The audience always sides with Jack Bauer because we know what he knows. We trust Jack because, to paraphrase an oft-repeated line in the series, we don't have another choice. It may not be an across-the-board approval of these unsavory elements of fiction for application in real life, but the show's success also discounts any complete rejection of enhanced interrogation by mainstream America.

I do not argue that the actions of Jack Bauer and the events of "24" validate one side of the debate. For what it's worth, I believe the enhanced interrogation techniques employed by intelligence agents in the name of protecting American lives are justifiable. "24" features characters put into these sorts of situations, but while the show may be topical it certainly does not (nor should it) make a clear verdict on what should be official United States intelligence policy.

"24" is popular because it contains all the elements of thrilling television. Still, the show's continued success could speak to American values many liberals fail to recognize. If and when the United States is under serious threat of an imminent terrorist attack, we would all want someone like Jack Bauer on the case.