Television After 9/11: A Continuing Series

Part 4A: Howard Gordon, 24 and What Both Sides Never Got About Jack Bauer

It’s hard to deny it didn’t matter. Just not for the reasons I loved it. tvseriesfinale.com

It is almost impossible to discuss TV after 9/11 and not bring up 24. Perhaps more than any other cultural landmark of the new millennium, it basically became a political talking point on both sides of the aisle. Republicans would frequently refer to Jack Bauer as if he were a real character (John McCain actually made a blink and you’ll miss it cameo) and Democrats argued just as strongly that the narrative of the series gave a greenlight to the methods of ‘enhanced interrogation’ that would be brought up so often during and after the second Bush Administration.

What makes this interesting is that when the series was created, none of the writers ever imagined how much they would be contributing to political discourse or, indeed, how much of a negative effect they might have on it. And to truly understand the narrative of this show, we must primarily talk about one of the major writers for it, who perhaps not coincidentally, became one of the biggest success stories in the era of Peak TV. Howard Gordon is so far in this century, the only show-runner to have won Best Drama Emmys for two different series. (This may say more about the repetitiveness in their selections than anything else, but that’s an old story.) And in his two successes — both of which ran eight seasons, we got two very different views on how the War on Terror should be waged and the cost it would take on everybody involved.

I will admit that I have a personal bias here: 24 remains one of my all-time favorite series, and I was always personally high on almost every aspect of Homeland. But I believe one can write just as impartially about series you worship as ones you loathe. So here we go.

Like David E. Kelley and Aaron Sorkin, Gordon was a fairly successful writer in the twentieth century. His specialty back then, however, was primarily sci-fi fantasy. The first series that he was a major force behind was the Linda Hamilton-Ron Perlman fantasy love story Beauty and the Beast. One of the more surreal and bizarre dramas of the 1980s, and was nominated for Best Drama quite a few times. (It bares very little resemblance to the CW remake of the 2010s)

The next major series he was a part of was quite a bit more popular: The X-Files. When Chris Carter began assembling a writer’s team to work for the show, the episodes were mostly divided among himself; Glen Morgan and James Wong (who’d been writing together for several years and shows before) and Gordon and Alex Gansa. Gansa would write with Gordon for much of Season 1 of the series before departing; the two would reunite for 24.

As someone who has written extensively on The X-Files, there were two things of particular note about the kind of scripts Gordon turned out throughout the four seasons he would work on the series. First, oddly enough for a show that would become famous for its mythology, Gordon would write almost exclusively episodes that are known fondly as ‘Monsters-of-the-Week. He rarely touched on any aspect of what would rapidly become a backstory that would spiral well beyond the control of its creator. (I like to think that both he and the other extraordinary talent of Peak TV that came from The X-Files ­– Vince Gilligan — learned rather clearly from their tenure what not to do. It certainly was clear in the work they would turn out in the future.)

Secondly, and I say this with all due respect to Gordon, the lion’s share of the scripts he would turn out for The X-Files were among the weakest the series would do of that era. He never seemed to quite have a gift for the supernatural the way so many of the other writers did, or for comedy which would be important later. The strongest scripts he would do were known as ‘supernatural revenge stories’ and the best of them would often focus on the military or law enforcement and how we treat both. Two of his better scripts dealt with Vietnam veterans, the subject of horrible experiments over a quarter century, who would use their powers to try and take vengeance on the ones who wronged them. In what was his most brilliant script ‘Grotesque’, Mulder is tasked by his former mentor from Quantico to look into the claims of a serial killer and finds out the actual killer is his mentor — he’s gotten so deep inside his last profile, he can’t find his way out. Perhaps more than anything this would demonstrate Gordon’s ability to understand that the evil men do is far more horrible than any monster.

Gordon left the series at the end of Season 4. He would dabble in the world of Joss Whedon for awhile, writing for both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, but neither often nor well. Then near the end of his stint on Angel, he would join the staff of what was a high-concept idea for Fox — a series that would cover 24 one hour episodes in a single day.

The series was the brain child of Robert Cochran and Joel Surnow, and I’m fairly certain 24’s setting would have never come to pass without their previous series La Femme Nikita. The series centered on a woman falsely accused of murder who would given the choice to work as an agent for ‘Section One’, a counterterrorism organization. As was put forth in the opening narration: “Their means are just, but their ends are ruthless.” They weren’t kidding. Episode frequently involved long and elaborate torture sequences, tech support involved missions all over the world, and the nature of it was so dark, agents didn’t retire, they were ‘cancelled’, something that Nikita herself would often long for after going into these missions for a long time. She constantly tried to escape the life, but was often drawn back in due to her love with her handler Michael. By the later seasons, we were constantly questioning whether Section One was doing what it did for ‘the greater good’ and more for world domination by its shadowy bosses the smug Control’ and the icy Madeline (The Late Alberta Watson was unforgettable.) I won’t go into how the series ended (mostly because it did so on a series of twist so unbelievable M. Night Shamalayan wouldn’t have dared use them) but it was true to itself to the bitter end.

When you saw her, bad things happened. RIP Alberta.

La Femme Nikita would’ve been a hard sell to get on the air these days, much less in the 1990s on USA, a network that was best know at the time for bikini-clad police procedurals Silk Stalkings and Pacific Blue. (Indeed, when the CW did its remake in the 2010s, they focused more on the sex appeal of action star Maggie Q and her attempts to take the Section down from minute one.) Yet this series was incredibly popular at the time — so much so that when the creators ended it in 2000, the fans started an online petition –and fundraised — for another season, Gofundme a decade before we heard of the term. (Then again, maybe they didn’t like how it was ended either.) And given all the links that were involved in Section One and what would become CTU, you can’t exactly deny that 24 couldn’t have existed without it.

Considering how much 24 is linked to both Islamphobia and torture, it’s actually kind of odd to watch Day 1 and see that there’s none of the former and practically none of the latter. The major threat behind Day 1 is Serbian nationalists trying to assassinate Democratic Senator David Palmer on the day of California Presidential Primary. And there’s only one real torture scene in the entirety of Day 1 and Jack Bauer practically has to be walked through it by his partner Nina Myers from the safety of CTU. Even then, its involves more talking than actually torture, and when it results in the man’s death, Jack is truly shaken by it — so much so that he has to be pushed by Nina to moved forward.

Indeed, what was far more critical about 24 in Day 1 — and was in fact something that would become second nature to fans of the series throughout its eight seasons on the air — was something that was basically a catchphrase from The X-Files: ‘Trust No One’. What I think fascinated so many viewers throughout the first season was knowing who Jack could trust. We are told very plainly that there is a possibility of a mole in CTU where Jack is working, and from the very episode he is working just as much to try and expose the traitor as he is to stop the assassination of Palmer. This was a deliberate tact by the writers who went out of their way make sure no one on in the cast knew so that they might not give anything away unintentionally to the audience. (Indeed Carlos Bernard, who would memorably portray Tony Almeida for six seasons on the series, would later say that the cast had bets as to who the mole was. None of them were right.)

I believe that this may have been a lesson that Gordon took away from The X-Files and made the staff learn. (I’d also like to say that the writing group for 24 was, in my mind, one of the greatest ever assemble for any series: in addition to Surnow, Cochran and Gordon, Alex Gansa, Chip Johannsen, one of the showrunners of Millennium and Michael Chernuchin ,one of the greatest writers for Law & Order were on the series roster just for Day 1) Equally important was another lesson: if the story doesn’t affect the main character, it won’t resonate the same way. Which is why what seemed like a casual storyline — Kim Bauer running off with a friend before Jack’s called into work — becomes the backbone of the show. As the search goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that no one can be trusted — not even a distressed parent — and that getting vengeance against Jack is just as important as killing David Palmer.

And that’s why the first day ended with one of the great moments in TV history. Jack had just killed all the bad guys and thwarted the assassination of Palmer. Then he learns what the audience learned just one episode earlier — Nina, his friend and his former lover is the mole. He captures her and holds her at gunpoint, not killing her only out of cries of his boss. He then searches CTU and finds his wife Terri dead, bleeding from a stomach wound. The final images of the episode are him holding his wife’s body in tears, as the ticking clock that the viewers has become used to by now, goes silent as it ticks out the final seconds of the day. The moment was so heartbreaking the writers actually wanted to let Terri live (and included a segment with her alive in the first season DVD) but as gutwrenching as that final scene is, I respect the writers for doing it. Killing characters off would become a feature of Peak TV, but only a few series — and 24 was one of them knew it didn’t mean anything unless you gave a damn about that character and someone else gave a damn.

That was my major takeaway from Kiefer Sutherland’s work as Jack Bauer. Not the images of him torturing a prisoner or shouting ‘Who Do You Work For!?” or scowling at someone he considered inferior. Because Jack wasn’t, no matter what politicians or critics thought, a heartless automaton. He suffered with every death. In a weird way, the pacing of the series actually helped us get it. More often then not Jack would suffer a major loss and then have to move on to the next crisis without even time for proper mourning. There was enough of a gap between each day for us to see the passage of time and it was just years that weighed on Jack, it was the death. Having to inflict and worse, having to live through it, neither without any time to deal.

And the worst part was it cost him everything and everyone he loved. Day 6 was by far the weakest one of the entire run, but there were two memorable moments. At one point Jack is tending to Audrey, the daughter of the Secretary of Defense (William Devane) and a former lover. (I’ll get to the exact details in the next entry. Jack says when the crisis is over; he’ll be there for her. Heller — a man whose life Jack has saved on multiple occasions — looks him dead in the eye and says: “I don’t want you anywhere near her. You’re cursed Jack…Everyone you touch eventually dies.” And as painful as this is, no one — especially not Jack — can deny this truth. Jack Bauer may have saved the world on many occasions, but the price was his soul and everything he loved. Somehow the politicians on either side never got that.

This article will turn into a book if I don’t cut it off. In Part 2 of this, I’ll focus on the political talking points that both sides made and their validity and I’ll start dealing with some of the other characters in the world of 24. Bloop…bloop…bloop…bloop. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.