Television After 9/11: A Continuing Series
Part 4B: 24: What It Was Accused of and What It Did Right
Before I start with the parts about 24 I liked, I will deal with the most long-lasting effects of the series in regard to its two major features.
The first was the bias that the series repeatedly showed by representing almost all of its Muslim characters as terrorists, something that in the years to come Howard Gordon would actually apologize for having done over time. And given that the lion’s share of the series featured Islamic terrorist plots, it’s easy to understand. However, context must be given.
First of all, during the eight seasons 24 was on the air only half of the storylines dealt with Islamic terrorism. Day 1, as I mentioned in the previous article, dealt fundamentally with Serbian terrorism; Day 3 was essentially European; Day 5 dealt with Russian terrorists (indeed, much of the second half of storylines dealt with the threat of Russian terrorism, both outsiders and in the final days more politically motivated) and Day 7 dealt with a rogue African leadership backed by American industrialists.
As for the other half, which mainly did have Islamic terrorism at the center, I have to argue that the writers really went out of their way to differentiate between extremists and the average Muslim. In Day 2, a Muslim terrorist did lead a plot to detonate a nuclear bomb on American soil, but was eventually revealed to be a patsy for American oil tycoons. (Those on the left who believed that was the real reason for the second Gulf War must have had a field day with that one.) In Day 6, by far the worst of the seasons because it was so heavy handed, the series did feature Islamic terrorists but tried far too hard to have a balance. (There was a badly handled subplot involving a detainee camp that was mercifully dropped early on, and the guidelines D.C was setting were actually shown to be hurting CTU itself. There was a Muslim-American denied access to intelligence even though, in a rare sly joke, ‘she was a registered Republican.’) Day 8, which was a slight improvement, dealt with separatists trying to assassinate a President of an unnamed Muslim country (all Middle Eastern countries in the series were never given names; another example of the writers not trying to blame specific nations) before he could bring about peace in the Middle East. And even in Day 4, which by far had the most direct Islamic plot of the series, the writers went out of their way to try and differentiate between loyal Americans and terrorist. In a scene I consider one of the series high points, Jack goes to a sporting goods store that is owned by two young Muslim Americans with terrorists on his heels, looking for weapons and ammunition. When the owners learn of what they are doing, they immediately offer to aid as well to help fight. When the fighting is over, Jack specifically tells the authorities to make sure the store and the boys are protected.
And even in a story which had a no-holds barred Islamic terrorist behind it, the writers still went out of their way to make it clear that these kinds of plots were never just the source of one faith. Throughout Day 4, American mercenaries were clearly helping this plot proceed in every fashion, including a man who went to great lengths to get into a plane in order to shoot down Air Force One. (It’s a measure of how truly detailed this plot was that this wasn’t the true goal of the terrorists. I actually said to a friend years later: “If the terrorists ever decide to get this involved in their plans, our country is well and truly screwed.)
This leads to the other problem that so many people deservedly had: the repeated use of torture as a means to elicit information. This is actually a more justified attack, as after Day 1 24’s go to move was Jack Bauer assaulting and beating anybody who might give him Intel. And I’m relatively certain that far too many people on the right did use this as a talking point to justify so much of what we now know happened in the years to come.
All that said I think far too many of the pundits and politicians viewed what happened in CTU as reality rather than what it truly was — a plot device. Even with far more innocent eyes, I never believed that the kinds of methods that Jack and his ilk would use were any more realistic than the technology that CTU seemed to have to instantly find whoever they needed to locate. I can hypothetically believe that a novice whose relative new to terrorism, maybe even a politician who doesn’t know better, might give in as quickly to Jack’s violence as they did on the series. But the idea that a man who has spent years planning for events of this magnitude will just give in seconds after you shoot him in the ankle? I never bought that. Indeed, it was often shown that other intelligence operatives would spend entire episodes under extensive chemicals and physical attacks and never relent. Throw in the fact that during the series Democrat Presidents had no problem with this and Republicans had doubts about its efficacy and you have prove that we were living in an alternate universe. Does enhanced interrogation work? Probably not. Does it work in the way 24 showed it working? Absolutely not.
I get that 24 probably helped change how too many view Islam and torture. The difference is, Gordon and the other writers have offered a mea culpa. The politicians and pundits have not. And television may predict the future sometime — Homeland did so on more than one occasion — but if you seriously believe the Defense Department watched an episode of 24, collectively said: “My God, let’s try that” and the Memo to the Dark Side got written, then you don’t know history of the War on Terror. People might have wanted to do what Jack Bauer did, but I’m a cynic: I think they’d have done it if 24 had never gotten greenlit.
Now that we’ve dealt with that, I’d like to talk about some of the things about 24 that made me a fan. And only a small portion of it had to do with Kiefer Sutherland. Despite the ridiculous fact that the Emmys only gave him acting nominations the first four years it was on the air, 24 was always an ensemble show. And I’d like to discuss so many of the actors and actresses that played some of my favorite characters over the years.
Let’s start with Kim Bauer. Poor Elisha Cuthbert. The writers really did her no favors. Throughout Day 1 the basic subplot was how much peril she was in as so many of the terrorists and basically the world tried to kill her. As the day went on, however, Kim demonstrated not just vulnerability but a quiet toughness that made you really see she was her father’s daughter. And then came Day 2 and the writers just forgot. Just go to a fan of the series and say the word ‘cougar’ and you’ve basically summed up everything the writers on this series could screw up beyond recognition. There was a sort of redemption in Day 3 when the writers had the good sense to have her working at CTU — we didn’t have to keep cutting away to see what danger Kim was in — but I think Cuthbert knew how bad things could get and cut her losses not long after. It’s a shame. The problems with her character were always the writers fault. No one else’s.
Then there were the other women in his life. It took a couple of seasons for the writers to work this part out, too. After Teri’s death in Season 1, there was a major subplot where a woman named Kate Warner (Sarah Wynter) who was adjacent to the overarching story was supposed to be a love interest. The writers never followed through. In Day 3, there was a love interest of an undercover storyline which was the backbone of the Day, but she died early on. The woman who lasted the longest and who was by far one of the series standouts was Audrey Raines, memorably played by future Grey’s Anatomy alum Kim Raver. The Secretary of Defense’s daughter and his chief aide, she was a vital part of the plot in Day 4, first someone Jack had to save, then as the plot unfolded, the relationship became complicated. Jack was forced to fake his own death at the end of Season 4 to escape assassination and Audrey was left devastated.
In Day 5 (which I will be going into in great detail as we go forward) she returned to CTU for the first time after Jack ‘died’. When it became clear that Jack was alive, the feelings that she had buried came out. At one point, Audrey asked Jack: “I thought you died not loving me.” Jack didn’t hesitate: “I never stopped loving you.”
Audrey was always more than a love interest. She was by far the most capable of all the women in Jack’s life and as the series advanced far more clear-headed. Particularly in Day 5 she was one of the most capable allies Jack ever had — which actually made the end of the Day such a kick in the teeth. Just as it seems Jack and she are about to walk off into the sunset, Jack gets a call from Kim — who made it clear during the day she will not forgive the betrayal of her father. With hope we almost never see on his face, Jack rushes into the next room — only to be drugged and kidnapped by the Chinese government, who he faked his death to escape at the end of Day 4. Audrey would go off in search of Jack, end up presumed dead, and found tortured and traumatized in Day 6. Jack, still not recovered from the events in between the two days, decided to go on a suicide mission to save her. (I already related the consequences in my first article; I won’t repeat or give the storyline of the so called ninth season. It just hurts too much even now.)
But of course, as great as all these performances were, they all pale to the greatest of them all, the real heroine of 24 and CTU. Ladies and gentlemen, the tech support queen of snark: Chloe O’Brien!
Jack Bauer would be nothing without his tech. There had been tech before him: few will forget the lanky Milo Pressman, played by a way too youthful Eric Balfour in Season 1 and there would be some recognizable faces along the way — Zachary Quinto, pre-Heroes, pre -Spock showed up in Season 3 and even Janeane Garofolo (of all people) offer some help and digs in Season 7. But can anyone compare to Chloe? It’s pretty clear the writers weren’t initially sure what to do with her when she showed up in Season 3 — she even disappeared for a good portion of Season 4 — but she eventually became, next to Jack Bauer, the series greatest face. Part of was due to the pure majesty of Mary Lynn Rajskub, a former comic actress who let just enough of that to be channeled into Chloe’s behavior. But there’s a reason that considering the people who ended up dying over the series run that Chloe ended up the last woman standing. It wasn’t just that there never seemed to be a tech problem she couldn’t solve, it was her utter bluntness and surety in herself. She wasn’t there to make friends; she was there to do her job. If she saved the world in the process — and make no mistake, she was just as vital as Jack along the way — that was all in a day’s work (ha ha)
The only character who ever rivaled her was, of course, Edgar Stiles. There were many fan favorites over the years. Edgar was beloved. I think a lot of it was due to how Louis Lombardi played him. Edgar never pretended to be anything but an overweight schlub who never seemed to have the same confidence in himself that Chloe did. But he was her equal. Few will forget his finest hour in the middle of Day 4. Faced with an override of every nuclear power plant in the country, Edgar found a patch that he thought could stop it. In typical fashion, he had to be talked into it. And thanks to him, almost every plant went back online. Of course, because this was 24, the almost was the heart-breaker. His bed-ridden mother lived in the area of California which was in the path of the radiation. He called her to try and warn her, only to learn she was alone — and had already had taken a lethal overdose of her medication to prevent a far nastier death. In typical Edgar fashion, he tried to leave to save her. In typical 24 fashion, he had to be talked back to save the day and spend the rest of it in mourning.
All of which leads to what I consider not only 24’s greatest moment, but one of the great moments in television history. In the middle of Day 5, CTU is under threat when a terrorist has infiltrated the agency and left a canister of nerve gas there to kill everybody. (I’ll get into more details on either side of it in the next article.) CTU learns of it too late to do a proper evacuation, so the only thing Chloe can do to save some of the lives is to seal off as many rooms as possible to protect as many people as she can. In one of the most horrific scenes in the entire scenes, those who are safe have to watch as their friends and co-workers die horrible deaths right in front of them.
Then at the last minute, Audrey goes: “Oh no.” Poor Edgar is outside unprotected. He has just enough time to say a single word: “Chloe.” Then he begins to cough and double over. The last seconds of the episode freeze on Chloe’s face as she watches in horror as someone she really cares for dies. Then the clock goes silent (as it did when a character that was vital show died). Day 5 would witness the most regular or former regular deaths in the series history, but I know without even having to ask my fellow fans that this death resonates more than any in the entire series canon, and is arguably one of the most painful of all time.
Tomorrow I will wrap up my discussion of 24 by discussing the political aspect and how 24 may have handled Presidential politics better than any series in Peak TV — maybe better than any than those set in the Oval Office.