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24 is back

Some years ago, an essay I wrote was published in a book titled Jack Bauer for President: Terrorism and Politics in 24. (You can get the Kindle version of the book for 99 cents.) The book’s editor was listed as Richard Miniter. Miniter’s most recent books included Losing bin Laden, Shadow War: The Untold Story of How America Is Winning the War on Terror, and Disinformation: 22 Media Myths That Undermine the War on Terror. Leah Wilson, the invaluable editor who worked on several of my pieces for Smart Pop Books over the years, and who was the actual editor of the 24 book, let me know that Miniter “really seemed to like your essay.” (In response, I asked her not to tell my friends in Berkeley.) Among the authors in the anthology was Alan Dershowitz. As you can see, I was mixing with different company than I was used to, but that was common with 24.

My own piece was called “Can a Leftist Love 24?” (The title was a play on a 1974 Ms. Magazine piece by Karen Durbin about the Rolling Stones, “Can a Feminist Love the World’s Greatest Rock Band?”) I wrote, “Popular culture often simultaneously enthralls us and posits a disagreeable worldview. The better the work is, the more it enthralls, and the more guilty we feel about our enjoyment.” And I concluded, “the real issue with 24 isn’t about torture or politics, left or right, but rather with its valorization of heroic individualism, a process that goes unquestioned.”

In the years since 24 left the airwaves, Howard Gordon, the series’ showrunner in its final seasons, went on to help develop Homeland, which added great acting by Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Mandy Patinkin and others (24 was all about Kiefer), and what appeared on the surface to be a more intelligent approach to the issue of the U.S. and terrorism. After a great first season, though, Homeland began to slip, and once that happened, people started noticing the show’s politics seeping through (For Salon, Laila Al-Arian wrote “TV’s most Islamophobic show” about Homeland.) Once again, viewers had to confront the combination of enthrallment and guilt.

What I left unsaid in my essay was that once a favored work slips in quality, it becomes easier to critique … our enthrallment disappears. Homeland is dealing with this now, as 24 did a few years ago. 24 went off the air, which solved its problem. And now it is back, and you know how it can be with bad memories. Over time, the good things remain in our thoughts, while the bad ones gradually fade away. The things that annoyed us four years ago are now welcomed back as old friends.

This 24 update isn’t much different from what it once was. Neil Drumming sees a “different kind of hero”, but it’s the same old Jack to me. Tim Goodman is glad things are the same: “As it returns, four years after it left, 24: Live Another Day can and should only be judged on one metric: Is it entertaining? And that, happily, is a real no-brainer: Of course it's entertaining.” What Goodman accepts is the ludicrous nature of 24, which may be the best way for a leftist, a rightist, or anyone in between to love 24. Over the course of eight seasons, 24 went from an innovative thriller to a Road Runner cartoon with real actors. If, as I argued, the core issue of 24 was its acceptance of the idea of a heroic individual, well, it is rare to find a counter example to that acceptance in American pop culture. As I once wrote, “the long-lasting prevalence of the myth of the lone American hero is apparently too strong, so that even so-called liberal culture eventually allies itself with the heroic individual rather than the heroic community.”

As long as 24 offers us Jack Bauer saving the world (and there is no other reason for the show to exist), the idea that he is “different” can only be cosmetic.

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