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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.


what i watched last week

This Is the End (Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, 2013). It seems like an original idea for a movie: a bunch of celebrities (all playing “themselves”) meet for a party at James Franco’s house, during which the Apocalypse comes. It’s like an End of Days episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. The self-congratulatory nature of the enterprise is reminiscent of the 60s Rat Pack, Ocean’s Eleven done as a sci-fi flick. But this being the 2010s, there is also a layer of ironic self-examination in the self congratulations. There are some good laugh lines, more even than make it into the trailer, and references to everything from Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist to Freaks and Geeks and Pineapple Express. It all adds up to a time-waster and nothing more. 6/10. For a companion piece, watch the entire run of Freaks and Geeks.

Crimes and Misdemeanors (Woody Allen, 1989). Highly regarded by critics and Allen fans, one of his “profound” movies that at least lacks the hatred of the audience you find in Stardust Memories. There are a few funny moments, although ever since the aforementioned Stardust Memories I’ve felt guilty for laughing, and some of the fine acting we expect from a Woody Allen film. Allen is the worst actor on the screen, which is often the point, but I’m not sure how we’re supposed to take his character this time … is he honorable but pathetic, honorable because he is pathetic, or just a loser? … a better actor might have clarified the character. Also, while it isn’t fair, nonetheless the tabloids have their influence … the kindest relationship in the film is between Allen’s character and a teenage girl who likes to watch old movies with him. It’s a lovely setup, but every time Allen touched her, I shivered, and yes, I know that’s not fair. The film is strongly pessimistic … the bad guys get away with their crimes and misdemeanors … and god doesn’t come off too well, which is OK by me. But I’m long past the point where I care much about Woody Allen’s thoughts on philosophy (it seems noteworthy that Allen bestows more sympathy on the man who arranges a murder than he does on the victim), and Annie Hall is still my favorite of his movies. #235 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 6/10. Watch this with Hannah and Her Sisters.


music friday: soul train

(I just finished reading Nelson George’s The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture & Style, which is something of a companion piece to the similarly-named VH1 documentary of a few years ago. It inspired me to make this Music Friday.)

Dancing:

Curtis Mayfield, “Get Down”. Line Dance

Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniels.

Rosie Perez.

Fred Wesley & the J.B.’s, “Doing It to Death”. Don Cornelius joins Mary Wilson on the Soul Train Line.

Performances:

The Jackson 5, “I Want You Back”. Motown’s finest recording.

Al Green, “Love and Happiness”.

Elton John, “Bennie and the Jets”.

Aretha Franklin, “Rock Steady”.

Hip-Hop:

Kurtis Blow, “The Breaks”. Hip-Hop comes to Soul Train. From the book:

When Cornelius walked on the stage, Blow expected the standard Soul Train treatment. “We know Soul Train, after the performances, and you’re standing onstage, and Don Cornelius comes out. He gives a couple of accolades: ‘How about another round of applause for this great artist.’ I’ve seen this all my life. I’m anticipating this, and I’m ready for this … So he comes out, you know he has the microphone, he comes up and stands next to me, and he says, ‘I don’t really know what everyone is making so much fuss about all this hip-hop, but nonetheless you heard him here, Mr. Kurtis Blow.”

The Godfather:

James Brown, Fifteen Songs.