Thursday, January 11, 2007

A little 24play.

So, 24 is back on next week and people are talking about it. Today, on Unfogged, Becks voices some concerns that I imagine a lot of people have with the show.

"I used to like the show 24 but have stopped watching it in recent seasons because I feel it treats the subjects of torture and depriving people of their civil liberties too blithely. In 24, every encounter with a bad guy is a "ticking time bomb" scenario and they present torture like it is almost always justified. While the creators are going for entertainment, I feel this desensitizes the public and gives them a false impression of what their actual government is using these tactics to accomplish."

The truth is, you can, quite literally, tell people that the "ticking timebomb scenario" has no real-world application. It is a plot device, found only in screenplays. Last January on Wonkette, I argued that the "ticking timebomb scenario" can only exist as a fictional trope. If you think about it logically, in real-life terms, who knows better how much time is on the clock than the terrorist? Armed with the knowledge, your would-be torture victim knows precisely how long they'll have to endure torture, and can even opt to send his captors on any number of wild goose chases based on false information, thus running out the clock without suffering any torture at all.

Of course, 24 deploys the "ticking timebomb scenario" with a ubiquity that approaches overreliance. But this is based on nothing more than the rules the writers have contrived for the world of 24. On 24, the viewer benefits from dramatic irony--as a viewer, you're the only person who REALLY knows when the clock is going to run out: somewhere toward the end of the 24th episode. The ticking-timebomb scenario is a micro means to push along the macro story. On 24, time is the only thing that matters, and the way the show simultaneously expands and compresses the time-frame magnifies the brutality. Jack Bauer does not torture people on a day-to-day basis. These are but isolated actions in a life that's likely free of them.

Nevertheless, I enjoy 24, and I wholeheartedly disagree that those issues are taken blithely. In my opinion, the writers have not shied away from saddling the character of Jack Bauer with the moral backlash from his own actions. Yes, he has tortured people, and operated on the amoral end of the ends-means equation. He's suffered mightily for it, though, most notably in his pointed, profound despondency and his stark and ever-worsening alienation from nurturing human contact--something the writers seem to exult in denying him. For all his heroics, Bauer is the most singularly depressing character on television--on a personal level, his immoral actions have completely offset the greater good he's achieved, and the universe of 24 offers him neither credit for his heroism or relief from his sins.

Nevertheless, the writers have programmed Bauer with a certain moral trajectory that includes a very clear awareness of responsibility. I point you to a scene in the season from last year. While in custody, Bauer convinces a Secret Service Agent to free him and, together, they assault a Presidential aide and threaten to put out his eyes--directly countermanding the orders of the President, who is in the room with them. Under threat, the aide confesses to aiding foreign terrorists. So, Bauer was, in the large sense, correct in his actions. But the very next thing that happens is that he and the Secret Service agent hand over their badges and weapons to the President and ask to be placed in custody, because they have violated the law.

This is very weighty, philosophically advanced stuff to be shown on TV--a cheaper show would have glossed over it and moved on. Watching that scene, however, pointed out to the viewer that the ends do not justify the means--and that even if the end that is met is entirely just, a man must nevertheless stand in account for his actions. Compare this to the moral lesson taught by President Bush, who flauts the law on the pretense of protecting the country in numerous ways. Bush wants all of the credit, and none of the responsibilty. He actively pawns it off. Is it any wonder that I don't believe his warrantless wiretaps serve anyone's interest other than his own? The aforementioned scene in 24 really afforded viewers some vital food for thought in these times we live.

So, in short, the show can be brutal and despairing, but it is most definitely not blithe or indifferent. It is, I'm afraid, our real-life leaders who are blithe and indifferent and 21,500 members of the armed forces are about to find that out the hard way. If more people watched 24, perhaps they'd vote for better people.


Hoodrat said...

kudos. great post.

Paul said...

"If more people watched 24, perhaps they'd vote for better people."

Ouch, my brain.

So you're telling us that the problem is that not ENOUGH people watch the show? Because if they did, then yes, it'd be a virtual certainty that they'd learn to look past the 'heroic' nature of all of Jack Bauer's Saving Of The Various Days via torture and assault, and pick up on the subtle dynamics that betray his growing isolation from his own humanity?

Oh, OK. I'm sure hardly anybody who watches one of the highest-rated shows on television is desensitized or anything. They probably all pick up on that stuff. In fact, I hear pro-war Republicans hate that show, because of its depiction of all that humanity Jack Bauer keeps missing out on...

Sorry, but this argument is almost as tortured as the terrorists and crooked Presidential aides on the show itself. It's fine if you can appreciate the difference between drama and real life, but just admit that it's a guilty pleasure - you LIKE the imaginary world in which torturing unambiguously bad guys always helps save the day, even if you know you don't live there. But I don't think that makes the other blogger's argument (which is more or less self-evident - seeing people accomplish heroic events time after time using torture makes torture seem less bad) any less true.

Yes, I realize that 24 does frequently have plotlines and scenes where they accidentally torture non-bad guys and then feel bad about it afterwards. But the you're always damn sure that Saving The Day is the paramount goal (given the hundreds of thousands or millions of lives that will be lost of the terrorists get their way - let's face it, the terrorists on the show are REALLY FUCKING GOOD at coming up with REALLY FUCKING EVIL plots that will kill a SHITLOAD OF PEOPLE, not just one or two people in an airport parking lot), and it can hardly be argued that one or two bruised good guys are a good reason to stop doing it.

The Deceiver said...

Well, that's just it, Paul--24 has never been cut-and-dry like that. The "good" guys aren't paragons of virtue, and the bad guys are hardly the paper dolls from pulp Westerns--the writers write for their point of view quite well actually.

You seem to think that the show glosses over the torture in order to get on to a rootin' tootin' save the day victory celebration. As the show has gone on, however, the victories have gotten hollower, the costs of achieving them have been very dear, and, in the case of Bauer, the sins he has committed in the pursuit of "saving the day" have come home to roost.

" LIKE the imaginary world in which torturing unambiguously bad guys always helps save the day..."

I wouldn't know if i'd like that world or not, actually, because I haven't had the pleasure of watching a show that's like that. Maybe that's ALIAS! But it's not 24. Have you watched the series? It's done anything but grow less ambiguous.

On one memorable occasion, Bauer tortured someone that was in no way an unambiguous bad guy (Audrey's ex-husband), but it did a lot to reveal just how disambiguated he had become from being a functional person.

Certainly, the show, as I often render it here, can be described as broad TV fun. It can be enjoyed as a pop-cultural phenommenon. But I don't call it a guilty pleasure--AMERICAN IDOL is a guilty pleasure (and that show has been way more harmful to people than 24 will ever be!). No, I'm afraid the writers intend to inject a lot of moral ambiguity into the show and their authorial intent is coming across quite nicely, thank you.

Your basic argument here, or at least the subtext I detect behind it, boils down to this: "This lowbrow piece of entertainment can't possibly contain anything worth pondering or probing." I think I disagree with that premise even more!

Paul said...

Full disclosure: I watched two seasons of 24, enjoyed it a lot, but honestly just couldn't make the commitment and found that I didn't enjoy it that much if/when I missed episodes.

Anyway, predictably, I disagree with your characterization of my argument as "This lowbrow piece of entertainment can't possibly contain anything worth pondering or probing." A better way of summing it up might be, "I STRONGLY suspect that the show's popularity is driven not by the many worthwhile things it contains that can be pondered or probed, but by the basic hooky plot twists that are inherent in every good drama and heightened here by the apparent urgency of the situations the characters face (what with the 24 hours and all); and that for a majority of viewers, the moral ambiguity of torture, while not lost completely on them, is always trumped by the general motif of "OH MY GOD THANK GOD JACK BAUER SAVED THE DAY... and yeah, it sure is a shame he's all fucked up now." In other words, it can be seen as giving the impression that moral compromise is a sort of necessary evil of victory. Sure, torture is bad for the torturer too, but it's still effective, at least on 24.

I still agree with Becks. Yes, the writers of 24 go to great lengths to show the effects these actions have on Jack. But the bottom line is they still end up saving all (or at least most!) of the innocent people threatened by the ticking time bombs you mentioned in your Wonkette post. As I said before, that's what makes it fun to watch; it's also what makes it fiction.

Josh said...

My main hate on 24 isn't that Jack committing torture has a very obvious negative effect on him and is admitted to be illegal, with consequences. That's good drama. The problem is that on 24, torture always works. You touch on this in your post, with the slim chance of the ticking time bomb scenario. There's a reason that most enlightened democracies don't torture- at some point we weren't quite so enlightened and we started to notice that you could get someone to say ANYTHING when you threatened to tear their eyes out. In the current political climate, 24 creates the myth of the soulful torturer, he who does what must be done because no one else can. That's a powerful image and one that sure as hell resonates with voters, but if torture doesn't actually produce actionable information the soulful torturer has become the extension of our vengeance. He hurts people because we're mad at Arabs/Russians/Freemasons and we want him to hurt them, but we'd rather not admit it. So we wrap it up in security porn and damned if some people aren't going to sanction torture because they believe it works as a last resort at the hands of hallowed yet damned good guys.

The Deceiver said...

I understand the concern, but if my memory serves me correctly, the torture DOESN'T always work. They made the Defense Sec'y's kid suffer out the yin yang in the fourth season, I believe, all to no avail because the torturers didn't really know how to ask the right question. I thought that part of that season revealed one of torture's great FALLACIES.

I'd also dispute that Jack is an example of a "soulful torturer" for three reasons: 1) torture is hardly the leading aspect of his character or the tactics he deploys (indeed, the most horrific scene of torture was ordered up by President Palmer in Season 2--for the specific purpose of casting him in a darker light), 2) his actions, including the torture, have worn away his soul to the point that there's almost nothing there--Jack walked around last season like a man who knew he was irredeemable and 3) the character of the "soulful torturer" is being presented much more clearly on LOST with the character of Sayid--in his case, torture always seems to be FULFILLING, which is far more disturbing than anything they do on 24.

When you say things like: "He hurts people because we're mad at Arabs/Russians/Freemasons and we want him to hurt them, but we'd rather not admit it" that's something I cannot really relate to because as a rule, I see my role as audience ("they" do X, Y, Z") and not as a participant (we want X, Y, Z). I say this not to be at all belittling--indeed, "audience vs. participant" is one of the great debates in the performing arts, and the people who stage such performances can be deft at pushing the buttons of one or the other. (In horror films, it can be the dividing line between who is scared and who is not.)

Moving on. To me, anyone who bases the sanctioning of torture on what they saw on 24 is as crazy as anyone who wants environmental policy to reflect what the guy who wrote JURASSIC PARK thinks. In our society, we should simply be able to say, "No. That's crazy" and repeat as many times as necessary. We should tolerate no error so long as reason is left to combat it.

24 is useful, though, because it allows us to have an emotional response to something, and, having purged that response, gives us the opportunity to think sagely about it. That sums up everything Aristotle had to say about why drama matters to the human species. (A Platonist would naturally disagree and say that because Person X witnessed action Y, X will be influenced to do Y.)

Even so, what is important is that no one gets away scott-free from their actions, and achieving a greater good, in the 24verse, never mitigates their suffering. Yes, Jack may be hallowed, but he is also damned.

At any rate, I don't think I've ever dismissed the idea that a viewer could find these scenes on 24 troubling. What I dispute is that the show treats those subjects BLITHELY. This does not mean there aren't vastly more serious fora on the subject, but I don't think they treat it anywhere close to BLITHELY. Indeed, I believe the subject of torture can be, and has been, treated MUCH MORE BLITHELY by others, many of whom serve in elected office.