Wednesday, May 20, 2009

You've Come a Long Way. Maybe.

I'll confess to being a person who watches "24", though if it makes you feel better, I feel dirty inside afterward. The constant nail-biting suspense of the first few seasons has long since been replaced by torture porn--every week the question is how is Jack going to hurt somebody today?

Still I watch it, probably for the fascinating train-wreck of issues it presents more than for any pure entertainment. I'll say this about Kiefer Sutherland, he has made Jack become tighter and tighter wound--he's made Jack become more and more unpleasant to be around, which I hope is his commentary on the right-wingism of the series as a whole. But what about that rightism? Is it truly balanced by presenting black and female presidents, by the way it almost always sides against hawkish characters? By the fact that in the show's mythology, the Nixonian president actually got arrested?

I don't know; but such questions are the spice to the messy massala this show has become.

This season we were treated to another first in the mythology: having anticipated by eight years the first black president (and who knows? maybe helped that along), we have the first female president, played by the marvelous Cherry Jones. (I saw her in the original production of "Doubt" and she was awesome.) Her President Allison Taylor is the rare example of the show supporting a hawkish foreign-policy choice--she consistently overrules her cabinet and generals to push for an invasion of the mythical African country of "Sangala," a sort of Senegal-meets-Côte d'Ivroie-with-some-Liberia-sauce. Of course, her hawkishness is of a different kind: she's motivated by a humanitarian (dare I say liberal) desire to overthrow a vile dictatorship.

I won't get into the ridiculous plot of the season--it's filled with the usual multiple McGuffins, twists, turns, and absurdities (an attack on the White House? Really?) Instead, I want to point out how a show with a female president still ends up in Sexistville.

First, there's Jack's daughter Kim. She's long been a target for the show's critics, and once again she doesn't disappoint here: her main purpose in the plot is to serve as a way of controlling Jack by stalking and threatening her. And yeah, she gets a token moment where she rescues a valuable laptop, but this isn't the most empowered character even for this show.

Then there is Olivia Taylor, the President's daughter. A savvy political operative, she forces out her mother's chief of staff and organizes a hit on the man who conspired to kill her brother. (Of course, doing that results in a major freakout on her part and sends her crying to the man who arranged the details of the hit.) Not bad, I guess--empowered to do evil is still empowerment.

But wait, there's more. The kick in the teeth for Olivia also manages to catch our first female president--who has hung tough the whole show, ordering attacks on foreign countries, authorizing black ops against terrorists, reaming out subordinates for their failures. When Olivia's role in the assassination is discovered, President Taylor decides to prosecute her. Cause, you know, that's what you're supposed to do when you're sworn to protect the constitution. (President Obama--I know you're reading this--take note!) The First Gentleman (gotta love that, actually) then comes down hard on Madame President--noting that the job has now cost them both their children (not to mention his own shooting) and just lays a complete guilt trip on her that has her practically weeping in the arms of her restored chief of staff--her marriage destroyed, one child dead, another soon to be a felon.

Thanks, guys. But to be fair, the message that a woman who pursues power will lose all human contact (most certainly because she is perverting her natural role as a nurturer, provider, and handservant) isn't something you hear all the time; I must have seen only, oh, ten or twelve examples of it. Today. Before noon.

Finally, there's one nice little bid of absurdist misogyny: when Tony Almeida, the rogue former government agent and colleague of Jack's, confronts the slimy leader of the cabal that (unbelievably) has authored almost all the mayhem of the show's seven seasons, he tells him the reason he is going to kill him: it's not just because this guy arranged the death of Tony's wife--it's because she was pregnant! With his son! (At which point he begins screaming, "you killed my son!") 'Cause, you know, it's kinda gay to be that worked up just over a woman, even if she was the love of your life and helped you escape from the shadow world of counter-terrorism. But an unborn son! Now that's a manly reason for revenge!

So there you have it: torture works, women should rise no higher than the vice-presidency, and only a Y-chromosome can justify a four-year revenge trip. Actually, that last one might be true.


  1. Ok, I came here by way of the Amazing Sady, and just read your entire archive in a single sitting. I love your work, and look forward to reading future posts.

    As for 24, you've pretty much put in a nutshelll all the reasons I no longer watch the show. Interesting to hear that KS has "...made Jack become tighter and tighter wound--he's made Jack become more and more unpleasant to be around."

    I suspect though, that this is less a comment (by whomever,) on right-wingism than a manifestation of what I have come to think of as "the Buffy-Effect." This is a common television condition wherein a character starts out likeable and strong, but season after season of enduring unspeakable pain and personal loss, causes them (quite reasonably) to become bitter, humorless, and supremely unlikeable. It usually happens to female characters like Buffy (see also: Sydney on Alias,) but "sensitive" guys like Jack Bauer and Fox Mulder can fall prey too, or so it would seem.


  2. Thanks, Julie! I've been getting so many lovely comments since Sady raved me!

    I can definitely see what you're saying, though I still think you can read Jack's gradual decay into an amoral caricature of himself may be part of the character arc, or Sutherland's portrayal of it. And also lazy writing! We can never eliminate that as a cause when we talk about TV.

    But I was trained as an English major, and it's ever so more fun to see intention rather than artifact :)