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Bauer's a Bore

Those of you who take a little torture with your TV dinner might be experiencing a bit of post-game letdown now that the final episode of this season's 24 has come and gone.

Paul Cella has long wanted one of us here to savage the show, believing that it perpetrates much mischief in the American moral imagination, or what's left of it. He is apalled that millions of his fellow citizens watch it weekly, unrepelled by certain of Jack's interrogation techniques, which this season included snipping off a Russian diplomat's finger with a pair of wirecutters.

As one who admits to a fascination with the show in its earlier stages (confessional verification can be found here), I have resisted the invitation, thinking it in the end to be unworthy of effort. What is, in the current climate, worthy of the effort, I don't know, but perhaps someone can point me in the right direction. Still, I have overcome my reluctance only in the writing, and which I indulge only to please Paul. Zippy has also resisted, for the reason that I don't think he's watched it in a while; and Lydia as well, claiming that her familiarity with pop culture ends with a tune that begins, "My baloney has a first name, it's O-S-C-A-R..."

Now, Paul could be right about the show, as its being either the cause or the symptom of some disease of the American psyche. One must certainly take notice when, in the last debate, presidential candidate Tom Tancredo betrayed utter contempt for the other candidates' scrupulously undefined preference for "enhanced interrogation" techniques. Mr. Tancredo would, he said, be calling in Jack Bauer, unhindered by any moral cavil. This was met with some applause and approving laughter. He had struck a chord. He cannot now have my vote, of course, not merely for the fact that he finds torture agreeable, but that his imagination has been co-opted by cultural ephemera, and finds fantasy a fruitful source of offical policy.

My own inclination has long been toward the latter explanation, that the shows are a symptom, not a cause; that they profit from a pre-existing trend; that they are often uncanny barometers of moral sentiment. I don't believe that Americans are voracious consumers of pornography because Vivid Video prints their product by the truckload. I think they print them because the appetite is there. I don't think porn is so widely available and everywhere tolerated because the Supreme Court (another uncanny barometer of moral sentiment) is a dispassionate and principled arbiter of 1st Amendment originalism, but because the justices sensed an ambivalence in the populace about the evil of a public trade in depictions of essentially private acts.

And what has this to do with 24? Well, I would bring the same charge against both, that they constitute a sin against dramatic form, not for the sole reasons that one lauds torture and murder of the innocent in service to a greater good, or that the other proposes as a virtue a condition of perpetual lechery, but that in both the characters' humanity is subordinated into non-existence by the dictates of a primary action, which ought, in good drama, to reveal character, not suppress it. In both, this action is the thing to be revealed, to get our blood running, in which we are to take delight. In 24, it is the hunt for, and the agonizing obstacles to apprehending, a terrorist consumed by the need to bring Armageddon to America. In the work of porn, it is the conjoining of naked bodies in postures variously pleasing and perverse, depending upon taste (and our tastes vary widely), and in which any delineation of character is shallow by necessity so as not to interpose between the viewer and the object of his adoration.

The fact that we find it pleasing at all is not surprising, sex being what it is; that we do not feel perverse in seeking this particular pleasure ought to be, but, in the modern moral ambience, is no longer considered a strike against the soul; rather, a sign of a healthy libido, of a normal interest in, and appetite for, the natural desires of the flesh, so natural that it now seems we would wish to prolong the experience of it into our dotage. In pornography, perhaps the lowest of our forms of "artistic" expression, this sin against form - literally, against our humanity - is far more aggravated than in a popular entertainment like 24, but the latter should not escape culpability for the mere fact that its transgression is lesser by degree.

Samuel Johnson, while expressing reservations about a mode of romantic fiction gaining popularity in his time, noted with a prescience prophetic in its measure the dangers of narrative technique in which character is subordinated to action, and vice and virtue so co-mingled that "no common mind is able to disunite them." He warns of writers who,

for the sake of following nature, so mingle good and bad qualities in their principal personages, that they are both equally conspicuous, and as we accompany them through their adventures with delight, and are led by degrees to interest ourselves in their favour, we lose the abhorrence of their faults, because they do not hinder our pleasure, or, perhaps, regard them with some kindness for being united with so much merit.
One of the problems of the modern approach to narrative (the anti-hero as hero) has never been so nicely encapsulated. It should be applied with even greater severity to other popular R-rated shows like "The Shield" and "The Sopranos", in which characterization is at once far superior to, and more insidious than, 24's, but which I don't have time to deal with. Tony Soprano must surely suffer Johnson's indictment against those men who are "indeed splendidly wicked, whose endowments threw a brightness on their crimes, and whom scarce any villainy made perfectly detestable, because they never could be wholly divested of their excellencies; but such have been in all ages the great corrupters of the world..."

Jack Bauer is one of these, though less appealing for being less "a man in full." A compiler of student textbooks might describe him as a "flat" character. We'll call it the Flat Jack syndrome. If you have watched the series thus far, can you really claim any longer to care about what happens to him? Or do you care more about simply what happens? What qualities of Flat Jack's character can you bring to mind? Well, he's patriotic. Yes, but this praise of an abstraction applies to you as well. But he's brave and I'm not. Yes, but so are many soldiers in Iraq, most of whom, unlike fantasy Jack, have actually done brave things but of whom you will never hear. But he's willing to take measures in defense of the country for which I have no stomach. We need people like that. That you have no stomach for it, and that he does, ought to be the point that gives you pause, but over which the show never lingers. When Flat Jack returns freshly tortured from China and is once again conscripted by circumstance into his country's service, his first opportunity to torture elicits a pained, "I can't do this anymore," which could be the opening to a new dimension in his character, except that even as he says it you know that you will be disappointed if it's true, which further means that you know it's a lie. Flat Jack can do it forever. It's his reason for existence, and his escape from cancellation.

A tragic character needs a tragic flaw, a thing that haunts until eventually it stands up to slap him in the face. Jack will never have such a moment because the silent waters of his character run no deeper than was made evident in the first episode of the first season. There is no there, there. In his vocabulary, the word 'epiphany' is probably the name of some girl he expects the scriptwriters to have him temporarily fall in love with.

But, Mr. Luse, why would you even dream of bringing to bear on a popular, harmless entertainment the principles of Aristotelian dramatic structure? People come home from an exhausting day at work and want to be distracted, not made to do more work. It's a phenomenon whose commonness ought to recommend it.

It's true that the fact that a thing is common does not render it reprehensible. The possession of a religion seems common to most men, of which we would not wish to rid them, though in my experience the religion of the common man seems a distraction as well, an often unwelcome one, whose precepts are most ardently embraced when they are least demanding. Perhaps this is cynical to excess. But it's not cynical to ask why, when Jack murmurs, "God forgive me," just before murdering his CTU boss at a terrorist's behest, he has never mentioned God before, nor darkened the doorway of any church.

Look, distract yourselves as you wish, but at least be willing to admit the inferiority of the product you patronize. How many different doomsday scenarios can the writers concoct before you realize that Armageddon as recreation is not the healthiest state of mind in which to approach a scriptural forboding? How many mushroom clouds can you witness before considering that the deaths of thousands ought to arouse horror and pity, not a witless and wondering "Wow!" How many times can Flat Jack utter his flat lines -

"Bill, you've got to trust me on this."
"Thank you, Mr. President."
"You're welcome, Mr. President."
"I understand, Mr. President."
"Copy that."
"Send it to my PDA."
"Chloe! I need that schematic now!" -

before you realize that Jane Austen really had something over these guys, or that if you want to visit "The Heart of Darkness", you might try Conrad for a change.

One true line was uttered this season. The former Secretary of Defense (played by William Devane), with whose daughter Jack imagines himself to be in love (even his capacity for love is a lie) forbids his seeing her again, offering as reason the fact that "One way or another, everyone and everything you touch ends up dead."

Which seems an appropriate tribute to a main character who's the leading corpse in the land of the living dead.

Comments (27)

Bravo, Bill. Flat Jack, the Leading Corpse in the Land of the Living Dead: that about summarizes it.

I am sorry to hear of Rep. Tancredo's comment on torture. Too bad: he is one of the few good guys on immigration.

Well said. We are sleep walking to our own death as we inhale the poisonous isms (utilitarianism, consequentialism, relativisim, et al)of this disordered age.

What is especially troubling is that so many self-identified Christians are the worst offenders.

Excellent. Almost makes me want to watch 24 just to get a little better view: the series is said to be a favorite of our president. But then again, no thanks, I think it would be too much an invitation to despair.

The new enthusiasm for torture does not surprise me though. I have long suspected there is a deep and mysterious connection between pornography and torture, and we have been awash in porn for a long time. I suppose the next step was inevitable.

Maybe, pornography softens social resistance to torture by making defilement of the "souless"
human body not only acceptable, but attractive. No longer a "Temple of the Holy Spirit" as held by Christianity, the body becomes merely an instrument, first for pleasure, then for pain.

Another repulsive aspect of this continuum is seen in exhibits such as "Bodies". Surely, some serious self-hate must be behind the vicarious vivisection offered by these displays.

24 is a cartoon (i.e. "Flat Jack" is extremely descriptive) so I trust Mr. Cella is equally outraged over Bugs Bunny (I seem to recall moments with Bugs being boiled to death, as well as some sadistic scenes involving Wile E. Coyote).

The televison series House, by contrast, is a much more interesting case. Because it depicts real characters, I think the Samuel Johnson quote is more likely to apply.

People watch 24 for different reasons. I watch it because, gosh darn it, I love to see bravery and there are precious few shows that depict that on TV these days. I endure the torture scenes sans pleasure; the link between porn & torture is nebulous in my personal experience.

I watched the first two seasons of 24 recently. I had never seen them before, and lured by the promise of nuclear detonation in Los Angeles in this last season's teasers I thought I might catch up with the show and enjoy a good atomic blast. I'm a sucker for nuclear bombs in film; my distopian taste in fiction draws me in.

I got through the first two seasons, but starting the 3rd I couldn't get interested. The lines all sounded the same, the situation was the same, it all got really boring. Like Mr. Luse says, it's not about the characters, it's about the action. Who cares if the bad guys succeed or not...I lost interest.

Oh, and Tancredo is a one-trick pony.

Darn, Bill. Not having TV channels, of course I didn't see the debate and didn't know that Tancredo said that. And I was getting all set to vote for him in the Republican primary. I hate to think that I have to sit out the primary, too!

(I can't believe any of y'all waste brain cells on this show...Can't you feel your brain cells going "Aieeeeee!" and dying off in batches when you start watching?)

Excellent analysis of the similarities between pornography and the action/adventure genre. Very insightful.

As one who's seen all six seasons of 24, however, I must disagree about Jack Bauer's character. While he still does the same things he's done in previous seasons, there has been a real and substatntive development to his character over time. After the China torture experience, he really wasn't himself this season --- but you had to be paying attention to notice. It came through in myriad subtle ways, which is the sign of an outstanding actor. It was particularly striking at the end of Season 6 that Jack Bauer is a very different man now than he was six seasons ago.

Sharp comment, Kevin.

TSO: so I trust Mr. Cella is equally outraged over Bugs Bunny I trust that's a joke.

the link between porn & torture is nebulous in my personal experience. The key words there are "in my personal experience."

Chris: there has been a real and substatntive development to his character over time You must be joking.

No TV channels, Lydia? Isn't that un-American or something? More interesting than brain cell death, btw, is the death of characters on the program. The grieving process is remarkable for its brevity.

I'm a fan of 24, but this season was, in my view, pretty dreadful. Jack WAS flat this time. I wish I could see it as Chris does, but I can't-- I found the writing this season poor in comparison with previous seasons. There was a also a significant personnel problem: Tony, Michelle, Edgar, David Palmer-- the show's most interesting characters-- are all dead; Wayne Palmer spent most of the season unconscious; and Chloe spent most of it whining.

On the torture question: Fans don't enjoy watching the torture. I think 24 has much the same appeal as Dirty Harry, Walking Tall, Code of Silence, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, etc. The main characters in all those movies break rules-- sometimes stupid rules, but often good rules-- in order to defeat evil. All play on the audience's sense that we have enacted rules that handicap the good guys while the bad guys flout ethical norms as a matter of course. They make the point that, sometimes, beating the bad guys requires breaking those rules. In a world in which the media crow for weeks about Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, the alleged desecration of Qurans, etc., but never express shock at beheadings, car bombings, kidnappings, IEDs, and other terrorist outrages, I think that's neither surprising nor dismaying. People find the moral universe of the mainstream media upside down, and like seeing a character like Jack Bauer set it right again-- even if he has to do some bad things to do it.

William - I'm not joking. Compare the Jack Bauer who began Season One playing chess with his daughter...with the Jack Bauer who was gazing at the ocean at the end of Season Six. Jack has become a very different man, and I thought those changes were evident throughout this season.

Daniel - I agree that the plotting of this season, and the supporting cast, were lame compared to Season Five, but I thought Jack's character was well done.

Chris - You have a point. Jack wasn't given much to do this season-- he really wasn't on screen for very long. The show was at its best when he was. Unfortunately, we had to endure lots of bunker and White House scenes that just weren't very interesting.

Also, the arc of the season was strange. The number of nuclear bombs in the hands of terrorists was at its maximum at the beginning; it declined fairly rapidly; it disappeared altogether at 11pm, with seven hours to go! I found it gripping up to the point when the nuclear bomb exploded (10am). After that, however, things got implausible, and then talk replaced action. Who really cares about Bill Buchanan's career or the psychological condition of Audrey Raines?

Yes, the moral universe of our opinion-makers is upside down, but how does a show steeped in moral relativism help matters?

Frankly, if "winning" requires adopting the practices of our enemies then maybe losing, as seen from Eternity, isn't the worst thing.

Kevin, I think Walker Percy wrote about the 20th century being the century of eroticism and violence, but I loaned Signposts in a Strange Land to a friend, so I can't go more in depth than that.

Regarding Walker Percy, he contemplates the violent reaction to the expanding insignificance of sensualism, using Kierkegaard's description of it as a divided and rebellious spirituality. "Does the demoniac spirit of the self, frustrated by the failure of Eros, turn in the end to the cold fury of Saturn?" I don't know if that is always true, but it gives a glimpse into the chaos within the psyche as it searches for a reprieve of its condition.

I don't know if it has anything to do with Kierkegaard, but I have long thought that it's no accident that pornography itself has become darker as the century (er, I mean _last_ century) went on. You know my favorite bit from Denis de Rougemont, filtered through C.S. Lewis: "When Eros is made a god, he becomes a devil."

One of the stupidest theories ever come up with was that of one Gershon Legman (about whom I may write more on WWWtW some day), author of the incredibly silly and turgid little mid-20th-century book _Love and Death_: He argued that sadism in popular culture would decline if pornography were made legal, because "love" would conquer "death" in the minds of the people. Well, as they say, we have data on that. It was the typical idiocy of the D.H. Lawrence, free-love imagination. Unfortunately, they won the culture wars of their own day, leaving us in the end with increasing amounts of torture (most of it, I'm gathering, worse than Jack Bauer's) all over the Internet and free to poison the imaginations of men.

Good call. Walker Percy places our crisis in the context of a scientism (similiar to Voegelin's view) that strips man of meaning, leaves him isolated, spiritually impoverished and unable to form real relationships.

This deep alienation leaves genital sex and violence as the two most available options open to those who, as Bill describes in his piece, are already dead inside.

At least, I hope I am doing him justice, because his diagnosis is much deeper and better said than I can convey.

William - I'm not joking

Yes you are, Chris. I insist on believing you're pulling my leg.

No problem-I couldn't remember exactly what his context was for it, so thanks. I guess it's related to his theory of reentry as well-you can travel, have sex, kill, or get drunk.

Mr. Bonevac seems to be playing a little fast and loose with facts and principles here. Did John McLaine (Bruce Willis' character in the Die Hard series) ever torture a helpless man? Not that I can recall. What he did was fight wick men. It is true that he did not hesitate to make use of brutality and cunning, but there is nothing in Christian ethics, so far as I can tell, that forbids a man fighting in a just cause from fighting to win.

Part of the popularity of 24 has been its willingness to shock. This lends itself to excess; and it lends itself, among a people undiscriminating in their moral philosophy, to blurring of important lines. In the season just ended, Jack escaped from some tormentors by biting a man to death -- biting, that is, the guy's throat. Savage, shocking, preposterous stuff, but not itself wicked. But in our undiscriminating age many viewer may, on wholly irrational grounds, think the vampire trick somehow worse than the standard fare of beatings of helpless men.

This subtle transvaluation of values is the most subversive aspect of the show.

I watched the entire first season on DVD some time ago. I haven't watched an episode since. The real-time gimmick of the show is a good one, but the values which inform the show are perverse. That isn't anything new in Hollywood, of course.

What is new is the specific appeal of this show, and the kinds of people to whom it appeals. This show appeals to a generation which doesn't understand manhood, but which senses that manhood has been lost and has a desire to recover it. This show serves up a hollow ("flat" is a great term for it) simulcrum of lost manhood to a generation of children who don't know how to grow up into men, but wish they did: a generation of physically adult children whose parents abandoned manhood and failed to pass it on.

Jeff Culbreath writes:

Almost makes me want to watch 24 just to get a little better view

It almost does. There's enough there to suggest it: the President likes 24, Jerry Falwell liked 24, and so does my friend who will watch an entire old season in one sitting. Popularity suggests that critics, too, must pay attention, or so they think. But here's the rub: what attracts the purveyor often catches the critic.


I want to respond what Daniel Bonevac said:

People find the moral universe of the mainstream media upside down, and like seeing a character like Jack Bauer set it right again-- even if he has to do some bad things to do it.

What Bonevac describes is, I think, part of a nasty cycle wherein a vicarious heroism comforts a faulty moralism at large. So the French Revolution terribly needed Lady Reason to inspire emotion through the eyes. We love Lady Reason, she poses admirably, lifts our spirits in the hope of whatever--all the while the guillotine machinates.

Likewise, a show of moral victory, where scenes of bad things to be squashed are stitched together for a final heroic quick fix, suggests moral honesty. It is fantastic; anything less would direct our attention to humanity and the responsibility for truth. But experience says that mankind is a bigot when dealing in the language of truth. Endearment to ideological truth creates the very evil that the hero so quickly abolishes. More often than not, entertainment legitimizes the bums by drawing our attention to the producer's ever increasing fascination with the knowledge of particular evils. So much for the action hero; the vote has turned, in full-color realism--to cynicism. As Chantal Delsol remarks in Icarus Fallen, contemporary man "does not fear what is false, but what is evil." "Contemporary man is satisfied to merely reject the objects of his disgust. His only compasss in the general disorder of his thoughts is the consensus of repugnance. . . a bad conscience is, after all, no more than an emotion . . . [he] keeps error below the surface without actually destroying it." There is high voltage danger here, according to Delsol. "The criterion of disgust is only able to impose itself on what has already proved to be unacceptable." In order to denounce a great wrong, we must wait until it produces virtually irreparable human disasters . . . It is not the mind that recoils, but the heart."

Delsol is onto something. So is William Luse, especially when he implies that these shows linger on things they shouldn't. In fact, they linger on the morality they know best: a morality reduced primarily to the act of identifying evil.

The proper job of the critic is to direct the eyes to the right stuff. A good critic, then, is a bit more than just a doctor who knows the disease, identifies the disease, and can pronounce the patient sick. Many conservatives are excellent doctors at this level, wielding their sharpened quills in a contest of eloquence about how sick is the world. Such critics, in directing the eye, can't seem to lift ours for a better view.

Good stuff, KW, even if I may have gotten dinged in the process: what attracts the purveyor often catches the critic. As a reward, you can call me Bill.

And this - entertainment legitimizes the bums by drawing our attention to the producer's ever increasing fascination with the knowledge of particular evils - is a wonderful capture of Johnson's thesis.

Lydia, I wonder what made Legman equate pornography with love. Anyway, we tried that free-love stuff in the 60's and it didn't work. Probably because it wasn't about love, but something else.

"What made Legman equate pornography with love..." An impoverished imagination, is my guess, perhaps deliberately so. That imaginations are now impoverished is less culpable. What have most of the young been given to feed on? 24?

Until now there were 24 comments on this thread. I couldn't let that stand. It's the vandal in me. :-)

A very helpful reflection, Dr. Luse. As a Christian who is also an English professor, I doubly applaud your comments. I have been appalled at the kinds of entertainment (mostly film and TV, but books for those who actually do read) attract the students at my still-conservative Christian college. It is extremely difficult to get through to them either the moral or literary principles you discuss here. 24 is immensely popular here; I think one of your commenters has a good point about the longing for manhood that has been so devastated in our current culture. But I think it is also simply a complete lack of spiritual discernment. If something appeals to the emotions, it must be good. And, of course, "it's *just* entertainment; it has no effect on me!" God have mercy on us all.

Well, I wish America had a lot more English teachers like you.

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