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."
"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.