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Tonight’s Reading

The New Yorker’s February 19th issue includes a take-out on “24,” its use of torture as both plot device and tool to extract information from evil-doing characters, and its impact in the real world (“Whatever It Takes,” by Jane Mayer). We’d like to convince ourselves that our prime-time television is all just play acting, that grown-ups can tell the difference between what’s made up and what’s not, and that viewers will maintain a balanced image of the world after immersing themselves in a hyper-violent, hyper-paranoid adventure like “24.” But the article points out that officials in the Army and FBI, people responsible for real-life interrogations and for training those that do them, find “24” not laughably implausible but actually harmful.

The story details a meeting between some of the show’s producers and writers and a group of officials including Army Brig. Gen. Patrick Finnegan, the dean of West Point. Finnegan and “three of the most experienced military and F.B.I. interrogators in the country” met the “24” team to discuss the impact of the show’s depiction of the unrestrained use of torture (Joel Surnow, the co-creator of the show, its executive producer, buddy of Rush Limbaugh, and convinced right-winger, declined to meet with Finnegan et al.). As Mayer recounts:

“Finnegan told the producers that ’24,’ by suggesting that the U.S. government perpetrates myriad forms of torture, hurts the country’s image internationally. Finnegan, who is a lawyer, has for a number of years taught a course on the laws of war to West Point seniors—cadets who would soon be commanders in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. He always tries, he said, to get his students to sort out not just what is legal but what is right. However, it had become increasingly hard to convince some cadets that America had to respect the rule of law and human rights, even when terrorists did not. One reason for the growing resistance, he suggested, was misperceptions spread by ’24,’ which was exceptionally popular with his students. As he told me, ‘The kids see it, and say, “If torture is wrong, what about ’24’?” ‘ He continued, ‘The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.’ ”

Mayer notes that “24” isn’t the ultimate source of the moral fog surrounding U.S. policy on torture. No, the problem for people like Finnegan is that the our government is in the hands of people who promote torture as an acceptable weapon in our state of permanent war. If you’re paying attention to the regime that Bush, Cheney, Gonzalez and their brief writers are trying to put in place, the troops might be forgiven for thinking that Jack Bauer is a model they might aspire to.

In passing, one of the people who comes out looking OK in Mayer’s story is Kiefer Sutherland, who actually seems to think about the issues his character raises.

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’24’: The Drinking Game

Redoubtable Chicagoan (or is that redundant?) MK points out a Slate feature on “24.” It’s an interview with one of the show’s writers on the many TV story-telling envelopes the series is pushing. All fine. The show’s central conceit, that the story is taking place in real time during the course of a single day (divided into two dozen advertiser-friendly weekly episodes) is unique. But that’s not news. What is noteworthy, Slate writer James Surowiecki suggests, is the staying power of “24” long after the audience has gotten used to the show’s terrorist spectaculars and remorselessly pounding clock. The explanation, Surowiecki says, lies in factors like the “political and even moral depth” that world events have lent the production. And of course we shouldn’t overlook “Kiefer Sutherland’s exceptional work as Jack Bauer.”

It’s perplexing. On one hand, you wonder if Surowiecki’s ever watched the show. If he has, where did he spot all the excellent acting and writing he’s talking about? But he has watched the show — the interview he conducts comes off as the work of a “24” junkie. He asks the writer Michael Loceff, with an apparently straight face, “How much work do you put into making the show realistic? There seem to be times when realism and drama inevitably come into conflict.”

There seem to be times? Yes, whenever a character says or does just anything more complex than start a car. The only reason I can imagine that anyone would suggest that “24” has anything serious to say about the world we live in is that produces high ratings. But the Nielsen numbers don’t make the show deep or serious any more than Bush getting re-elected transforms him smart or wise.

As for Kiefer Sutherland’s “exceptional” acting — if you’re looking for an unregenerate hard-ass, I’ll take R. Lee Ermey any day — here’s a Jack Bauer drinking game (don’t blame me for the cirrhosis): Down a shot (whatever you prefer to guzzle) every time Jack screams, “No-o-o-o-o!” A shot every time he shouts. “Do it!” or some variation on that. A shot every time he threatens to rough up someone who’s not fully cooperatng with him; a double-shot every time he follows through on the threat.

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24 Jones Street

“24” is back. Despite past seasons of carping about it, I spent two hours in front of the tube tonight watching (well, less than two since we recorded it and blasted through the commercials). No less august a chronicler of important stuff than The New York Times saw fit to run threethree! — features on the new season since Friday. (The considerably less august San Francisco Chronicle had a big season-opener on Friday. The reviewer, TV critic Tim Goodman, botched one detail. He suggested episode one took 10 minutes before it headed off into unhinged crisis mode; in fact, it took much less time: The opening credits were still rolling when the first high-profile character — “former President David Palmer” — was dispatched by an assassin.)

The Times ran a piece today on Carlos Bernard (aka north suburban Chicagoland native Carlos Bernard Papierski), who plays Tony Almeida, the durable and always-dependable sidekick to Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer. What he’s loved for best in these parts, of course, is his display of a Cubs mug every season; he even drank beer out of it last season to dramatize how depressed he was with life as a disgraced counterterrorism agent. The mug showed up tonight in his very first scene in episode one, an hour that was kind of rough on him (13 minutes into the new season, mere minutes after brandishing the Cubs mug, his wife was killed by a car bomb. Tony/Carlos was badly injured in the blast).

Cubsmug

(Carlos Bernard/Tony Almeida in intimate Cubs mug moment.)

In other “24” news, the bad guys got things rolling in a big way. As usual, they’re omnipotent. As usual, they love L.A. The terrorist scenario this year involves some pissed-off Russians who look to be staging a Beslan-style hostage incident at the airport in Ontario. It’ll get really ridiculous soon — maybe even during the second two episodes, to be aired Monday. Thank goodness for the Cubs mug.

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’24’: Week in Review

So, Jack Bauer, America’s rogue agent for life, appears to have foiled the terrorist mastermind Marwan and averted 99.some percent of the nuclear catastrophes facing the United States (104 nuclear plants could have melted down, but just one did). Earlier in the day, he easily solved the kidnapping of the secretary of defense and his daughter (Jack’s girlfriend) and wiped out the terrorist contingent that was going to try the secretary live on the Internet for war crimes. Plus, he rehabilitated his disgraced former partner, Cubs’ fan Tony Almeida, and staged a convenience store as a diversion, ran out of ammo during another shootout with bad guys, tortured his girlfriend’s soon-to-be-former husband, and captured the turncoat who gave the terrorists the “”override device” that made it possible to take over the nation’s nuclear plants. Jack did all that in eleven hours. Which means just one thing: His “day” has another 13 hours to run. So — despite the mopping up that still must be done — capturing Marwan; catching the Turkish terrorist dad, freeing his son, and delivering the mom to the responsible authorities; dealing with a few hundred thousand casualties from the Southern California nuclear plant meltdown — all of the proceedings so far are just an appetizer for some horrific main event.

Guesses, anyone? It looks like the nuclear meltdowns were a diversion themselves. Either that, or they’re not really over. I’m puzzled.

The other question is: What purpose is served by the absurd subplot involving the Counterterrorism Unit station chief, the stoic but bitchy Erin Driscoll, and her schizophrenic daughter, Maya? Last night, Maya committed suicide, thus sparing viewers her continued histrionics.

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’24’: Totally Sensitive

During tonight’s broadcast of “24,” Fox ran a short public-service announcement from Kiefer Sutherland. The message, in essence: ” ’24’ depicts a group of really evil Muslims. But you, Mr. and Mrs. American Television Connoisseur and your extended families, should bear in mind that not all Muslims are bad people. Please keep that in mind as you  watch me, as agent Jack Bauer, kick some evil Muslim butt.”

In case you need a translation, that’s America being real sensitive to minority sensibilities. Actually, it should be noted that on tonight’s episode, Kiefer/Jack didn’t confront any evil Muslims directly. But just wait. Their hour of reckoning approaches.

Even more significantly, it should also be noted that Tony Almeida’s  Chicago Cubs mug made another appearance on tonight’s show — the first time it has been seen since the first season of “24,” I believe. Unlike its first supporting role, when it likely contained a brewed hot caffeinated beverage, the Cubs mug tonight served as receptacle for a brewed cold alcoholic beverage. Yeah, the actor who plays Tony (Carlos Bernard, aka Carlos Bernard Papierski) is a Chicago-area native who apparently advertises his roots with his Cubs mug. From which he now drinks beer from.

(January 15, 2006 update: Tony and the mug are back — check out the details — for the new season.)

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’24’: The Final Verdict

We finished watching the second two hours of the new “24” (“the most critically acclaimed show on television”) last night. In my expert opinion, the show as written is simply too ludicrous to be saved. The appearance of one after another (after another after another) dumb soap-opera subplots simply overwhelms the alleged main story line and the action attendant thereto.

However, I have to admit some of the plot twists are so mind-bendingly idiotic that they’re entertaining in themselves, and they make you wonder whether the show’s creative geniuses have given up on action and suspense in favor of remaking “Dallas,” only with automatic weapons and mass casualties and bad guys with foreign accents. My favorite subplot so far involves the tight-assed Counterterrorism Unit boss, Erin Driscoll, who gets a call in the midst of a national emergency from her schizophrenic daughter Maya, who is wigging out and refusing to take her meds. She wants Erin to say she loves her, which Erin does with all the enthusiasm of a prisoner facing a firing squad. Minutes later, a neighbor calls to report that Maya has been terrorizing the neighborhood. Erin’s response is to bully a subordinate into waving off the Los Angeles police officers responding to the incident and sending a CTU medical team to deal with Maya instead. As bad as that sounds, it’s actually worse when you factor in the comic-book dialogue and very limited acting skills of all involved.

The question now is whether I’m really done with “24” for the season or whether I’ll respond the way my friend Endo did: “I’m burned out on ’24’ — UNTIL NEXT WEEK!!!”

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’24’

Now back to really important stuff: The season premiere of “24,” Fox’s suspense/thriller/action”extravaganza, starring Kiefer Sutherland as Jack “Just Do It! Do It Now!” Bauer. (In case you didn’t know, it’s “the most critically acclaimed show on television.” Fox’s announcers kept saying that during the Green Bay-Minnesota playoff game, so it must be true.)

I admit ’24’ used to be a sort of guilty pleasure. The series’ central conceit, that you’re watching the story unfold over the course of a day, and that each episode represents real time, was an attraction at first. Yeah, it was kind of trashy in some ways. The characters’ personal side- and subplots were kind of dumb and not all the acting was great, but hey, it’s network TV and the original story line was engaging enough: a group of mysterious and really nasty people are trying to assassinate a leading presidential candidate on the day of the California primary.

We watched that season. And the second, when the presidential candidate Bauer saved has become president and is confronted by terrorists who try to detonate a nuclear weapon in Los Angeles. And the third, when the same president — by now notorious to regular viewers for letting his loose-cannon wife and other relatives wreak all sorts of outlandish havoc on the Constitution and other innocent bystanders — is confronted by terrorists who threaten to wipe out Los Angeles and probably most of the country by releasing a super-bad germ that makes Ebola look like the sniffles.

Now, you’d never mistake “24” for “Smiley’s People” or “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” Then again, it’s not aspiring to be complex and challenging. It’s a romp. But even on that level, it’s had its problems. The terrorist plots are never intelligible. Bad people are doing bad things, but their motives, aside from wanting to settle scores with Bauer and his pal, the president, are never explored. Meantime, the scriptwriters spend most of their time concocting more and more elaborate woman trouble and political backstabbing for both Jack and the president.

This formula — just enough exotic terrorists vs. good guys action to make you sit still for the parallel soap opera — has been in place since season one. But last season, it went too far. Whenever any of the so-called good guys had a straightforward choice between a sane, common sense action that might keep them out of trouble and one that would bring them one more step toward utter destruction, they always — not sometimes or most of the time, but always — chose the latter. It got to be too much, so manipulative and dumb that we gave up on the show halfway through the season (though we did pick up again in the final couple of episodes just to see how it all came out).

So, where were we tonight when “24,” the most critically acclaimed show on television, began its new season? Not in front of the TV, at first. We got a TiVo digital video recorder, and we started watching about 40 minutes into the two-hour broadcast so we could just jump through the commercials. And what did we see?

It’s disheartening to report that the show didn’t even make it to the first commercial break without introducing its first sappy, predictable romantic subplot or disclosing that CTU, the counterterrorism unit where Jack does his stuff, is supervised by jealous, politically-driven moron who cares more about marking her territory than, gee, stopping a terrorist strike. Another predictable character was present, too: The field agent brought in to replace Jack had “dispensable” written all over him, and sure enough, he was dead by the time the show was off the air.

After saying all that, yeah, I’ll give it another couple hours tomorrow to see how bad it gets.

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