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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The ’24’ Drinking Game Calculator & FAQ

Responding to the growing popularity of “24”-centered drinking games, the Infospigot Research Institute has developed an easy-to-use way of telling players how drunk the show and its characters are making them. Without further ado:

I have downed
during the current episode of—Say it! Say it now!—”24.”

I am A Jack/Tony/Curtis Wannabe A Chloe/Audrey/Michelle (R.I.P.) Wannabe
(CTU Los Angeles has determined that there are gender differences in Blood Alcohol Concentration).

I weigh Pounds Kilograms

and I live/dwell in

(so that the result is displayed in the appropriate units).

About the ’24’ Drinking Game Calculator
The ’24’ Drinking Game Calculator was shamelessly appropriated in fewer than 24 idle minutes from The Intoximeters Inc. “Drink Wheel”, which posts a link to some paste-in code that the general drinking public is invited to use. See the Intoximeters site for details on how the calculator works and how bogus its results may be. The Intoximeters site also carries a copyright notice, though the paste-in code carries none. So we may be perpetrating an Intellectual Property Protocol Breach. Curtis—secure a perimeter! President Logan, start twitching!

Do we really need a ’24’ Drinking Game Calculator?
No. You can get hammered playing the “24” drinking game of your choice, with or without a blood-alcohol estimation device. But the calculator will probably catch the terrorists by surprise. Unless Edgar screws it up.

Who’s tougher—Jack or Tony?
Nina—but she got careless.

Who was smarter—Kim or the Cubs mug?
Depends on what you mean by “smarter.”

Anything else?
“Nerve gas.”

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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).


(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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Making America Safe — for ’24’

Another season of doltish, action-packed fun is over. America’s soap-operatically inclined counterterrorism force managed to hunt down its generic Muslim nemesis (turned out he was linked to a hot and totally un-hejabbed American hitwoman who was practically right out of an “Austin Powers” fantasy), foil a nuclear cruise missile strike on Los Angeles, and, after all that was done, fake the hero’s death so that he could escape … well, never mind. The final episode with Jack Bauer — Kiefer Sutherland to his dad — heading for Mexico to avoid the consequences of his no-holds-barred approach to defending our way of life.

The important thing is that it’s clear that there will be another season of bad writing, bad acting, and incredibly strained political, military, and romantic scenarios. All that’s certain is that there’s only one man in the America of ’24’ who can get anything done right — and the last we saw of him, he was walking into the sunrise in an L.A. train yard.

’24’: Bumblefest Nears Climax

MK emails a link to a very serious piece of prose on Salon that tries to answer the not-very-tough question: “How real is ’24’?” It’s an over-serious piece that seemingly misses what’s in plain sight: That ’24’ is a prime-time soap with high-explosive props and a main character with major anger-management issues. The writer refers to the show’s Counterterrorism Unit (CTU) and its “ridiculously capable agents.” No! Most of the agents, walk-on types who never get names, are on screen only to provide targets for terrorists. Faithful viewers know they can count on CTU (and everyone else in the U.S. government) to make the wrong choice every time: “Lunch break or try to figure out where that nuclear warhead is?” “Lunch — I could use a bellyful of Wendy’s chili right about now.”

The lone exception is the anger-management-problem guy, Jack Bauer, who has a faultless ability to overcome the bumblers and see through all terrorist machinations. He even died and came back to life one season in his quest to see the bad guys get theirs. But what can one man do against all those evil-doers? Plenty. But Jack’s personal life is much more difficult. As his Cubs-fan sidekick, Tony Almeida, said last night of Jack and his current love interest: “Funny … Yesterday Jack and Audrey were talking about their future together. Now he’s responsible for her husband’s death, and he might have to torture her brother.”

This season’s ending in the next week or two. Last night’s episode ended with a nuclear-armed cruise missile headed for some big city from Iowa. It’s been in the air for more than an hour, so I think Chicago is safe. The rest of the country — watch out.

’24’: Week in Review

Week after week, I’ve cursed “24” — like I don’t have anything better to do — for its insistence on portraying senior government officials, even the president — no, especially the president — as cartoonish dolts devoid of common sense and bent on making the wrong decision whenever the opportunity arises. (Tonight’s example: The president — actually the vice president who has taken the helm after the president was critically injured in the downing of Air Force One — orders the Secret Service to arrest a counterterrorist agent who’s in the midst of busting a bad guy who’s determined to set off a nuclear weapon. Because of the president’s idiocy, the bad guy gets away. Of course.)

At the same time, on the strength of seeing the first two or three seasons of “The West Wing” on DVD, I’ve been struck at what an idealistic, admiring portrait of the presidency that show presents. Among liberals, anyway, I think it’s been commonplace to think what a wonderful world this would be if only President Jed Bartlett were running the show (a few years ago, Martin Sheen came to talk at a church here in Berkeley, and the audience treated him with something like reverence that it was clear was due in part to his role as “West Wing” president).

Now I realize that I’ve been cursing and admiring the wrong TV presidents. Yes, the chief executives on “24” are pathetic morons who never let good counsel get in the way of a bad move. And Jed Bartlett’s White House really is too good to be the real nerve center of the free world. But: The “24” version of “reality” is great comic relief, and even the current president looks like a giant compared to the idiots who show up as president on its episodes. “The West Wing” just depresses me with the illusion that we could have leadership so much better than what we’ve settled for.

’24’: Week in Review

Earlier in the season, “24” was getting some heat for its depiction of Middle Eastern Muslims as remorseless though very clever killers. The show, and the Fox network, responded with some public-service announcements informing viewers that not every Muslim is bad. And one episode portrayed a pair of young Arab-American sporting-goods store owners fighting alongside the show’s hero against a team of bad guys deployed by a ruthless U.S. defense contractor.

Last night’s episode introduced a new group of cartoonish evil-abetters.

The terrorists hijack a nuclear weapon in an ambush described as happening variously “in Iowa,” “in mountainous terrain” and at latitude 37 degrees north and longitude 115 degrees west, a point that happens to be a scrubby patch of desert about 60 miles north of Las Vegas. The geographic niceties aside, the bad guys have a bomb and appear to be heading for a big city — Chicago? — to set it off. The U.S. counterterrorism force has one chance of finding the mastermind and stopping the attack, though — a bad guy they’ve captured at an L.A.-area marina. To get the information they need to avert the attack, it’s clear they’re going to torture the suspect.

But the terrorist leader is one step ahead of them. He actually has one of his henchmen call a liberal civil-liberties lawyer (working for a group called Amnesty Global). The lawyer manages to wake up a federal judge, present his case that the government is about to abuse an upstanding U.S. citizen, get an injunction, and hightail it down to counterterrorism HQ to stop the torture session — all in 10 minutes on the show’s real-time clock. Of course, none of that process happens on camera. All we know is that, just as the interrogators are about to do their stuff, they’re halted by an insufferably smug attorney spouting some Bill of Rights crap. Of course, no one, including the president of the United States, is willing to contravene the court order halting the interrogation, even though millions of lives are at stake; and though the civil-liberties lawyer managed to get a judge to turn handsprings in the middle of the night and get an order in a millisecond, the script explains the government is powerless to appeal the order until the following day.

Luckily, it turns out that there’s one man willing to defy the misguided application of constitutional protections: Jack Bauer, who gets hold of the suspect and, after an agonizing couple of minutes and several shattered suspect fingers, finds out everything he wants to know.

Like I said — the civil-liberties lawyer is just a cartoonish dupe. Just as the greedy, amoral defense-firm execs were earlier in the show. But you have to wonder how many people are watching this, saying, “Goddamn liberals!” and cheering for the torture. Lots and lots, I bet.

’24’: Arab Americans Are People, Too

The New York Times talked yesterday about all the challenges facing several series, including “24,” whose writers and producers are still trying to figure out how to wrap up their season-long plot lines. Over the last couple of weeks, “24” has fallen into one of those plot lulls that make you wish the bad guys would nuke Fox network HQ. Essentially, the show has slumped back into a soap-opera stew as viewers wait for the Islamic terrorists — who seem to be getting more and more non-Islamic help –to spring their next nasty scheme. Something awful is coming: The script, in combination with the preview for next week, is telegraphing a terror strike against the president, who is in his 13th consecutive hour flying somewhere in Air Force One. But the mold-growing-on-bread pace of the latest plot makes you wonder whether the writers had any idea themselves of what’s coming next. In last night’s episode, it took one of the terror operatives a full hour to put on a uniform he’s using as a disguise.

In the moments when action was allowed to occur last night:

–A team of mercenary commandos working for an Evil Defense Contractor implicated in the day’s terrorist attacks goes after Jack and Paul. The team was led by a guy who at first glance looked kind of like Prince. Jack killed him.

–The Evil Defense Contractor’s security chief is terminated, too; but not before playing dead and nearly succeeding in shooting Jack. Paul, who at one time looked like a terrorist mole, heroically takes the bullet meant for Jack. Not sure whether Fox’s patented miracle medical technology will be able to save him from the killed-in-action list.

–In an effort to show they know that Arab Americans are loyal citizens, the show’s writers have the gun battle between Jack, Paul and the Evil Defense Contractor commandos take place at a sporting goods store owned by two Arab American brothers. After Jack forces his way in to get guns and ammo for the upcoming fight — he appears to find a state-of-the-art assault rifle just waiting for him, and he didn’t even have to wait for a background check — he urges the brothers to leave. But they selflessly stay and fight — to defend the store their dad started and to make a stand against terrorism with Jack, the United States of America, and Fox TV.

The scene was so self-conciously uplifting I forgot to cry, though I did get a little weepy when Jack promised government help to repair damage to the sporting goods establishment. Rule One in the War on Terror: Torture when you must, but always take responsibility for property damage.