Monday, January 12

The Worst Show on Television

My very live and let live sensibilities are rarely offended. In fact, I often scoff at arguments which focus on the desensitizing effects of music, movies, video games, television, and other media including the news. The crucifixion of Marylin Manson and games like Doom, as contributors to the senseless violence that occurred at Columbine High School, was obscene and sensationalist. However, I will abandon my normal arguments for one show - one show which I feel truly does more harm to the world than all of the others combine. That show is 24.

Now don't get me wrong. There are a lot of good things going on in 24. Not least of all is the incredibly innovative show structure which makes use of the physical reality of the show (notably that it spans one hour), and mirrors that through the plot and action of the show. Also, 24 does a wonderful job of providing incentive to repeat viewership through cliff-hangers, twists, and playfully incremental character development. No, my problem with the show, is none of these things, but for me actually overrules all of these things. My problem is with the themes of the show which through its hero, Jack Bauer, glorify and thoughtlessly perpetuate some of the most heinous errors from humanity's past. Not least of which when Jack Bauer repeatedly defies international law with one barbaric torture scene after another. The writers sing us a lullaby which reminds us to fear technology, savage foreigners, the rule of law, and just as sad, our friends. 24 drops us in a world, that it tells us is our world, where the only rule that matters is kill or be killed.

Don't get me wrong, I am not so naive so as to believe that everything can be taken care of by talking it out, and not all boo-boos can be healed with Barbie band-aids. Violence, espionage, black opts and the like all play crucial roles in the world we all live. Likewise, I realize that our liberties are threatened more than any of us wish to know by threats like terrorism and war. However, when you exploit the deepest fears of Americans and exaggerate the some of the most corrosive racial / cultural stereotypes unrelentingly and then hand them a messiah of amazing violence, distrust, and lawlessness, I feel that you do humanity a disservice. And I am not the only one who feels this way…

Please take a moment to read an article that Jackson Woods pointed out to me from the New Yorker last year, Whatever it Takes. In it Jane Mayer, explores the possible damage done by the show, and some of the positions of its smug co-creator Joel Surnow. Particularly enlightening is the section dedicated to documenting the personal visits Joel has received from the DEAN of West Point, asking him to limit the torture in the show on account of their very real and perceptible negative affects on prospective military officers. Not only do such scenes spit in the face of international law, but torture in real life has been proven to be very ineffective in garnering accurate intelligence. In fact, he cites several more effective methods that are actually used in the field which could conceivably provide Jack with more reliable information and not trample humanitarian efforts while doing it.

I know it's quite long, but please take a chance to read the article Whatever it Takes.

One thing that occurred to me while watching the newest episodes tonight (I wanted to watch Helvetica on PBS in the same timeslot, but Mindy really likes 24) is that we have rightly thrown shame and venom towards our outgoing President while we hail the throne of the great Jack Bauer, and worship him with the voting voice that is viewership. Honestly, at its core 24 tells us that the ends justify the means, and that liberty and decency should be desecrated when we can protect innocent American lives, but yet we are appalled by Guantanamo, we were outraged at the unconstitutional, causeless tapping of our phones and records, and we will put to trial certain Blackwater operatives who may have overstepped or neglected the rules governing combat. Well I say make up your damned minds. I hate Jack Bauer, and I am saddened by the terrible world it helps to create.

Now I understand that there are times when Jack and the other characters of the show consciously deal with these issues. For example, in this season, Jack is standing in front of a congressional panel where he is forced to answer for his black past. He even sometimes edges towards regret for the things that have to happen for him to keep the world safe. If I remember correctly, I believe Jack was even forced to kill his own brother which he found very regrettable. Unfortunately, the answer built by the writers is resoundingly that these things after all had to be done, and secondly, that there was no other way to produce the results he needs. So in effect, we are left with a Socratic argument which asks questions to which the answer is always pain, violence, and torture. In my opinion, instead of tempering the case the for violence, these moments of thoughtfulness actually strengthen the case and redouble the damage done to society.

I also realize that you may sense some hypocrisy in that my favorite show on tv, Dexter, features a homicidal forensics officer who kills savagely and completely without remorse. He too is the hero, and you might think is an excellent mirror of Jack, who also does "whatever it takes." Additionally one of my favorite movies is the Boondock Saints wherein two brothers and eventually their father go on a rampage of righteous killings, freeing the world from the very worst of our criminals and deviants. However, there are many many good arguments for why these shows are wonderful and 24 is disgusting beyond belief. I shall enumerate just a few of these reasons here:

  1. Our heroes don't / rarely torture - killing is legal, and actually deemed appropriate where torture is strictly forbidden by our Constitution and countless other documents
  2. Our heroes have clearly developed and explicit codes which means they respect the rule of law
  3. Our heroes are much less wreckless - they deal out justice much less trivially
  4. Finally, our heroes are not cast as America's last chance - or the only way to safety

I would urge you to consider the multitude of other shows which deal with similar threats completely differently. A 24 contemporary that I like very much for example, that even shares a broadcast night is The Unit.

I understand that these arguments might not hold water for you, and in that case I encourage you to flame me in the comments. But I hope to have at least brought 24's senseless violence one step forward into your consciousness where it is unable to harm your conception of how the world really works.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Benn. I haven't watched the last night's episode of 24 yet, but that's the magic of DVR. I definitely agree with you on the many dubious qualities of Jack the American Hero. The lip service that 24 pays to social progress hardly makes up for the heinous acts perpetrated by the "good guys" (just as a correction, Jack did torture his brother but it was their father who did the killing). Personally, I don't mind it so much. I consider 24 to be another form of mindless modern entertainment like Lost, American Idol or Halo. I'm in it for the explosions, gunfights and intrigue. I could never appreciate 24 the way that I appreciate the excellent HBO series Rome.

    It's also interesting that instead of watching 24 last night, I finally got around to watching my copy of The Dark Knight. The movie was great, but not as good as it was in the IMAX theatre. The punches still sounded like M1 tanks loaded with raw meat hitting the ground after being dropped from an airplane. However, the themes running through the film are very intriguing.

    The relevance to your subject of the day depends on how you interpret the character of the Joker and compare him to real-world bad guys. Is there such a thing as true evil? Are there any historical or modern figures or organizations that could be classified as true evil? In all this we have to assume that true evil must be defeated at any cost. Clearly, it's easy to create fictional or mythological true evil. There are certainly more themes at work in The Dark Knight that could be considered.

    I guess my problem with 24 is that it casts villains as truly evil figures and Jack is the guy who needs to forget the means and focus on the ends. Let's not forget that the villains are easy-to-recognize facsimiles of contemporary real world troublemakers. Assassinating U.S. leaders, using biological weapons and nuking cities are horrifying events, but in 24 these are not the acts of the Joker. The shadow governments, Islamic extremists and Russian hard-liners have legitimate reasons to take action and employ run-of-the-mill flawed human beings.

    Winning the ideological war against these types opponents is critical. Centuries of history demonstrate that overwhelming violence doesn't kill ideas. Good police work and a good PR department will accomplish more than Guantanamo Bay and a B-2 bombing run (not to mention at lower cost).

    Anyway, time to step out of my ivory tower and watch some lowbrow entertainment.