Thomas Doherty

Time’s up

The real-ish world of ‘24’ and the magic one of ‘Lost’ see their last hours

By Thomas Doherty
April 1, 2010

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IT LOOKS like the terrorists have won: Fox has canceled “24.’’ After eight seasons, or 192 hours in Jack Bauer time, the action-psychodrama edited to a digital countdown is being rubbed out, done in not by nameless Islamic republics, rogue Soviet arms dealers, or tech-savvy Mexican drug cartels but the ruthless economics of network television. Measured against the bargain basement overhead of “Jersey Shore’’ or “Dancing with the Stars,’’ the cost of serialized drama with high maintenance talent is just too pricey for the wheezing remnants of the analog media.

Premiering less than two months after 9/11 and anchored by the raspy-voiced, clenched teeth performance of Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, the off-the-reservation super-agent for the US government’s Counter Terrorism Unit, “24’’ was from the get-go eerily in tune with American jitters in the age of terrorism. Whatever McGuffin was being tracked down by Jack and the CTU team — computer disks, nuclear fuel rods, lethal pathogens — the show marked time with a surveillance-happy society where Big Brother was deemed more protector than oppressor. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, apocalyptic scenarios no longer seemed like far-fetched fantasies and ethical qualms about torture were put on pause in the interests of national security.

It was the show’s penchant for up-close-and-personal torture sessions that became its most controversial and excruciating hook — not because of the physical pain inflicted on the suspect but because of the moral complicity demanded of the viewer. Season in, season out, Jack always went medieval on a high-value target who refused to cough up the goods. He turned the screw; we cheered him on. The show did not simply traffic in torture as entertainment; it entertained the notion of torture as a necessary part of the business of anti-terrorism when the clock was ticking. That open-mindedness was enough to earn “24’’ must-see TV status for the Bush-Cheney portion of the Nielsen demographic. But if “24’’ skewed to the right in a prime time landscape dominated by standard-issue Hollywood liberalism, the plot dynamics tilted to the left often enough to keep viewers off balance. As the African-American President David Palmer, Dennis Haysbert commanded the Oval Office with a cool grace and sure gravitas that may have had an unexpected repercussion.

The cancellation of 24 is particularly bitter news in a TV season that will also witness the self-imposed termination of “Lost.’’ The two shows are obvious companion pieces, ying to each other’s yang.

In “24,’’ human beings are relentlessly tracked by the technology of surveillance — monitored by video cameras, pinned and nailed by satellites, reduced to blips on a computer screen. In “Lost,’’ the castaways are totally off the grid. “But they’ll find us!’’ bleats Charlie, the show’s drug addled, D-list rocker. “They have satellites in space that can take pictures of your license plate.’’ Charlie is not shocked that he is lost; he is shocked that they can’t find him. On “24,’’ Chloe, Jack’s tech-geek Girl Friday, would lock in on Charlie before the first commercial break. However, at some late hour in the last couple of seasons, even die-hard “24’’ fans had to admit that the show was running on the vapors of its own clichés: the mole burrowing away at CTU from within, the infinitely permeable perimeters, the bonehead bureaucrat who refuses to heed Jack’s warnings. The implausibility quotient also rose exponentially, and not just the parts about the easy traffic flow on Los Angeles freeways (nothing in LA is just “ten minutes out’’).

Humorist Dave Barry, who writes a hilarious live blog on “24’’, expresses the frustration of the disillusioned devotees: still obsessed, but now more ironic than involved. “This is bad for the economy,’’ he lamented upon hearing the death knell for Jack and CTU, “as literally thousands of moles will be unemployed.’’

Yet for all its flaws, “24’’ operated in something like the real world, not in the magic realism of “Lost,’’ where the threats are from smoke monsters and worm holes, or the faux realism of the “CSI“ and “Law and Order’’ franchises, where white-gloved experts connect all the dots at the top of the hour. “24’’tapped into deep-rooted fears, not all of them paranoid, and asked tough questions, not all of them with pleasant answers. When the crew strikes the set at the end of Day 8, they should preserve some of it for display by the Smithsonian Institution. No less than Julia Child’s kitchen, the CTU interrogation room is an artifact of its time.

Thomas Doherty is a professor in the American Studies Department at Brandeis University.

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