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Go Back One | Jump Ahead One

Four years off the air and I forgot what a lightning rod 24 is for overzealous meta and comparisons. Don't misunderstand me, I love meta, I love nothing more than taking some part of a show and seeing how it fits into the real world. Writing about how fictional stories can be seen as more than just plot devices and character traits, how it can be used to illustrate some psychological, philosophical or socio-political theory. I do, after all, own a book called "24 and Philosophy: The Word According to Jack."

I even love discussion the whole process and point of fiction: whether the character is being discussed as a fictional character or as a real person; whether the plot point is character or plot driven; even how the restrictions of whatever conceit the fiction is based on affects what can or can not be done.

All of that is love.

What isn't love is when people take everything way too literally. After all this is fiction. It's supposed invoke feelings and thinky-thoughts but it's not supposed to be seen as the end all and be all of the world. I don't care how popular some bit of fiction is; it's still just fiction.

What's even more unbelievable is that 24 was never that popular. Ever. Yeah, it caught a lot of press and generated a lot of debate -- mostly because of the whole "taking things too literally" thing. It's talked about as being the first "must watch" show, but it really wasn't. Mostly because we didn't have the technology to make it a must watch show. DVRs? On line viewing? '24' debuted in 2001 and went off the air in 2010 and that's a lifetime in technological terms.

But even if it had been, even if we'd all watched every episode obsessively, it doesn't mean we'd see the same thing. We may all watch the same show or read the same book but we each interpret it differently. That's the glory of fiction. It doesn't control the world, it doesn't control minds, it doesn't make people into things they aren't.

And yet, some people who review 24? It's like they've never ran across controversial fiction before. I swear to you that these would be the people who, in different circumstances, would be demanding that all the D&D manuals be burned because "it's controlling our kids". Or that heavy metal music should be banned because of how "influential" it is.

Get a grip, people.

Think I'm over stating it? I offer two examples.

The first article talks about how '24' has completely subverted our television culture. In The Washington Post, TV critic Hank Stuever wrote ‘24: Live Another Day’: Jack Bauer Returns to a World he Made. The "world" in the title refers to television and he basically says that everything that is wrong with television today, can be laid at the feet of '24'. I kid you not.

To quote:
Whenever you feel exhausted by today’s TV dramas, whenever a key character meets with sudden death or you throw your hands up in exasperation, there’s a little bit of the “24” legacy at work.

Whenever you feel yourself watching a show from a place of hypervigilance and mistrust, you’re most likely leaning on “24’s” lessons in betrayal by supporting characters: Which one of you can’t be trusted? Which one of you is not who they say they are? Which one of you is — in “24’s” unforgettable parlance —“dirty?”
See? It's all 24's fault. So when you are watching Game of Thrones and you are afraid that a main character may die or suddenly betray someone, it's all 24's fault. Boy, I'm sure the show runners of '24' will be thrilled to know that they had so much control over television. I understand where this guy is coning from because I greatly dislike the concept of killing off characters just because they can or to prove to the audience that characters can die or just to be "edgy" and "serious". Because that? Bad writing. If you want to debate where or not '24' was bad writing, I can do that. But to say that '24' has made television into nothing but bad writing? That's a hell of a stretch.

Despite it's questionable thematic statement, it's a rather interesting read because -- as is the case with most blog/personal type reviews and meta -- it tells more about the author than the subject being reviewed. For example, he rather dislikes the fact that the show comes with a fairly heavy load of backstory for all the characters. “24” is asking a lot for us to remember who all these folks are, or why they might matter to Jack, or why they now hold him in contempt. On the other hand, this is precisely what we’ve said we want from broadcast network shows — to be treated like adults who don’t need everything explained and re-explained to us. Somehow, we’ll figure it out (or look it up while we watch). At least I think that's what he says in that bit. It's actually not very clear how he really feels about it. I would like to read more on what his thoughts are on that.

There's another interesting bit, in the paragraph where he is talking about this incarnation of '24' only having 12 episodes. He says: Now, in the perfect expression of our culture’s “tl;dr”-style hostility to commitment, even poor “24” has to do its job in half the time, by showing us only the hours that matter. That's a fascinating sentence right there and I would dearly love to read some more meta on his thoughts of "our culture’s “tl;dr”-style hostility to commitment".

However, it's actually the second article that talks more on the interaction of '24' and American culture. In Entertainment Weekly, Jeff Jensen writes '24' is Back, but is Jack Bauer the Hero we Need Right Now?. Despite the fact that he's writing for an entertainment mag, he's not talking about what kind of hero is needed on television for better entertainment, but the kind of hero we need as a people.

He starts out by saying how '24' made the American people feel unsafe and paranoid: "The series went to shocking lengths to make the people of its world — and by extension, us — feel ridiculously unsafe, which enhanced the wish-fulfillment/catharsis of watching Jack do anything and everything to restore order, or at least the illusion of it, to a suddenly-chaotic world." It's nice to know that the reality of terrorist attacks, anti-American fervor and an increasingly intrusive government didn't have anything to do with our feelings of insecurity or our need to imagine that someone could take moral/ethical stance amid such ambiguity.

The part I find most interesting is when he talks about the ending of season 8: Jack Bauer "got The Dark Knight ending of sorts, when Batman took the rap for crimes he didn’t commit so Gotham could live with at least the illusion of goodness and principles restored. What Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon said: 'He’s the hero Gotham deserves — but not the one it needs right now.'"

This thought that Jack Bauer and '24' is somehow bad for our collective consciousness is echoed in his final paragraphs. Through the influence of '24', television’s narratives about our elected leaders have become so outlandishly dubious about power, service, and change that they’ve crossed over into dystopian fantasy. and that they cultivate a worldview that’s dumb and distorted and discourages us from caring and doing anything about anything save whining on Twitter.

What. The. Hell?

Really? It's television's fictional portrayal of dystopian government that's the problem? It's not, say, the reality of the government that's the problem? All you have to do is watch the non-fictional news to see our government is full of narrow minded ideologs and petty bureaucrats who use their position of power to punish those who they don't agree with. But that -- that actual real thing -- doesn't have anything to do with our feelings. Nope. What we need is more happy, positive, fictional portrayals of our government. Perhaps we should all just be forced to watch a couple seasons of West Wing so that we can all pretend that nothing bad is happening and we will stop our whiny twittering.

There is so much wrong with those thoughts I can’t even get past sarcasm to address them properly. But again, the piece says more about the reviewer than the reviewed. He writes that Today, the new face of controversial “get ‘er done” heroism is not a by-any-means-necessary secret agent but a guy who blew the whistle on how secret agents do their business, Edward Snowden. The author’s also upset with a scene in the second episode. Chloe, who has become a “hacktavist”, is arguing with Jack: “Intelligence agencies keep secrets because what they’re doing is illegal!” she cries. Jack responds by scolding her. “You’re smarter than that!” he barks, and then accuses her of simply parroting the dogma of the Free Information guru she follows instead of thinking for herself, or at least, as he does. His rebuke leaves Chloe tongue-tied for a rebuttal, and the evening ends with you feeling that Jack won a point and put her in her place. Their exchange feels reductive to all sides of the debate, and I really wish Chloe was allowed a retort, or perhaps a swift kick to Jack’s nuts for being such a belligerently condescending a–hole. Because kicking a guy in the nuts is not reductive at all to an argument.

Even beyond that, why would he – or anyone – expect a non-reductive debate on the subject in a fictional, serialized television show? This isn’t 60 Minutes we’re talking about here. We’re talking entertainment. Just because the entertainment doesn’t support that socio-political view you like, doesn’t make it bad entertainment.

Because it’s just entertainment, people. Fictional people doing fictional things. While that fiction may illuminate reality or give us pause to think about reality in a different way, it doesn’t control reality. It doesn’t brainwash us into just whining on Twitter. It doesn’t make us paranoid. We've had this debate before. Every time something bad happens people point to the TV (or music or movies or books or video games) and say "This is the problem"!

It’s fiction, people. Try not to take it literally.


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