In addition to slaying bad guys and terrorists by the bushel-load, Jack Bauer is a one-man slayer of political correctness. No wonder he has to be portrayed as a law unto himself, who responds to no authority except his own inner voice demanding justice and results.
If he followed protocol and the current exquisitely correct rules of engagement in questioning terrorists, it would be all -- please and thank you, and can I get you a latte or some falafel while we discuss where you planted the nuclear device? That is, if any terrorists were actually apprehended, given that in the present political climate it appears to be a violation of terrorist rights to privacy if we even dare to listen in on them while they plot our destruction. That's probably part of the appeal of this particular program, and why conservatives have taken it, and Jack, to their hearts.
There are several interesting subplots developing in the current season which really have no bearing on the terrorist threat as such. We know that there are still nefarious schemes afoot and that there are shadowy players and even moles within the administration that are working towards, as yet, undiscovered goals.
Be that as it may -- in a genre like this - the actual danger -- whatever it may be -- is really what Hitchock used to call "The McGuffin" -- a plot device which merely serves as the hinge on which the rest of the story hangs. In Hitchock's brilliant "Notorious" for instance, it mattered little to Hitchock what was down in the wine cellar that the Nazi cell was hiding -- what mattered was that they were evil, and it was the job of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman to foil them. But that wouldn't have been enough for a good movie. What made it great is the performances of Bergman and Grant, and the story line that involved their on-again off-again love affair, and whether Grant would get over his pique at Bergman's less than stellar reputation in time to save her from a slow death by poisoning. We care about them and we cheer as Grant carries Bergman down the staircase just in the nick of time, and it's so satisfying to know all the bad guys got it in the end.
In the current series of "24" it doesn't matter much who the bad guys are, as long as they are recognizable as bad guys. Some viewers may find the current terrorists less than satisfying, since they aren't the Osama Bin Laden look-a-likes that we are familiar with from our daily news. But Chechen-like separatists staging a Beslan-like hostage situation is straight out of the news, and as we know, in this dangerous world terrorists of many stripes tend to work together. Also it's clear that we still do not understand the full danger and who the shadowy players are.
But on to the really interesting stuff. There are several sub-plots developing that I find interesting from a cultural point of view. One is the relationship between Derek and Jack. As the show opens, Derek appears to be the typical whiny, slightly annoying teenager, always getting in the way and thinking he knows best. We don't like him at first -- we think -- oh no -- another crisis-magnet like the whiney daughter Kim, now mercifully out of the picture. But Derek is protective of his mother -- as well he should be. He's afraid that this mysterious man might have a shady past and is not who he says he is, so he follows him and winds up in the middle of the hostage situation.
We also hear the mother tell Jack over the breakfast table that Derek really needs a male role model around the house. Bingo! Single mother loves child, but recognizes the need for a young boy to have a strong man to emulate. Straight out of the conservative playbook! He's not being encouraged to explore his bisexual side, or his ambiguous feelings for other boys or girls, or to be open to seeing the latest homo-promo from Hollywood (aka Brokeback Mountain, etc. etc.) She wants him to be a man. In the process of his terrifying experiences with Jack, he goes from being a whining teenager to a young man who realizes the world is a dangerous place, and that a man's job is to protect his family and those he loves and his country. Jack is the perfect (if slightly unrealistically mayhem-prone) model.
Jack is at heart a loving man -- a peaceful man -- who misses his family life, as he tells Derek. Yet he has sacrificed all to once again answer his country's call to arms and leave his quiet life in order to fight for the right. In this he is not unlike our men and women in arms, who daily leave the comfort of their families to fight for the freedoms that they know are in peril.
There was another interesting moment in last night's episode that was probably little noticed. It was a single line uttered by a hostage as he was being led away by one of the terrorists. The hostage said, "But I'm not your enemy." In one line this bit of dialogue encapsulated the problem that so many Americans are having grasping the real danger of the situation we presently find ourselves in. The old -- why do you hate me, I'm not your enemy. But the point is -- the terrorist doesn't care that you mean him no harm. He doesn't care that you are "innocent". He doesn't care that you would like to understand his grievances and that you are sympathetic to his cause. Ask Danny Pearl. Ask Nick Berg. They thought that their open-mindedness and tolerance towards the terrorists would protect them, but it didn't. The terrorists don't care. When the first male hostage to be executed pleaded for his life by saying, "Please, don't -- I have a wife", the terrorist responded coldly and sarcastically - "So what - so do I."
This is a salutary eye-opener to the terrorist-huggers among us who subscribe to the old "They're depraved on account of they're deprived." excuse made famous in the great song from Bernstein's brilliant take on "Romeo and Juliet" in "West Side Story".
In many ways, last night's episode, with the executions of hostages one-by-one, was even more shocking than previous episodes because of the coldness and sheer terror of imagining what it must be like to face such a situation, and how the authorities might deal with it. A bomb which is set to explode at a certain time creates tension, but is still a theoretical threat that is impersonal until it happens. To watch average citizens executed in cold-blood puts a different face on the matter. Let's be grateful they didn't show them beheading the hostages as the real terrorists do in real life and on video.
In addition, it looks to me like we have some problems in the very administration -- not only with the mole, but with the President himself, who is very concerned with his legacy, popularity and his political rise to power. Unlike the likeable and estimable President Palmer, this president resembles Tricky Dick, complete with sweaty five-oclock shadow and shifty eyes. I think the series is showing that we have more to fear than the terrorists, that there is an enemy within, and sometimes it come from the highest levels, with a failure of political will, and a willingness to settle for the expedient political outcome at the expense of the long term good. Palmer always did what was right, and hang the political cost. This one is different. And if I'm right, we will be shown the dangers of having such weak and politically motivated leadership in power. Draw your own conclusions about which president reminds you of which real-life figures in American politics.
Well, that's about enough for one day. Just one more thought. It's easy to make too much of this series -- after all, it's just television and a fantasy based on reality, and many viewers will say it's not really real. But that is the function of drama -- not to show reality but to crystallize and clarify reality and show it in relief, so that the basic conflicts can be clearly seen and some resolution and catharsis offered. As my favorite opera composer Verdi once said when someone suggested that realism should be the goal of opera -- "I don't want reality," he replied, "I want MORE than reality." By this he meant the pure distillation of human emotion, suffering, conflict and resolution, with all the chaff of daily life cut away to reveal the perfect diamond underneath.
And in the end, just as in "Moby Dick", no matter how many layers we uncover of cultural relevance or hidden meaning, if it isn't just a ripping good yarn that holds your attention, it isn't worth a dime. That's what Hollywood has yet to grasp with all their preaching and politically motivated movies which are balatantly pushing an agenda. The artfulness of art lies in deception in order to reveal the truth. You have to entertain the audience, not preach to them. "24" accomplishes this in spades. We will be tuning in to find out how things develop. In sum, this is great entertainment with a conservative message, and a perfect slayer of PC while telling us a gripping story.
Jack Bauer -- the PC slayer.