In contrast to the anodyne spy-girl business of ABC’s Alias, a conspicuous feature of 24, Fox’s own counterterrorism series, is pain. Not emotional or spiritual pain, but the brute physical agonies of gunshot wounds, heroin withdrawal, and radiation sickness. (In its real-time, single-day format, the show was poised to allow the daylong radiation death of one character to take an entire 24-show season, but this hideous, closely observed demise was cut short two-thirds of the way through—in an irony of almost comic massiveness—by a nuclear explosion.) Then there is the torture, which occurs with astonishing regularity. On 24, torture is less an unfortunate last resort than an epistemology. Whenever an urgent or sticky question of fact arises, someone—bad guy or good guy, terrorist or counterterror agent; it doesn’t matter—automatically sparks up the electrodes or starts filling syringes with seizure juice.
But the agonies are not gratuitous. By creating a context of suffering and violence, the writers instill in viewers a strong presumption that 24 is grounded in the starkest exigencies of the real world. This presumed realism helps sell the show’s most problematic but most compelling element: bizarre plots that unfold in real time, hour by hour, over a single, continuous fictional day. Stories that would otherwise seem fanciful borrow plausibility from the grimly realistic atmosphere. And not only are we willing to accept the show’s logic-bending feints, we are exhilarated by them: They consummate the show’s excruciating tension. This relationship between the style and story also explains the appeal of 24’s main character, agent Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland. Bauer’s seemingly impossible exploits work precisely because of Sutherland’s own trademark creepiness—the snotty rasp of his voice; his jowly, stubbly face; the ample gaps between his little teeth.
Each season (the show is now in its third) has had its share of surprises, and they have grown increasingly daring and complicated. The first half of last season followed the efforts of Bauer’s Los Angeles-based Counterterrorism Unit (a fictional subagency of the CIA known as “CTU”) to find a nuclear bomb that Islamic terrorists were planning to detonate in Los Angeles. (By cruel coincidence, these episodes aired during a twitchy Code Orange period in the nation’s capital, where I live, yielding some authentically white-knuckled viewing.) But beneath this thick layer of tension, 24’s writers were hatching an audacious narrative surprise. CTU’s evidence pointed toward the Saudi fiance of a blond, button-nosed American woman whose father had worked as a contractor in the Middle East. When agents burst into the girl’s exquisitely landscaped suburban house and haul her man back to CTU headquarters in handcuffs, an hour before their wedding, she reacts with girlish bewilderment and outrage: They are ruining my wedding day! As viewers, we are torn. On the one hand, look, he is by all indications an Islamic terrorist; CTU is just doing its job. On the other hand, his soulful protestations of innocence are moving and convincing (as you’d expect from a trained terrorist), as is her despair at seeing her love roughed up and taken away (and at all those gifts she would be forfeiting). We can hardly blame her.
Except that nine episodes later we find out that she—this American cutie with the pageboy and the freckles—is the terrorist, recruited as a teenager in Saudi Arabia. By the time her character has metamorphosed from a plausibly despondent bride into a wild-eyed Islamist fembot piloting a single-engine Cessna—that is, by the time we can register the essential looniness of this maneuver—the writers are already executing their next sleight-of-hand. (Her plane was only a diversion. They had found her, but they had yet to find the bomb.) It never stops.
The twists in Season 3 have been even more mischievous. From the first episode, the central action has evolved in the following improbable way: A credible bioterror threat has been made by the Salazars, a Latin American drug family who want their boss released from American custody. With the president’s surreptitious OK (for political reasons, he can’t overtly sanction the exchange), Jack illegally snatches the kingpin to hand him over and thus prevent a viral holocaust. But Jack is betrayed by a Salazar plant in CTU, a dashing Latino named Gael, and captured by the Salazars, who take him to Mexico. When Gael is uncovered by CTU and tortured as a spy, we learn that he was actually a double agent working with Jack on an even more secretive scheme to smuggle Jack into Mexico to destroy the virus. Finally, in a prerecorded video message, Jack (who is now in Mexico with the Salazars and pretending to have joined their side) explains to the president, his CTU colleagues, and viewers, that the bioterror threat (the premise of the show through the eight preceding episodes) was a ruse that he had orchestrated for complicated but urgent and valid national security reasons. In other words, the elaborate and clandestine scheme in which the president thought he was participating was part of a larger, more deeply clandestine scheme in which the president, for his own protection, was a dupe. If this isn’t the most tangled narrative hairball ever coughed up by a TV character, I don’t know what is.
There’s a pattern here, in case you haven’t noticed. In both Season 2 and Season 3, the writers set up a plot twist that hinged on the audience judging a character’s ethnicity as a piece of evidence against him. But the agenda here is psychological, not political. No somber moral lessons unfold from this ethnic bait-and-switch. 24’s writers are too agnostic to lecture us about ethnic profiling. Whether or not homeland security types are right to look more closely at certain ethnic groups, we instinctively latch onto such profiles ourselves, not necessarily out of racism, but as a way of coping with the darkness in which terrorists place us.
The writers of 24 grasp that when it comes to terrorism we are desperate for answers. Almost maliciously, they dangle something plausible in front of us. Then they yank it away at the last minute and replace it with something utterly outrageous, leaving us with nothing to believe in but the darkness itself.