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24 – and why I have issues

So, I’m not the only one, eh?

In the G&M today, John Doyle postulates a different slant to 24 – that of an almost comic-book, caricature evoking, larger-than-life show that cannot be taken seriously ’cause it is just way too over the top!

But, as HM points out,

Here’s the problem: U.S. TV audiences have trouble distinguishing between fact and fiction. They are gullible and easily led. They are literal. They are insular and do not try to view their country through the eyes of others.

My point exactly. And that is why the show is dangerous.

TV drama 24: torture teacher
Fictional violence serves as lesson to criminals, combatants and countries
February 19, 2007
“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”
George Orwell said that about totalitarianism, but he could just as easily be summarizing the first three DVD series of the American TV torture drama 24, which I was foolish enough to buy — and watch — end-to-end. I do not advise you to do this.

Even though the DVDs don’t have ads, you are still playing fast and loose with your sanity by watching Kiefer Sutherland punch, hack, smother, drug, stab, electrocute, inject and mentally shatter an endless river of dodgy men and women. If it weren’t for bathroom breaks and my concerned, appalled husband luring me away from the television with Valpolicella and osso bucco (“You can have all the marrows, here’s your fork, I’ll put it in your trembling hand shall I?”), I would still be sitting there bleeding from the eyeballs.

Eventually I quit 24 cold turkey. It wasn’t hard; I just couldn’t take the same plot device 48 times. It’s the “ticking time bomb” scenario where all of California will be deleted by a nuclear bomb unless Sutherland’s Jack Bauer, the smartest agent in American counterterrorism, can torture the password out of an unnervingly calm, prescient Muslim madman about to destroy the American landmass with a team of three.

The problem, as Jane Mayer pointed out in the New Yorker this week, is that ticking time bombs almost never happen in real life. How embarrassing then that it occurs once a week every season of 24, which means 24 weeks of presenting the case that torture is necessary and indeed good.

There used to be about four depictions a year of torture on U.S. television, always by bad guys, Mayer writes. Thanks to 24, there have been 67 such scenes in the show’s first five seasons. Worse, the hero is doing the torturing.

Joel Surnow, the creator of the show, is a right-wing, torture-approving “patriot” who thrills to parties with Rush Limbaugh, Lynne Cheney, Karl Rove, Tony Snow et al. He’s a strange, cold man who attended Beverly Hills High, a notoriously cruel collection of stars’ and billionaires’ children. Surnow’s dad was a travelling carpet salesman. The family lived in a crappy apartment and Surnow slept on a cot. His schoolmates knew that.

Back to Orwell, who also once wrote “probably the greatest cruelty one can inflict on a child is to send it to school among children richer than itself.” Orwell came out of school with a hatred of others’ suffering, while taking a bleak enjoyment in his own. Surnow came out of school with a black heart.

And then came Brig.-Gen. Patrick Finnegan, the dean at West Point, to visit the set of 24 and beg the show’s maker to stop showing torture. It was crushing America’s image internationally, he said, and worse, cadets could no longer be taught that torture breaks every law and military code there is. They see Jack Bauer do it on TV and he’s the hero! When Finnegan tells cadets that it has been proven that torture doesn’t work, they tell him that it works on 24. Even U.S. soldiers in Iraq watch it.

Here’s the problem: U.S. TV audiences have trouble distinguishing between fact and fiction. They are gullible and easily led. They are literal. They are insular and do not try to view their country through the eyes of others.

This often gives them a Cheney-ite view of the world. It is black and white. And then you put this gullible audience in the driver’s seat of a Tomcat fighter?

Surnow himself regards the U.S. “as sort of the parent to the world, so we have to be stern but fair to people who are rebellious to us. We don’t spoil them.… You have to know who the adult in the room is.”

I am not making this up. Clearly, the productive academic field studying American infantilism has passed Surnow by.
And Surnow may not know the origins of the torture techniques he thinks he is inventing for the drama and the ironies therein. In fact, the Nazis hung people on hooks. The Japanese did hypothermia experiments on GIs in World War II. Sleep deprivation was used by former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Former Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot favoured waterboarding. Americans prefer sexual torture (see Abu Ghraib) although oddly, this is the one torture Bauer doesn’t use.

Americans tend to be literal. “I saw it on 24 so it works”. (This is why I never watched The West Wing. It pained me to think Americans actually believed it plausible that a highly intelligent president had been elected. Maybe that’s why the Democrats are so timid. They think George W. Bush resembles his fictional counterpart, Josiah Bartlet.)

Brits, on the other hand, use irony constantly to the point where they almost never mean the thing they just said. They make allusions and approach life at a slant. Perhaps their love of theatre helps them avoid literalism. It is happening on a stage, it is not life. But for the American, it is happening on TV, so it must be real and true.

Canadians are in between. Or in my case, sitting next to. I was at a fundraiser with the wonderful actress Shirley Douglas, whom I know and adore. Her face in profile is flat yet perfectly formed. She is a genuine beauty. Her mouth is the mouth all women should have. She is the daughter of Tommy Douglas, father of Medicare, and the man I thank when I stagger into emergency saying “Oooooh, it hurts.” Good socialists all. She is the mother of Sutherland, who earns $10 million a year playing the torturer Bauer.

Sutherland is a left-wing dual-citizenship Canadian and a truly great actor. But he is the Republican Party’s performing flea. Imagine that.

When Sutherland met the West Point people on the 24 set, he was said to be very upset by their reasoning and their tales of damage. Sutherland is profoundly against torture and says his storylines use a mere “plot device.”

But I kept thinking, Oh god, Shirley must be hurting. I shan’t mention the TV show to her. Or any number. Shan’t ask her about the kids. What would her father have said? I say that actors have horrible lives and should grab the money and run. And yet, and yet …

Anyway, 24 is dead to me. It jumped the shark in the last season and is a figure of fun this year. Such were the joys.


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