Forget about off-Broadway. Never mind underground movie festivals or the Independent Film Channel. The most subversive show in the U.S. hides in plain sight: it’s 24, on Fox.
Two seasons ago, when the weekly one-hour thriller began to hit its stride, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) decided to flex a little muscle. Jack Bauer, the hero of 24 played by Kiefer Sutherland, was pursuing Muslim terrorists anxious to destroy the U.S. In the past he had also pursued German, South American, and North American terrorists, but that was of no consequence to the ever-alert CAIR. One of its spokesmen argued that the show might “contribute to an atmosphere that it’s OK to harm and discriminate against Muslims. This could actually hurt real-life people.”
Accordingly, CAIR and Fox had a meeting. Shortly afterward, Sutherland delivered the following statement. “Hi,” he began. “My name is Kiefer Sutherland and I play counterterrorist agent Jack Bauer on Fox’s 24. I would like to take a moment to talk to you about something that I think is very important. Now, while terrorism is obviously one of the most critical challenges facing our nation and the world, it is important to recognize that the American Muslim community stands firmly beside their fellow Americans in denouncing and resisting all forms of terrorism. So in watching 24, please bear that in mind.” The program reportedly modified its plot to satisfy CAIR’s demands.
But this year the show bounced back from its case of PC. The new season features radical Muslims as the bad guys. Not Presbyterians. Not animists. Not Shintoists. Not Buddhists. Not Seventh-day Adventists. Not Rosicrucians. No, the characters fighting the U.S. have thick Arabic or African accents, and they have no compunction about killing children, the unarmed, the innocent, the unsuspecting. CAIR has once again complained, but Fox seems uninterested in accommodating them this time out.
24 does more than anatomize wild-eyed villains. It also emphasizes the ill-preparedness of Americans, and especially of ACLU types, who have no idea what the enemy is like. The president of the United States, a dignified Obama type and the brother of slain ex-president (and friend of Jack Bauer) David Palmer, has a sister with a law degree who helps protect an Arab-American organization. When federal investigators want to examine the outfit’s records, she takes the haughty position of privacy über alles—even though her Arab-American boss is willing to hand over the stuff. He realizes that the nation is under siege, and that some of his fellow Muslims might have the death of the U.S. in mind—but with her moral blinders on, she initially can’t understand his point of view.
Meanwhile, a Muslim high school kid watches in horror as FBI men take his father away for questioning. As it turns out, the old man is innocent. It’s the genial, honest-looking kid who is a secret terrorist, the holder of a device needed to set off a dirty nuke. Another lesson for whose who have forgotten Shakespeare’s caveat: “One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”
In a standard adventure show the hero would invariably save the day, in the great tradition of Batman, the Caped Crusader. Not here. Sometimes Bauer succeeds, sometimes he fails. At the end of last season, the People’s Republic of China captures him and imprisons him—for two years as it turns out. This season, as 24 unfolds, Bauer can only watch as a small atomic bomb detonates in Valencia, California. Preposterous? Yes and no. This is, of course, televised fiction, with much exaggeration of mood and character. And yet . . . and yet . . .
As the New York Times reported, the British government recently charged six men with attempting a convoluted plot, “the ultimate objective of which was to carry out a number of murders and suicide bombings.” That the defendants’ shrapnel bombs failed to detonate was an accident of timing. Had they exploded as planned, in the subway and on buses, they would have maimed and slain hundreds of innocents. The names of the accused are Manfu Asiedu, Muktar Said Ibrahim, Ramzi Mohamed, Yassin Omar, Hussain Osman, and Adel Yahya. All are from the Horn of Africa. None is a Presbyterian, animist, Shintoist, Buddhist, Seventh-day Adventist, or Rosicrucian. All look like the character actors on 24.
In the real world, of course, there are no Jack Bauers as such. There are only hard-working cops and federal agents patrolling and doing forensics, hoping to forestall catastrophe. But they don’t make for exciting television, and when they’re interviewed on network and cable news, they’re as politically correct as a university.
24 doesn’t need to be. And its ratings are off the charts—something that the presidential candidates ought to keep in mind, come ’08. The American Idol is not who they think it is.