The ‘24’ Effect

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
U.S. President David Palmer(Dennis Haybert) Counter-terrorism unit agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) and Serbian warlord Victor Drazen (Dennis Hopper) from the TV series "24". (Fox/Everett Collection)

I have three vivid memories of watching television in the fall of 2001. The first, of course, is of seeing the twin towers fall, which is an image most of us will never shake. The second is of watching Mariano Rivera throw the wrong pitch in Game Seven of the World Series.

And the last is of getting sucked helplessly into the premiere, just a few days later, of an innovative drama called “24.”

It was that last moment I found myself revisiting this week, after I read excerpts from the Senate Intelligence Committee’s sprawling, heartbreaking indictment of American brutality around the world. It made me wonder, not for the first time, just how consequential a TV show can be at just the right moment in our national life, in ways we don’t always appreciate at the time.

Long before it came to resemble a parody of its own successful formula (“Wait a minute, did Jack Bauer just die and come back to life again?”), Fox’s “24” was that rare entertainment piece that reimagines the format. The show was groundbreaking not just because it introduced a real-time conceit to network television, meaning that every minute you spent watching the on-screen drama correlated to a minute in the actual world. It was seminal because somehow its creators seemed to anticipate turns in the culture that weren’t easy to discern.

Unlike any televised thriller up to that point, “24” unfolded more like a modern, sophisticated video game than a scripted thriller. Its plots were really just a series of wrenching, split-second decisions, each of which took Bauer — played by an unshakably grim Kiefer Sutherland — down some new path as the rest of us watched over his shoulder.

The creators of “24” understood America’s shifting social terrain better than political commentators did. Three years before anyone had even heard of Barack Obama, they cast not one but two black actors in the role of president, without so much as acknowledging race as a subtext. That millions of American viewers hardly seemed to notice should probably have been an early tipoff that a black candidacy wasn’t doomed to fail.

More than any of this, though, “24” eerily foresaw, as if by some feat of time travel, the age of terror that would descend on America just weeks before the show first aired. The “counterterrorism unit” that must have seemed fanciful when the show’s pilot was filmed felt all too real by the time Bauer finally arrived on our split screens, a Christ-like figure in a world suddenly awash with evil.

To Jack Bauer, of course, the operative philosophy was simple: “Stop terrorists, by any means necessary.” The bosses at CTU were almost always timid careerists, the kind of regulation-obsessed bureaucrats who would rather sacrifice a stadium full of innocents than bend on the “protocols” they were always going on about.

Bauer and his rotating cast of enablers had no choice but to go rogue, which is why he generally ended seasons running from his own government or rotting away in prison. He didn’t like torturing terrorists, we understood, but that damn clock was always ticking in the corner of your screen, and neither he nor we had time for the legal niceties.

As a cornerstone of the popular culture during the Bush years, “24” established an important narrative of why we had failed to prevent the onset of terrorism — and why we might fail again. It wasn’t because maniacal people do crazy things that you sometimes can’t anticipate. In “24,” terrorists succeeded only when government lost its nerve.

I can’t say whether policymakers and intelligence officials in Washington were actually influenced by “24.” I have always suspected they were, simply because, no matter how assiduous you are about separating art from reality, human nature says you wouldn’t want to look in the mirror and see one of the spineless bosses at CTU.

At a minimum, you’d have to think that people making the hard calls in Washington drew some unspoken conclusions from the immense popularity of the show. TV-watching Americans didn’t seem put off by a hero who tortured terrorists; on the contrary, they loved him like Raymond. It was probably a short jump from there to the assumption that the political fallout from real-world torture, should it become public, wouldn’t be all that catastrophic.

What we do know, looking back now, is that “24” became, in some ways, a stand-in for the national debate on torture that the political class never wanted to have and that the rest of us never demanded. Instead of hearing this argument about morality and urgency play out in the Capitol or in the media, Americans watched the show and discussed it among ourselves, instead, in lunchrooms or online.

And to the extent that “24” framed that argument in the months and years after the fall of 2001, when imminent fear was a new fact of American life, the evidence seemed strongly weighted to one side. There were a handful of experts and critics who complained about the show and pointed out that, in real life, the efficacy of cruelty as a tactic — leaving aside the question of right and wrong — was far from settled.

But “24” had its own visual, visceral power, and the choice it established was clear. Did you want to be upright, or did you want to be safe? Did you want to be feared and firm like the Mossad, or did you want to channel Jimmy Carter and prattle on about human rights?

In a sense, “24” became a kind of virtual universe in which all of us could role-play — even if we happened to know more about the roles than the actors did. I recall a conversation with Bill Clinton in 2007 during which he brought up the show and spent the better part of a half hour dissecting the strengths and flaws in its portrayal of real-time decisions.

There was something comforting, too, about the portrayal of intelligence agencies in “24.” Even with the insipid station chiefs who cycled in and out of the show, CTU itself remained amazingly high-functioning and high-tech. State-of-the-art computers gleamed in brilliant new offices of steel and glass. Satellites saw everything, everywhere, and beamed it all flawlessly to Jack’s phone during the commercial break.

That false portrayal of our counterterrorism agencies was demolished by the 9/11 commission report in 2004, with its accounts of missed clues and outdated technology. And what we now also know, thanks to the new Senate report, is that it wasn’t the bureaucrats back in Washington who were balking at torture while the real Jack Bauers jettisoned the rules, but often the other way around entirely.

In truth, a lot of the operatives were apparently sickened by immoral tactics they knew weren’t working, but their bosses insisted on believing that the world was like TV, and the bad guys would break just as they did for Jack, if only our agents would do what they had to do. If the Senate’s investigators can be believed, those bosses were wrong — both morally and tactically.

Jack Bauer made yet another comeback earlier this year, with a new installment set in London. I watched a few episodes but then got bored. Thirteen years after it first aired, “24” no longer seemed grounded in what now seemed a much more complicated reality. No surprise, I guess: It never really was.