The significance of 24

In its last 2 seasons on air, I got hooked on the TV series 24 and am watching earlier seasons with Netflix video on demand. For those of you living under a rock, the show debuted in November, 2001 and deals with a fictional government agency, the Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) responding to terrorist threats that play out in one day, 24 hours/episodes per season. Superagent/anti-hero Jack Bauer, tracks the bad guys with the help of real-time satellite and surveillance camera monitoring, as well as the occasional torture of a terrorist to produce information in the ~15 minute window required, and (mostly) foils the terrorists intentions.

The show requires requires a seriously willful suspension of disbelief. First there is the incredibly fast action with all events happening in a 24 hour period. Next, multiple instances of nuclear devices smuggled into the US are depicted. And there seems to be at least one double agent or treasonous betrayal per season. By way of explanation, the show was produced in Hollywood !

The debut of 24 had incredible timing, occurring 2 months after 9/11, by far the worst terrorist attack in world history. Before it aired, the cast had mixed feelings about a show about terrorism being aired shortly after 9/11. And the show dealt with issues like torture that became part of the national debate due to events in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But there is a larger significance to the show and its popularity. This was not by design – from what I can tell, the show was a natural progression for the creators, Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran, who had been making shows about CIA agents and a government controlled assassin. But the popularity of a show about a government agency, CTU, with incredible ability to instantaneously deal with the gravest terrorist threats, reflected the national need to believe that we could respond to the dangers of a post-9/11 world.

Every society has threats, real and imagined. The West feels threatened by militant Islam. Many  in the Islamic world feel threatened by Western governments and culture. Contrast how each culture responds to these threats. Many in the Islamic world glorify terrorists and suicide bombers who attack Western interests as martyrs (and some governments, as well). Millions of Americans watch a TV show that glorifies government agents defeating the terrorists. Which response is civilized and which reflects a primitive, tribal mindset better suited for the 7th century?

For an in-depth look at the significance of Jack Bauer, hero of the show, take a look at this essay. Kiefer Sutherland, the star of 24 who plays Jack Bauer, put it well, describing the tension of producing a show about terrorism shortly after 9/11:

At some point, something’s got to jolt you out of the unbelievable mourning of a situation like [9/11], and the sadness of that kind of day, and movies and television and music and literature are all things that do that.

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