Judith Warner on 24 As a Reality Show

Judith Warner, currently a guest columnist for The New York Times, discusses how the distinction between fantasy and reality is blurred on 24 to some people. After all, “We had the first African-American president on television, and now Barack Obama is a serious candidate. That wasn’t going to happen eight years ago.” It doesn’t stop there, as Warner writes, “freaky it is that his show’s first female president will make her debut just in time for the Iowa caucuses.” Warner sees 24 as a “political crystal ball.”

I giggled a bit nastily over this at first. What was next — claims that fingering China as a one-nation axis of evil on “24” had presaged the country’s exposure this spring as the source of all perishables tainted and fatal? That screen first lady Martha Logan’s descent into minimadness anticipated Laura Bush’s increasingly beleaguered late-term demeanor? (Has anyone but me noticed her astounding resemblance to Dolores Umbridge in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”?) That foolish Vice President Noah Daniels’s narrowly averted war with the Russians had its real-life equivalent in recent Bush-Putin wrangling over Eastern European missile defense systems?
Kiefer Sutherland and I may both be silly, but we’re not the only people guilty of blurring the boundaries when it comes to “24.” In recent weeks, a surprising number of journalists have seemed ready to play along with the conceit that the fictional creation of the show’s first female chief executive could actually have some bearing on the American political scene. The Hollywood Reporter, for one, proclaimed this change “could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

I don’t remember people holding their breath for major political developments every time a new season began on “The West Wing.” There’s something different, I think, about “24” that gives its cartoonishness a bizarrely compelling sense of reality.

The past six or so years — the years of the show’s existence — have given us a parade of imagery seemingly tailor-made for Bauer’s TV world. The crumbling of the World Trade Center, Saddam Hussein in a hole, stress-deranged U.S. soldiers-turned-prison-block-pornographers — the dividing line between what’s believable and what’s not, between fantasy and reality, has become utterly permeable.

What was once unimaginable, or imagined only for entertainment value in “Die Hard”-type thrillers, is now all too real. Anything is possible in a world of falling towers and Abu Ghraib. Kiefer Sutherland’s magical beliefs about his show’s potential impact on politics are forgivable. Even quaint.

The big difference, unfortunately, between real life and small-screen fiction is that, on “24,” Jack Bauer actually catches the bad guys and saves the world. Good guys are incorruptible; fatuous politicians are made to pay for their sins. There is redemption; there is comeuppance.

Oh, and torture works.

While 24 might seem predictive on a superficial level, it differs from reality in many areas, such as torture. Rather than seeing 24 as I crystal ball, I see it more as a warped mirror of reality.

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1 Comment

  1. 1
    Terry says:

    Another of Judith Warner’s quotes from Keifer
    Sutherland is:

    There is a difference, he suggested, between
    “24” and real life. “But,” he went on, “I can
    tell you one thing. We had the first African-American
    president on television, and now Barack Obama
    is a serious candidate. That wasn’t going to happen
    eight years ago. Television is an incredibly powerful
    medium, and it can be the first step in showing
    people what is possible.”

    And I agree with him 100%.

    Television is incredibly powerful. This explains
    why businesses spend billions to advertise on TV
    and to sponsor product placement on TV. They are
    well aware of TV’s power to influence behavior.
    Including shopping behavior and voting behavior
    (the candidates will be spending millions).

    And excellent example would be 24 itself.
    24 took “the first step in showing people what
    is possible” as far as torture goes. Here is a
    quote from Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan:

    “However, it had become increasingly hard to convince
    some cadets that America had to respect the rule of
    law and human rights, even when terrorists did not.
    One reason for the growing resistance, he suggested,
    was misperceptions spread by “24,” which was exceptionally
    popular with his students. As he told me, “The kids see
    it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about “24”?’ ”
    He continued, “The disturbing thing is that although
    torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always
    the patriotic thing to do.”


    We’ll never know how many people in Iraq have been
    horribly tortured because of the extremely effective
    message of 24 that torture is the patriotic and right
    thing to do.

    Another example is that NBC has announced that it
    would pull Law & Order reruns featuring Fred Thompson
    once Mr. Thompson declares his candidacy. This decision
    was in part due to the equal time laws.


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