Moving Pictures January/February 2010

The Clock is Ticking for Jack Bauer

Fox’s 24 is exquisite nonsense. But can its limerick logic survive in the post-Cheney era?
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Sean McCabe

In a gentler and less frazzled world, a world undistracted by ticking time bombs, breached firewalls, rogue mustaches, and effervescent canisters of bubonic plague, I like to think we’d feel differently about the creators of the espionage marathon 24. Urgency, in my opinion, has confused us as to the character of this remarkable show (now entering its eighth season), and our judgments upon it have been fringed with panic. With the pressure off, however, executive producer Joel Surnow and his writers would be neither hailed as patriotic realists nor damned as Cheneyite running dogs, but recognized soberly and universally as modern masters of a most exacting form: the form, that is, of pure nonsense.

By nonsense, to be clear, I don’t mean “stuff that doesn’t make sense”—the appalling thing about 24, after all, is that everything makes sense, all the time. I refer rather to the tradition invented by two celibate Victorian Englishmen and developed by the blackest humorists of 20th-century Europe. Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll might have been terrified at the uses to which nonsense was put by Jarry, Kafka, Beckett, Ionesco, and Flann O’Brien—then again, they might not have been. Lear’s manic, closed-circuit doggerel; Carroll’s nightmare formality; the end was in sight from the very beginning. You start with a limerick, you conclude with a metaphysic: man alone and pants-down absurd in a universe crammed with meanings. No God—they vacuumed him out a while back—just systems, exigencies, formulas, codes, and a lot of running around. The trap, The Trial, the Lobster Quadrille: welcome to the office of the Los Angeles Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU).

There was a man called Jack Bauer
Who saved the whole world in an hour—
With a small home computer
He neutered a shooter
And foiled a malevolent power.

Special agent Jack Bauer first appeared on our screens in 2001, mere weeks after the attacks of September 11. Played by Kiefer Sutherland—face as worn as a favorite couch, voice like a burning building—he seemed initially a sort of everyman James Bond: he had a wife, Teri, and he had a teenage daughter, the creamy and constantly kidnapped Kim. Working out of CTU, and then dashing about in the field, Jack was obliged to thwart an internationally leveraged assassination attempt on a U.S. senator while simultaneously preserving Kim, and then Teri, from a crew of dope-smoking abductors.

And he had to do it all in 24 hours—the hook of 24, its gimmick, its gotcha. Indifferent to Aristotle’s first two unities (unity of action and unity of place), the show’s writers are raving absolutists when it comes to his third: unity of time. Each season covers a single 24-hour period, and is divided into 24 parts—8:00 to 9:00 a.m., 9:00 to 10:00 a.m., etc. Before and after the commercial break, a yellow digital readout counts down the seconds. Bleep! … Bleep! …

This existential brusquerie, this despotism of the present tense, is a hallmark of great nonsense, from the White Rabbit’s watch (“Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!”) to the clock in Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano that strikes now 17, now seven, now three, now not at all. “Events,” we are hoarsely advised at the beginning of each season of 24, “occur in real time.” But of course, real time is the very last thing it is. If an hour as crazily piled with incident, as racked by good/bad choices, and as saturated with geopolitical import were actually to occur, anywhere within the solar system, the approximate effect would be that of a donut dropped into the Large Hadron Collider: the whole operation would just spark out.

Story lines interweave; the screen splits. Obsessive use is made of the cell phone, which plays in 24 a role analogous to that of the bicycle in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman: “Does Michelle know I’m alive?” “No, not yet. I’ll call CTU on my cell so you can talk to her privately Bill, Tony wants to talk to Michelle. Can you put her on the line?” “She’s not here. I sent her home. I’ll find her and patch her through to your cell.” Etc. Dilemmas sprint this way and that, tossing their horns. Periodically they put on weight and become quandaries. Chase, Jack’s handsome young partner and prospective son-in-law, has a live bio-bomb locked to his wrist, but he doesn’t have the key. One minute 23 seconds to detonation, 1:22 Oh dear! Oh dear! Jack and Chase spot the fire ax at the same moment, have the same thought. “Do it,” urges Chase. (Jack makes sure to wrap the severed hand in cloth.) In Season Five it is suggested that Jack might have gone so far “off protocol” as to have actually killed one of his CTU colleagues. His ex-squeeze Audrey Raines is scandalized: “Jack would never murder his friends!” Straight faces are kept, relentlessly. At the CTU office, an open-plan area with the doomy, metallic vibe of the Battlestar Galactica, operatives march frowningly about or sit at their stations, all jowly with blue computer glare. Each episode ends with a cliffhanger or a soapy bombshell—as when agent Tony Almeida’s ex-wife stalks unexpectedly onto the CTU floor!

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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