The Clock is Ticking for Jack Bauer

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

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!

Jack is a shape-shifter, a trickster, a will-o’-the-wisp. “This Bauer thing,” President David Palmer’s chief of staff tells him, “is an illusion, a mirage! Every time you get near it, it moves further away!” A heroin addict (long story) at the beginning of Season Three, panting and vague and asking for a glass of water, Bauer opens Season Five as an oilman in the Mojave Desert. Season Six sees him shuffling in irons off a Chinese transport plane, his tawny captive’s mane and beard foreshadowing the Jesus/Aslan role he is about to play: Jack is to be handed over to some terrorists, old enemies of his, whose price for intel about some other terrorists is Jack’s head. “Bauer has to be sacrificed so this country can survive!” Is Jack bitter? Hell, no. “To be honest with you,” he confides huskily to his ex-CTU boss, “it’ll be a relief.” (“Is it life?” asks O’Brien’s Martin Finnucane. “I would rather be without it ”)

If you have a spare 24 hours, watch Season Two. Here context is supplied by a loose nuke on the streets of L.A., and Jack is appropriately off-the-charts. “Inactive” as the show begins, with flickering eyes and a bum’s habiliments, he’s back in business within 45 minutes. At CTU a fat villain isn’t cooperating, so Jack takes him out. Bang! One in the chest. Then—“I’m gonna need a hacksaw!”—he chops off the villain’s head. (Somewhere the Queen of Hearts is licking her lips.) President Palmer wants to trade intel with some dodgy foreigners. The director of the NSA voices the concern that this might set “a dangerous precedent.” “We can’t worry about precedent,” rumbles the prez. “Not today. Not under the threat of a nuclear attack.” That’s the spirit. No precedents and no principles, just the peremptory demands of the moment: the nonsense imperative. Human rights, naturally, go by the board. Dragging a couple of suspects into CTU for interrogation, Tony Almeida wonders aloud how hard he can push them. “Hard as you have to,” he is told. “Stick bamboo shoots under their fingernails. Get what they got.”

24’s torture scenes are infamous, and have been taken as an endorsement of the Bush administration’s well-documented excursion into “the dark side.” Indeed, executive producer Joel Surnow has blowharded quite happily to that effect: “America wants the war on terror fought by Jack Bauer,” he told The New Yorker in 2007. “He’s a patriot.” Jack uses patriotic electricity, patriotic towels, patriotic sharp instruments. In Season Five, it looks for a minute as if he’s going to have to patriotically torture the president. The human body is the information source on 24: a dying person with undischarged intel must be revived with hypodermics or buzzing paddles. Or maybe Jack can pry a microchip from the still-warm corpse. As Season Seven begins, he’s up on Capitol Hill, getting grilled by a pinko senator: “Basically what you’re saying, Mr. Bauer, is that the ends justify the means, and that you are above the law!” “When I am ac-ti-vated,” enunciates Jack with harsh precision (screw this guy!), “when I am brought into a situation, there is a reason. And that reason is to complete the objective of my mission at all costs.”

But in all of this, 24 is only showing its devotion to the canons of nonsense, within whose tradition the abuse of persons has always occupied a hallowed place. Lear’s limericks are a catalogue of thumpings, beatings, smashings, knockings-about, and shuttings-in-boxes, accompanied by plenty of screaming; Père Ubu, in Jarry’s Ubu Roi, slobberingly consigns his enemies to the Debraining Machine; Lucky in Waiting for Godot is hauled about on an Abu Ghraib–style leash. In The Third Policeman, reality itself gets a bit of enhanced interrogation, as a beam of light is put through a mangle by Policeman MacCruiskeen, rolled and crushed until an awful, indecipherable shout is heard. (“I have been listening to shouts and screams for years,” says the clinical MacCruiskeen, “but I can never surely catch the words. Would you say that he said ‘Don’t press so hard’?”)

Cheneyism provided the perfect cover for flat-out nonsense, but Season Eight of 24 arrives conspicuously in the era of Obama—in what we hopefully, wistfully perhaps, think of as the post-torture era. What now for Jack? Kinder and gentler? Protocol-friendly? He can’t go soft, he just can’t. It wouldn’t make sense.