May 23, 2005


Normalizing Torture, One Rollicking Hour At a Time (ADAM GREEN, 5/22/05, NY Times)

THE acclaimed Fox series "24" has received a lot of attention over its four successful seasons: for its innovative real-time format, its braided storylines, its heady brew of national security and sentimentality, and its uncanny topicality. From Balkan nationalist revenge to rogue agents with biological weapons, wars on and of terror have been portrayed in exacting detail, shaping entertainment out of headlines that often stretch the imagination.

This is even more true of the current season. with its potent mix of diverse elements - including a two-stage nuclear conspiracy plot; the formation of an unsympathetic confederation of sleeper cells, defense contractors and rogue scientists; and even a subplot about Sino-American conflict - all poised for unpredictable resolution Monday evening. Yet it's possible that this year's "24" will be most remembered not for its experiments with television formulas, but for its portrayal of torture in prime time. [...]

[O]n the present season of "24" torture has gone from being an infrequent shock bid to being a main thread of the plot. At least a half-dozen characters have undergone interrogation under conditions that meet conventional definitions of torture. The methods portrayed have varied, and include chemical injection, electric shock and old-fashioned bone-breaking. Those subjected to these treatments have constituted a broad range, too, from an uncooperative associate of the plotters to a Middle Eastern wife and son linked to an operative to the teenaged son of the current season's secretary of defense, James Heller (William Devane).

In the sort of marriage of political crisis and melodrama that marks "24" as a leader in television's post-9/11 genre of national security thriller, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), now romantically involved with Heller's daughter, Audrey (Kim Raver), interrogated her estranged husband, Paul, using the electrical cords of a hotel lamp, only to discover that the allegations linking Paul to the unfolding nuclear-threat plot were false. The prospects for Jack and Audrey's relationship took several turns for the worse from that point, reaching a low with Paul's death after Jack withheld urgently needed medical care in order to save another patient, a Chinese scientist being prepared, fittingly, for interrogation.

All of which brings to mind the debate over torture that erupted - and just as strikingly receded - after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and news of the administration's efforts to redefine military interrogation standards. Engaged as "24" is with the fine points of actual counterterrorism policy, its current interest in torture could be seen as a way of questioning the limits of just war. The show's producers, for their part, don't see it that way.

"I hate to disappoint you," said Joel Surnow, an executive producer, "but we don't work that way. We construct our stories based on what's happening to the characters in a particular episode, and how they respond to the demands of their own personal challenges."

Still, recent plot developments suggest a rightward tilt.

It's a terrifying thing for the MSM to watch the popular culture slip away from them.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 23, 2005 2:39 PM

What's right-wing about torture? If the left thought the American people believed in torture, they'd be bawling that it's unconscionable to sacrifice lives for scruples about harming terrorists who have forfeited consideration. Meanwhile the right would be arguing against torture.

Posted by: pj at May 23, 2005 2:50 PM

Perhaps the sect that is the urban left can find solace in the thought that drivers in NASCAR races only turn to the left.

Posted by: Luciferous at May 23, 2005 4:18 PM

Basically, the Times wants 24's producers to come up with some evil right wing government types who will be the ones to demand the torture of evil-but-not-as-evil-as-the-right-wing-government-types terrorists. As long as Republicans control the government in the real world, they can't abide the idea that anyone in Hollywood wouldn't make high-ranking government officials the baddest of the bad in the imaginary world.

Posted by: John at May 23, 2005 4:22 PM

Two wrongs don't make a right, but three lefts do...

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at May 23, 2005 6:36 PM

I dont watch the show, but I have to assume that one of the forms of torture is being forced to wear silk panties and a dog collar while being mocked a female midget from west virginia.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at May 24, 2005 12:53 AM