It’s a standard joke among fans of the Fox series 24 that the only reason anyone ever wakes up alive these days is because of Jack Bauer. Jack Bauer, played with grim determination by Kiefer Sutherland, is the uber anti terrorist operative who every year spends a day from hell saving the world from a terrorist plot. The conceit of 24 is that each hour corresponds to an hour of real time, though one could swear that more things happen in an hour long episode of 24 than in a dozen thriller movies one could name.
Jack Bauer works for a fictional government agency called the Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU) from their office in Los Angeles. He is both supported and sometimes hindered by an eclectic group of operatives, technicians, and computer geeks. Some of them, such as Jack’s one time partner/mistress Nina Meyers, have turned out to be traitors. A remarkable number of people who have worked for CTU have turned out to be working for the other side, usually for money.
There are a number of people at CTU, though, whom Jack can trust. Chief among them is the most strung computer geek in the history of television, Chloe O’Brian, played with quirky energy by comic actress Mary Lynn Rajskub. Unafraid to snap at even high superiors who could fire her in an instant, Chloe is the best there is at breaking into other peoples computer databases when national security requires it.
Tony Almeida, played by Carlos Bernard, is another Bauer ally. At one time he ran the CTU LA office, until he betrayed an operation to save his wife, another CTU operative named Michelle Dessler, played by Reiko Ayesworth, from evil terrorists.
The most interesting friend of Jack, though, is David Palmer, the first African American President of the United States, played by Dennis Haysbert who is also famous for his Allstate commercials. The first season involved an attempt to assassinate Palmer, then a Senator and Presidential candidate, by Serbian terrorists.
Palmer, as a tough, decisive leader in the mode of a Reagan or George W. Bush, nevertheless is identified as a Democrat. He is also saddled with a wife, played by Penny Johnson Jerald, for the first couple of seasons who makes Hillary Clinton seem like a Kindergarten teacher.
24 is noted for its somewhat improbable plot twists, sometimes several per episode. One never knows what is really happening until close to the end of the season, and even then there are surprises.
Jack usually has personal problems to go along with the big problem of saving the world from terrorists. In season one, his wife and daughter are kidnapped and threatened by terrorists. In season three, he is addicted to heroin as part of a cover involving infiltrating a Mexican drug gang. In season four, his girl friend and her father are kidnapped and threatened by terrorists. Being an intimate friend or family member of Jacks can be just as hazardous as being Jack sometimes,
Season four was a stand out in many ways. The villains were actual Middle Eastern terrorists who were operating against the peace of the world for their own reasons and not, as is often the case in Hollywood, as stooges for evil Oil Companies. In the post 9/11 era, we are used to the idea of Muslim fanatics trying to kill us.
But Hollywood has shied away from making movies or TV shows about the subject. The film version of Tom Clancy’s Sum of All Fears turned the Arab terrorists of the book into Central European neo Nazis. Steven Spielberg’s recent Munich actually tried to humanize the real terrorists who killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games and were in turn hunted down by Mossad agents.
Not so 24. The series actually dared to depict evil Arab terrorists who were neither sensitive not conflicted nor working for Enron. Most the most stand out of this gang of murderers is the mom from Hell, Dina Araz, played by Iranian born Shohreh Aghdashloo. At one point Araz tried to force her Americanized son Behrooz to kill his Waspish girlfriend after she finds out too much.
Jack is no stranger to extreme measures. He is, in fact, the civil libertarian’s worse nightmare. He is not adverse to summarily killing or torturing people to further the mission. If you find yourself in a room with Jack Bauer and he wants you to talk, you will talk. The only question is how much pain and dismemberment you wish to experience before talking.
CTU itself, though the bureaucrats often look askance at Jack’s methods, are certainly not in compliance with the Constitution. At one point, a CTU operative suspected of treason is tortured with a taser. And CTU regularly breaks into private databases, plants bugs, and eavesdrops without a warrant.
And one finds oneself thinking, thank God for it too. The Constitution is a fine document, but as Lincoln once suggested, probably before he started jailing opponents of the Civil War, it is not a suicide pact. In that regard, we wonder and perhaps even hope that the world of 24 is like the real world. Long may Jack Bauer and his associates stay around to make sure we wake up alive every morning.