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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Hearts of Darkness

I spent three days last week watching a marathon of season 4 of 24. I can watch 24 only in marathon format; I think it would be impossible to sustain a level of suspense from week to week. We kept a tally of how many times the following phrases were uttered, although I now lack the highly scientific hard data:

"You Have to Trust Me": much fewer instances as compared with previous seasons, although Jack is never rogue in season 4

"There's Not Enough Time!": plenty, if one counts only the times Jack Bauer utters the phrase; off the charts if other characters are counted

*Chloe's sourpuss face*: tied with "There's Not Enough Time!" from Jack; has to be distinguished from other faces (Superiority, General Grumpiness, Adrenaline Rush) in Mary Lynn Rajskub's extensive repertoire for the character
"Open Up a Socket": fewer instances than season 3

Part of the way through the season, we realized we should have made tallies for "Dammit!" and something else.

As we were watching, Graham kept giving me significant looks every time a character on the show used torture, illegal or semi-illegal surveillance, and profiling to the advantage of the plot. "See!" he'd say, triumphantly or at least contrarily, "torture really does work!" or "Wire-tapping suspicious people can yield important information!" But torture and surveillance work on the show because they're functions of the script, not because they provide a practical model of how to fight terrorism. They work (or don't work) because they're supposed to contribute to the arc of the episodes. This interview with Michael Loceff, one of the head writers for the show, bears out this argument partly. Loceff argues that the show isn't "torture porn" because torture is used to tell viewers something about the characters, not to provide an argument for or against specific practices:

I think its [torture] real use in the show, aside from its narrative function, is to create dramatic conflict, conflict not just between two people but within characters as well. If you look at any given torture scene in the show, you'll find that there's something in it that shows someone's distaste or disgust. And Jack Bauer's decision to torture people for information in the past has cost him, because it's shown other people just exactly what he's capable of. Jack himself is appalled by what he feels he has to do, but he's also convinced he has to do it. That is a real dramatic conflict.

Discussing the uses of profiling and torture in season 3, Matt Feeney argues that invoking dramatic irony or character development isn't much of a defense:

In both Season 2 and Season 3, the writers set up a plot twist that hinged on the audience judging a character's ethnicity as a piece of evidence against him. But the agenda here is psychological, not political. No somber moral lessons unfold from this ethnic bait-and-switch. 24's writers are too agnostic to lecture us about ethnic profiling. Whether or not homeland security types are right to look more closely at certain ethnic groups, we instinctively latch onto such profiles ourselves, not necessarily out of racism, but as a way of coping with the darkness in which terrorists place us.

The writers of
24 grasp that when it comes to terrorism we are desperate for answers. Almost maliciously, they dangle something plausible in front of us. Then they yank it away at the last minute and replace it with something utterly outrageous, leaving us with nothing to believe in but the darkness itself.

Richard Kim makes a similar argument in an article from the Nation (December 26, 2005) when he discusses the ubiquity of torture in season 4:

In casting torture as melodrama, 24 reverses the dehumanizing mode of actual torture and replaces it with something familial and social. So blase are these victims of torture that they come as close as one can to consenting to it. Less focused on torture's instrumentality, the narrative upshot of torture in this rendition of 24 is that it troubles, deepens, and ultimately clarifies personal relationships.

Is the writers' substituting the pain of personal betrayal for the physical pain of torture a fair trade? How do other artists render the personal-political scaling of tragedy, say in Apocalypse Now, where the Vietnam War becomes a setting for larger questions about the human condition?


Blogger Ben on Thu Jan 19, 04:37:00 AM:
David Hume was right--most of the opinions people form about controversial topics have nothing to do with the nature of the subject in question itself.

"So blase are these victims of torture that they come as close as one can to consenting to it" ??? Tell that to the innocent CTU vet who was suspected of being an undercover spy in season 4, and begged frantically for them not to torture her? Or what about the agony and terror of the secretary of defense's son, who must be tortured because he is the most likely leak? How exactly does that not satisfy Richard Kim's disingenuous complaint that the show is not "focused on torture's instrumentality"?
Blogger Alice on Thu Jan 19, 03:00:00 PM:
No one on 24 consents to be tortured, but their reactions afterward are curiously low-key; that we don't have to see the day after, or that it appears to take only one hour to recover from severe electric shocks (or gunshot and knife wounds unrelated to torture) makes it possible to see the violence on the show as separate from the physical consequences of it in reality. On 24, torture has the effect of humanizing the person who's tortured (the CTU agent who's wrongfully accused gets more of a character; Heller's son becomes less of a cariacature) and humanizing the torturer (see Loceff's comments about torture and dramatic conflict). These effects are diametrically opposite from the effects and purposes of torture outside of a television drama. 24 doesn't have to represent a realistic view of the effects of torture or profiling, but it's hardly fair to say on the other hand that it presents a valid model for the use of these practices. The "ticking bomb" scenario that Michael Kinsley dismissed a few weeks ago on Slate exists only on film and television but has somehow become a topic for debate about the necessity for torture in some cases.