This week 24 came back on the air, with 4 hours of grab you by the lapels and throw you onto the couch programming. It’s well done, and has a movie star and Actor as the lead, so it’s not technically a guilty pleasure. Except that it is, and guilty in a more literal way. It no less than draws you into complicity into human rights and international law violations. The current regimen of torture and extra-legal action is significantly abetted by the “24 Scenario.” You have in your custody a terrorist – mastermind or stooge – who holds the critical piece of information that will allow you to stop a dreadful attack in its tracks, but you must act within the next 15 minutes (timed either to fit in this hour’s episode or as a cliffhanger to next week). Should you torture the suspect? Of course, and Jack and his buds will show you how it’s done.
The problem with the 24 Scenario is that it is not clear it has ever arisen outside of TV and movies. In the real world, it seems like either you carefully construct intelligence and stop something before it gets too far (with unglamorous things like a border guard in Washington getting suspicious and doing a careful check of that car trunk), or it’s too late and you pick up the pieces and try to find the guilty. And from what I’ve read, torture doesn’t figure in carefully assembled, reliable intelligence. But we’ve never seen what that looks like – it’s secret after all. We do see 24, and on 24 we see this scenario, multiple times. The scenario has a similar ontological standing to anything we might have learned about but have not experienced first hand. By securing a place for this scenario in many consciousnesses, the TV show creates the conditions under which we can imagine and accept torture and see it as useful.
Of course, the thing about 24 is that most of the time the torture doesn’t really help. It can’t – if it did, things would get resolved and then what we do for the next 18 hours? Watch Jack and the CTU crew fill out paper work. What did Jack get from torturing Paul, Audrey’s husband, last season? Nothing, other than losing his girlfriend. For some reason when you’re dating a woman, she hates it if you subject her husband to excruciating pain, even if the guy’s a drip and she wants to be rid of him.
But I like 24. It works really well as TV. It is, like all TV shows, a procedural. I do not mean a procedural in the terms of investigative procedures, because I have a sneaking suspicion real spies don’t look and act like this and don’t work in offices that look like that. No, it’s a procedural about the mechanics of putting together a television show. First you set up your entertainment value proposition – we’re going to run one story over 24 episodes spread over several months of broadcast. Then you have to create mechanisms to deliver on it. So you have the clips at the beginning that give just enough for anyone to pick up on what follows. You throw in characters who exist solely to propel the plot by consistently making the wrong choice, which reshuffles the deck. Kim, Wayne, and now Derek this season. If Jack says stay put, they invariably run out and try unsuccessfully to fix things themselves. And you hold characters in reserve, like throwing Tony into a coma in the first few minutes, where he will be parked until it’s time for him to revive and jump back to action at a critical moment. And so on.
24 does this well, reliably stepping on the gas every time it looks like the machine might come to an idle. But I can’t help worry that if people in