Suspended Disbelief

You’ll recall that one of our guilty pleasures—among several, true—is the Fox program “24,” and this fourth season is certainly setting the bar high on a number of levels. First, it is interesting to watch the show’s writers struggle with the whole anachonistic idea of a cliffhanger. A show that dedicates an hour in real time to an hour in the storyline is bound to run into long stretches of sub-plot, while at the same time trying to sustain the main thrust of the show—in this case, a complicated massive terrorist attack on American soil. This is a formidable conundrum. You’ve gotta give your audience some payback along the way, and to do this, there must be some very bumpy conflict-and-resolution cycles… but always with some sort of provocation to bring them back next week.

Last night may have been the most bold and disturbing episode in the entire series, for a lot of interesting reasons. A quick recap: The US Secretary of Defense has been kidnapped with his daughter. Islamic fundamentalists are holding him in a bunker outside of LA, and they are planning a trial and an execution to be broadcast on the Web. It looks hopeless, so the President—having located the bunker—plans a missile strike to destroy terrorists, abductees, bunker, the whole lot before the execution can take place. Our man, agent Jack Bauer, is on the scene, and he singlehandledly breaks the perimeter and rescues Secretary and daughter.

The rescue is dramatic, and ends with the arrival of the US Marine Corps in helicopters. They rappel into the scene and, with cool precision, rip the place apart.

Now, we are well aware of how filmmakers manipulate us emotionally. We were not very surprised to feel a charge of excitement, a sense of justice, a rush of pride in American military might… this is standard operating procedure for a good action film. We have been set up to be sympathetic to the protagonist of the show (the USA, if you’re keeping track), and merciless to the antagonist. We are put in a position of cheering for death and violence.

What is most interesting about this new season of “24” is that it has removed the last veils of mitigating fiction, and taken the present world-situation head-on. Whereas in previous seasons, terrorist organizations were either a non-specific amalgam of multinational bad guys from some non-existent Baltic state, this seasons bad guys are islamic fundamentalists bent on their well-known goals and methods.

After last night’s blow-up, it is getting very difficult not to see this program as pro-war propagandizing. It is a terrible emotional mine-field to have to negotiate: If you didn’t feel a surge of pride after seeing all those terrorists cut down, you should worry that you can no longer be reached emotionally by the art-and-flash of mass media. (It’s OK to get excited, and then collect yourself and realize that you have been duped. Willing suspension of disbelief—engage!) Perhaps this point was driven home by the news of the Secretary’s successful rescue, televised within the program on (where else) Fox News. Or perhaps it was effected by the post-show dedication of the episode—”This epsiode is dedicated to Lt.Col. Dave Greene of the Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 775. His sacrifice, and the sacrifice of all our men and women of the military, will not be forgotten.”

Indeed. Righteous, merciless justice is so much easier in fiction than in real life. Can Americans tell the difference anymore?