When "24"'s Jack Bauer first burst into the American consciousness back in 2001, a few short weeks after the attacks on 9/11, it was as if, as the New York Times said at the time, that there had been a "deadly convergence between real life and Hollywood fantasy." Little did the Times know, nor could any of us have guessed, how "24" would reflect and define that convergence for eight thrilling seasons, while acting as catalyst for discussing the most controversial issues of the decade.
The Fox Television Network announced on Friday that this season would be the last for the action series, which gives us the opportunity to look back and examine "24," and especially the character who defined the War on Terror for the eight years that the show existed. (Note: The writers' strike of 2008 forced cancellation of the series for that season.)
Jack Bauer may be the first fictional character in history who has been accused of inciting war crimes. During the shooting of Season 6, a group of real-life interrogators from the FBI, CIA, and the Army paid a visit to the set to make their case that the depiction of torture on "24" was not only unrealistic, but was also inspiring cadets at West Point and soldiers in the field to ape Bauer's methods of extracting information. The professionals pointed out that in their experience, torture never works, and that the "ticking bomb scenario" itself is a fantasy that has never happened and would never occur.
Following that meeting, the casual, constant use of torture by Bauer was cut back, although, much to the chagrin of the Human Rights movement, the series continued to depict torture as being a successful method in extracting vital information.
More importantly, perhaps, the issue of torture was discussed not only by inside-the-Beltway types. Americans everywhere debated whether or not what we were doing in real life with prisoners like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was right or wrong. Torture joined slavery (in its day) and abortion as an issue intellectually engaging millions on the practical ramifications of a moral question.
The phenomenon of Bauer and the show itself has been nothing short of astonishing. Intellectual debates at think-tanks have been inspired by Bauer's tactics. Scholarly papers have examined the social, political, and national security aspects of the show. Law and Humanities classes at prestigious universities have been taught using "24" as a template. Magazines from The New Yorker to Time have looked at the show from every possible angle, dissecting its relevance and impact on American society.
Not bad for a TV show. But the basis of "24"'s success was the revolutionary nature of the "real time" presentation. In recent years, the writers have flubbed a few instances where one could question how a character made it from Point A to Point B in the time allotted on the show. But since every minute onscreen reflected a minute passed in the 24 universe, the tension -- expertly crafted by a stable of fine writers -- could be ratcheted up and deliciously sustained to the point that when the dam burst (usually with some fantastic twist to the plot), viewer satisfaction was assured.
It didn't hurt that the show's production values were among the best on network television. With a budget that was on average nearly twice that of other dramatic shows, "24" wowed its loyal viewers with realistic pyrotechnics, gee-whiz electronics, and dizzying camera work that put the viewer right in the heart of the action. Original producers Joel Surnow and Howard Gordon proved that a weekly action TV series need not skimp when it came to special effects and the other high-end details that gave "24" the feel of a blockbuster movie at times.
Still, it was always Jack Bauer that "24" fans came back year after year to see. Despite the convoluted plots, threads in the script that petered out and went nowhere, characters that came and went inexplicably, and the final capitulation to political correctness that we are witnessing this year, it is the character of Jack Bauer who has cemented the personal loyalties of the show's fans and kept the series near the top of the heap for so many years.
Bauer is the "Perfect Post 9/11 Hero." In the first few seasons of the show's incarnation, he possessed exactly the qualities we wanted in a protagonist who battled terrorism. He was loyal, patriotic, devoted to duty, solicitous of his friends, and a terror to his enemies. But what attracted us most to Bauer was the moral certitude he possessed that allowed him to fight the good fight with the absolute, unbending conviction that he was right. We were the good guys, they were the bad guys, and there was no in-between. If it sounds like Bauer echoed the Bush administration's warning to the world that if you weren't with us, you were against us, that's because he did.
There was no hand-wringing by Jack when he was confronted with a moral question regarding torture or other extra-constitutional measures he found it necessary to use. There were no angst-ridden soliloquies where Bauer went back and forth between doing what was legal and what he knew had to be done to save America. There was Jack, the terrorist, the threat, and that ticking clock, and that was it. No ACLU standing off to the side whispering in his ear that he was as bad as the terrorists. No human rights lawyers got in the way -- save one memorable and short-lived appearance in Season 6 where the terrorist's lawyer whined about "rights" only to be summarily tossed out of the Counterterrorism Unit headquarters.
In those early years, Bauer followed Davey Crockett's motto: "Be always sure you're right. Then go ahead." But something began to change in the character the last three seasons -- a reflection of real-life changes in America regarding the War in Iraq, the War on Terror, and the faith Americans place in their government.
Bauer began to grow more cynical about how higher-ups were using him and whether what he was doing was really worth it. The enemies he had been fighting changed as well. From fanatical Muslims to American turncoats who used terror for their own nefarious ends, the change in the American people's attitude toward the Bush Administration, and the ongoing debate over our methods in fighting international terrorism caused Bauer to rethink his role as super-patriot and the sharp end of the stick for American counterterrorism policy.
One catalyst for this change in Jack occurred when the love of his life, Audrey Raines, was captured by the Chinese and tortured to the point that she became catatonic. While blaming himself for this turn of events, Bauer also blamed those men in high places who had cynically used him to advance their own agendas. "The only thing I have ever done is what you and people like you have asked of me," Bauer told Audrey's father, the former Secretary of Defense. This is as telling a statement about who Jack Bauer really is as has ever been uttered on the show.
Indeed, Jack Bauer the fictional character was as much a creation of our own fears and hopes as he was created by the fictional American government in the series -- to fill a need, like "The Fixer" character who occasionally shows himself in spy fiction. The Fixer is an off-the-books, jack-of-all-trades intel asset who operates in the shadows and, if caught, is eminently deniable. Half thug, half patriot, The Fixer employs his own methods to get the job done at any cost. His nominal superiors never want to know what he's doing, just that the job is getting done.
This is what Jack Bauer has become in the last few seasons of the show. His agenda has gotten more personal. He has been willing to act as judge, jury, and executioner, especially against those who have harmed him personally by killing his friends. He has made the apprehension of culprits more of a vendetta than a means to bring the perpetrators to justice. He has descended into a dark place where his only release will be in a meaningful death.
I liked the early Jack Bauer immensely more than this later incarnation. But I also recognize that America has changed over the past nine years and that this new Bauer reflects those changes in attitude. In 2008, we elected a man who, for good or ill, promised to fight the war on terror differently. No longer a war, we now rely on international police forces to carry much of the burden in counterterrorism. Even in hot spots like Pakistan and Yemen, there doesn't seem to be any room for a Jack Bauer to ride in and kill the bad guys before they have a chance to kill us.
It is a fascinating exercise to watch the evolution of Bauer through the years and note the time capsule that each season represents. That self-assuredness we felt in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 is gone, as is Jack Bauer's moral certainty. What was once an unshakable faith in the government devolved into suspicion and loathing of the treacherous traitors who used Bauer to advance their own idea of "patriotism."
There is one feature film of "24" in the works, so Jack Bauer will not disappear entirely from the culture when the show ends its series run on May 24. But it seems clear that Jack Bauer's run as a conservative icon and modern-day American mythical hero are over. Will they kill him off in one spectacular, dramatic, America-saving moment?
Get real. Jack Bauer can't die because Death has a Jack Bauer complex.
Rick Moran is blog editor of American Thinker.