Sunday, June 03, 2007


Over the past week or so, I've been making my way through TV Links's archive of "24" episodes-- you know, the adventures of CTU agent Jack Bauer (the very able Kiefer Sutherland).

I can't say that I'm as thrilled by "24" as some are; it's a cool, tightly written series, to be sure, but also goes for the easy cliché on occasion. After having seen eight episodes, I know I can expect to hear some character say, "I can't tell you why right now! Just do it!" The followup line, "That's an order!", might or might not be there.

Another problem I have with the show isn't necessarily the show's fault: because I watched "Battlestar Galactica" first, I can't help seeing "24" as, well, BSG without the metaphysics. That just about sums up the series for me. In BSG, you're not quite sure who might be a Cylon (viz. Season 3's end-of-season surprise). In "24," you don't know who your enemy is (but, like the Cylons, They Have a Plan). The difference is that, in BSG, we are challenged to question what it is that makes us human, whereas in "24" it's more a matter of getting through the situation alive and with your cover as unblown as Stephen Hawking's penis.

If "24" really is just BSG without the metaphysics, this goes a long way toward explaining why I find the show somewhat less compelling than BSG. But because I can't help myself, I do find that "24" pushes me to think about certain philosophical questions related to life under cover.

Even after seeing only eight episodes, I can tell you that undercover agents seem to come in two major flavors: they're either quick to betray, or they're untouchable. So far, Jack Bauer appears to be about the only untouchable in CTU. Another possibility is Tony Almeida, who seems to be an unlikable fellow at first but turns out (at least as far as episode 8) to be a straight arrow with an unshakable moral compass.

I already know, from reading Wikipedia spoilers (alas), that Nina is actually a traitor and gets killed by Jack Bauer in a later season (the vid of that scene is on YouTube... go figure). Right now, as of episode 8, Nina appears to be clear of suspicion, despite Bauer's having jumped at her as a possible suspect right away.

What goes through the mind of someone like Nina? How does she keep all her stories straight? Is it simply a matter of talent, or is there some technique, some way in which any Joe or Jane can learn how to lie low and play one or more roles? What drives someone to become a Nina?

I don't know how much academic work has been done on the philosophy of undercover existence, but I bet this would be a rich field for ethicists. Is an undercover agent driven by some ultimate purpose? What is that purpose? What differences are there between moles who are driven by an ultimate purpose and those that are ultimately amoral?

The most reliable test of truth on "24" seems to be The Dying Moment. It's possible I'm wrong, but at this point Richard Walsh, Jack's boss (friend?) who gets killed in episode 2, seems to have been a trustworthy character: as he was dying, he gave Jack the key card that has driven one of the major subplots since that episode. I'm pretty sure that Walsh wasn't a turncoat.

I've seen enough spoilers to know something of the overall story arc of several seasons of "24," but I haven't looked at Wikipedia's episode-by-episode commentary. I'll be watching old episodes as I can in an effort to catch up with the rest of the American public, but as I said, "24" doesn't compel me quite as much as BSG does.



Charles said...

I stopped watching 24 after season two (I think it was season two--the one where Nina gets killed), mainly because it was wearing on me too much emotionally. I was getting too involved. I decided that the last thing I needed when watching TV was more stress.

Of course, then Lost came along and screwed everything up. But I refuse to actually watch that show on TV. I just wait for the DVDs (and religiously avoid spoilers).

Anonymous said...

You see the "I don't have time to explain, just do it" line in BSG a lot... both the new one and the original.

I watched seasons 1 and 2 of 24, and the first third of the current season. I'm still not sure how I feel about the series... yes, it's frantic and action-packed, but the world view it presents (torture works!) makes it a tad unpalatable.


ZenKimchi said...

It's also well known that "24" has an intentional political bent. Whenever the administration is trying to push some controversial issue that flies in the face of traditional democratic ideals , "24" puts it into the plot to make it seem like we need water boarding, wire tapping, and an overall secret police state.

I don't know if anything has come of it lately, but the producer was also in talks with Fox News to create a conservative version of "The Daily Show."