Guest Commentary: Marking time with 9/11, `24′

Apr 15, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Since fall, the American public has waited for the defeat of elusive terrorists who murder innocents to advance their private, confused agenda. Told with innovative television techniques, this drama has made TV history.
It’s not the chronicle of Al Qaeda and 9/11. It’s the other numerical shorthand for terror, “24,” the Fox show ranked as the best TV series in the Fall/Winter 2002 Electronic Media Critics Poll.
“24” premiered at about the time American troops went hunting for Osama bin Laden and his fighters; the program’s gripping progress bears an eerie parallel to the real terrorist fight at home and abroad.
The show’s title refers to the 24 hours in the day of its hero, a national security agent named Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland). Each episode covers exactly one hour of that day, ticked off minute by minute. Even the commercials tick down in real time.
The main plot (so far) involves an attempted assassination of Sen. David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), a shoe-in to be the first black presidential nominee of a major party, on primary day in California. Woven around this public event are private stories of Bauer’s and Palmer’s children, who for reasons foolish and fraternal have upended their fathers’ lives, adding more pressure. Imagine a White House call about a terrorist cell holding Jenna Bush somewhere in the San Fernando Valley and you get the general idea.
The show heightens the drama by using split and quartered screens to display simultaneous action by different characters and a basso profundo gong sounding the seconds that lead to commercial breaks.
The coldbloodedness of the terrorists makes rub-outs on “The Sopranos” look benevolent. Money, not politics, initially appeared to be the assassins’ motivation, but that is shifting as a Serbian connection emerges.
The show’s “killer app” is the use of killers who parade as good guys, only to be revealed as confederates of terror-even more diabolical for having entered in sheep’s clothing.
The overlap between the real 9/11 and the fictional “24” provides part of the show’s critical (and viewer) appeal. Bauer must swing into action unsure of who is on his side. Similarly, the United States couldn’t count on Pakistan at first, and this ally remains porous for fleeing terrorists, even as its unity with the West is strengthened.
And the series is unfolding over the real time of the U.S. war. While the series was on hiatus starting in mid-December, the Taliban were routed (though bin Laden and his chiefs remain at large). The viewer was hoping that art would imitate real life, but when “24” resumed in January, things didn’t improve terrorist-wise.
The show’s star, who snatched this season’s best dramatic actor Golden Globe, is an unlikely hero, with some parallels to 9/11. The son of a famous father, Sutherland had middling film roles following his years as a brat packer and, until now, was best known for being left at the altar by Julia Roberts. He’s a previously perceived lightweight not unlike the leader George W. Bush, son of a famous dad, who has found his stride in his role battling terrorism around this not-quite-so-golden globe.
And who would have guessed that Fox, a network that had to buy prime-time credibility by paying lavishly for sports rights and whose last hit drama was “21 Jump Street” starring Johnny Depp, would greenlight a show that critics rank ahead of “The West Wing” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”? It’s a little like a political party in thrall with the public a year after presenting the nation with a candidate who lost the overall popular vote.
The weekly installment of the hourly “24” may be one way to reflect on the terror unleashed on 9/11, long after the last car flag has broken off its plastic clamp and we have fully returned to our less contemplative selves.
For nearly all of us, the September tragedy was experienced via television. From the first awful World Trade Center pictures that will never need description to the innovative use of videophones in remote battlefields, the first telethon concerts and the Rumsfeld briefings, this war has been communicated through TV pictures and sound.
“24” takes us week by week back experientially to the scene of the crimes to watch a minute-by-minute unfolding of terror tailored for the small screen that’s going to last at least 24 hours.
By May, Jack Bauer’s day will be up; television being television, the good guys will win. The real world may not be so lucky so fast.
TV in 2002 is too often beset by ads for bowel-irritating prescription drugs and battery-operated abdominal stimulators that promise a loss of four inches in two weeks or your money back (less an undisclosed shipping and handling fee). So give thanks for the occasional nice surprise from the medium. “24” is quintessential appointment television that lets you know if you are even a minute late; it’s also pertinent television in this new Age of Terror.
Daniel Brenner, senior VP of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, is a communications lawyer who also teaches at Georgetown Law School.