‘24’ is model of American psyche at its most intense

Over spring break, with a senior essay deadline looming, I bit the bullet and did the only thing I responsibly could. I watched TV.

In fairness, it was research — sort of. I reasoned, as I downloaded seven episodes from this season of “24” and watched them back to back, that I was doing important background work for this column. I was trying to decide what “24” said about American politics.

Surprisingly, I am not talking about the thoroughly bizarre conception of torture as a legitimate tool of public policy, which has so seduced both the show’s producers and the real-life White House. (Though it is worth briefly noting that in a recent episode, the show’s heroic protagonist, Jack Bauer, pries valuable information out of the Russian consul by slicing off his finger with a cigar cutter. This was, of course, in addition to injecting excessive doses of a neuro-inflammatory agent into his brother’s veins during an interrogation a few episodes before that. It’s another busy day for Jack.)

For Yalies who have been living in a cave for the past five years: “24” is Fox’s wildly successful television drama, now into its sixth season, which features Bauer as the suicidally brave and emotionally unavailable man every American boy dreams of becoming. Every season of “24” is one day in Jack’s action-packed life, and every episode one suspenseful hour in real time, the passage of which is marked by the show’s trademark ticking digital clock.

The show furnishes Jack and his generally ill-fated cohorts a seemingly endless stream of high-octane crises — deadly terrorist plots, assassination attempts, kidnappings, hostage situations and the like — and furnishes us with the occasional split screen, so that we can view the explosive action through multiple cameras at once.

Why is “24” so irresistible? (I have to admit that I’m hooked: At the moment there are several nuclear bombs somewhere on American soil, and I’m damn well going to be watching when Bauer kills the deranged Russian oligarch who is controlling them.) The masterful ratcheting-up of suspense, hour by hour, accounts for much of the show’s popularity. But America also loves “24” because Jack, and the universe he inhabits, is so quintessentially American.

Insofar as stereotypes can ever be fairly applied to entire peoples, it is probably true that Americans tend to be three things: impatient, proactive and optimistic. We are these three things because our history has taught us that we can be; our national instinct is to deal with problems quickly and efficiently as they emerge, because our own short past glitters with successful examples of doing just that. We have been on a constant upward trajectory since 1776. Our global power, economic prosperity and standard of living have grown slowly but surely, interrupted only by the occasional acute crisis — a civil or foreign war, a depression, a shattering scandal. And in the end, for the most part, America has always emerged victorious through a combination of decisive leadership, stubborn perseverance and dumb luck. Our history has made us cocky.

As it has grown in power, America has tended to bring this cocksure confidence to its foreign policy. Given the optimism we draw from our own history, we seem congenitally incapable of believing that in other parts of the world, the labyrinthine complexities of millennia of regional conflict and bad blood might actually render a solution, at least for the time being, impossible. And so in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or in Iraq, or in Africa or Pakistan or myriad other parts of the world, Americans have a deep-seated desire to see their leaders act brazenly and decisively to bring about solutions and a deep-seated frustration when they fail do so.

“24” is really nothing more than this American impulse taken to its logical yet absurd extreme. It is our impatience and our proactive nature on steroids. It is a world in which history has collapsed completely into itself — characters ricochet from trauma to trauma within minutes, rarely visibly affected by the immediate past, as though afflicted in each season by a case of hourly amnesia. Jack never has time to seek advice or consider the ramifications of his actions. The need to act is always overwhelming and immediate, and only the bad guys (representatives from “Amnesty Global” or conniving White House bureaucrats) try to get in his way. Jack Bauer, in short, is the very embodiment of what Americans seem to want our foreign policy to look like: muscular, unhesitating, always willing to take extreme measures to deal with trouble, always confident that good intentions will yield good results.

“24” goes hand in hand with a 24-hour news cycle that is equally relentless and equally invulnerable to the subtleties of historical background. Fox News’ explosive coverage of every developing crisis, complete with a split screen so as to saturate its viewers with high-tech graphics and attention-gripping drama at all times, nurses this uniquely American thirst for action. The invasion of Iraq was popular at the time because it made for such good television. Cable TV had a field day broadcasting the bombing of Baghdad, and Americans could practically imagine some fearless clone of Jack Bauer fighting for America in the front lines. The reality, now unfolding so obviously on our television screens, is that any real change in the Middle East will take a lot closer to 24 years than 24 hours. Jack Bauer would never have the patience for that. Will the American people?

Roger Low is a senior in Branford College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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