Part 1 - Introduction

Jack Be Evil, Jack Be Quick:
Reflections on the Necessary Evils of 24

Ted Turnau, Ph.D.
From Minding Evil: Explorations of Human Iniquity,
ed. Margaret Sönser Breen (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005): 109-25.



This paper explores the narrative world of the American action-adventure television show "24" to see how it understands evil (especially the evil done by its hero, Jack Bauer). The putatively realistic use of time in 24 actually collapses time, making questions regarding evil difficult to broach because there is no time for reflection. The reason for this collapse of time is that the world of "24" is under constant threat, making the hero’s evil excusable. Further, the hero is coded within the program as simultaneously “one of us” and omni-competent at fighting the bad guys. And Jack’s character bears a striking resemblance to post-9/11 America – wounded, but ready to do what he must to get the job done. Jack is still, by narrative fiat, the good guy, even when he does evil. The paper contains an epilogue in which the author reflects the purpose of such popular cultural analysis: to encourage moral reflection when shows short-circuit such reflection; and to understand how popular culture has taken on a quasi-religious function in our secularized cultural environment vis-à-vis our understanding of evil. Key words: evil, television, popular culture, Ricoeur, narrative, time, September 11, 2001, secularization.


1. Introduction

Searching for a show to replace the popular X-Files, America’s Fox Network, on October 30, 2001, launched 24, a show about counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer and his quest to save a presidential candidate from assassination. Though it struggled initially in the ratings, it garnered critical praise and several awards, and it survived to draw stronger ratings in its second season and third seasons.1

In its first season, Jack Bauer (played by the ever-intense Kiefer Sutherland) was portrayed as a proficient, inventive, and at times ruthless operative who only wanted to protect his family and do his job. And he did get the job done despite impossible odds (and that is part of the fascination of the show - “How will Jack pull the rabbit out the hat this episode?”). In season two (taped after the September 11 tragedy), the show started to push ethical boundaries and explored a dark side to Jack’s personality (which had already been uncovered toward the end of season 1).  Jack Bauer was a hero who, at times, had to be evil to get the job done. In this way, the show argues for a hero who must be evil by necessity (an interesting - but certainly not unprecedented - twist to our understanding of “hero” in American popular culture).  

This paper seeks to explore the character of Jack Bauer and the fictive world he dwells in. The analytical method I will use is a rough and ready appropriation of the Ricoeurean concept of le monde du texte, the world of the text. Paul Ricoeur argues that for any given narrative, our attention should be drawn not to the world behind the text (for example, the world of the author), but to the world projected in front of the text.  The text opens a world for the reader to inhabit. In this way the world of the text and the world of the