Part 2 - The Fictive "Real World" of 24

2. The Fictive “Real World” of 24

A. The Collapse of Time

Like a lot of action-adventure TV serials, 24 relies on a gimmick to hook the audience in. In this case, 24 boasted a gritty authenticity that emerged from its “realistic” handling of time. The voice of Jack reminds us at the beginning of every episode that the events portrayed are happening “in real time.” Every episode represents one hour in a truly intense day. Before every commercial break, a digital clock face at the bottom of the screen reminds you where you are in that episode’s hour (apparently, nothing of consequence happens during the commercials). And at the end of every episode, as the narrative climaxes toward the cliff-hanger for that week, you see the digital clock face and hear an exaggerated ticking sound from an unseen second hand (“ka-chunk ka-chunk!”). The message is fairly straightforward: the good guys are in a race against time, and time (which we’re showing you as it is in the real world) is weighing heavy as events hang in the balance. It’s a way of raising suspense and making sure you tune in next week.

But on the other (clock) hand, the show works very hard to emphasize the tension induced by time (and time’s running out) in a way that is markedly artificial. In reviews of the show, you hear certain phrases repeatedly: “gripping,” “pulse pounding,” “thrilling,” and so on.5  The show’s production values serve to reinforce the frenetic pace of the show. It follows characters around with hand-held cameras to give the cinematography a more unsettled motion. The editing is quick and clean - no fade-outs or dissolves. In every episode there are at least three or four times where the show employs a split screen (with the digital clock face in the center of the screen, of course) to show you what is going on in the four or five plot threads that are happening simultaneously. The first time I saw it, I was both thrilled by such a different look, but almost overwhelmed by the amount of information that I was supposed to process. (Fortunately, I was watching taped episodes so that I could back it up after some mumbled dialogue – Kiefer sometimes mumbles – or some plot twist that left me saying, “What in the world just happened?”) The net effect of all of these narrative and technical devices is that time is presented as full to the bursting every second of this day with momentous, decisive events.

But it’s just here that the show undermines its own realism. Gritty? Realistic? How can this hyper-kinetic, collapsed, over-laden with moment-by-moment gravitas, slant on time be called real? Even given that “realism” in media is something of a vexed question (do we really want a completely “realistic” portray of eight hours, such as Andy Warhol’s movie Sleep?), the pace of 24 leaves something of the texture of real time behind.6  Real time that we experience in the real world sometimes drags along. Never in 24. Sometimes people take breaks to eat, or sleep, or go to the bathroom. Never in 24. (The only reason you have to go in the bathroom is to make a secret cell-phone call to a covert ops agent who’s working deep undercover, or something like that.) In 24, time has one speed, and that’s Autobahn reckless full-throttle break-neck speed. The artificial, fictive nature of time in the world of 24 becomes clearest when you consider time-periods to complete some off-screen action. Agents drive from downtown Los Angeles to a small airport somewhere in the suburbs . . . in ten minutes. A computer will search the entire county’s license and registration records to find a match on a car . . . in seven minutes. And so on. That is part of the constitution of this fictive world - there simply is no significant time waiting for anything. Things must be kept moving as fast as possible.

The significance of the shape of time in 24 is that what seems like gritty real-world temporal perspective is actually a fictive device, a mythical world that is biased towards action and away from moral reflection. In the world of 24, there simply is no room for deep ethical deliberation or reflection upon values. So no deep moral framework or guidance (religious or otherwise) has a chance to emerge. Compare that with another recent post-9/11 popular cultural offering which also has an approaching deadline as its theme: Spike Lee’s movie 25th Hour. The film tracks the last twenty-four hours before Montgomery Brogan will be sent to prison for seven years for dealing drugs. In contrast to 24, in the world of Monty Brogan, there is all kinds of time for reflection: on past mistakes, on what is most valuable in life, on whom you can really trust, and so on.  Spike Lee even gives Monty an extended soliloquy, that most favored of all dramatic devices for dealing with moral introspection - and a device rarely seen in movies or television lately. In other words, in the world of 25th Hour, time slows and people have time to think. Not so in 24: he who hesitates (to weigh moral options or to consider his actions) is lost. In this way, 24 renders any sort of transcendent moral framework irrelevant (and so evil cannot carry the same sort of weight it should).

Not only does time seem too fast, but in some ways it seems too “light.” Some events (for example, the evil that Jack does) pass without a trace, and are forgotten next season. You could call this the “Dirty Harry Complex,” where an official entrusted with guarding the law repeatedly violates the law “for the greater good,” but the violations are never remembered from one sequel to the next. Similarly, in the second season of 24, Jack’s actions are without consequence. When Jack psychologically or physically tortures suspects, or when he murders a man in custody, there simply are no consequences. When Jack orders his daughter to kill a man he believes to be dangerous to her, even though the man lies prone and helpless, there are no consequences for her (apparently police don’t do ballistic checks on shootings involving Jack’s daughter). In fact, the only time when there are consequences to characters’ actions is when President Palmer is called by his cabinet to account for his behavior (including the torture of the head of the NSA).7  But even this episode is not really a moment for ethical reflection upon Palmer’s actions. It is revealed to be part of a conspiracy by administration hawks (who are connected to shady international oil interests) to remove Palmer from office because he opposes starting a war. Palmer eventually regains his office when it is proved that he was right in opposing the war, and his questionable actions in pursuit of such proof are conveniently forgotten. 

Again, a comparison with 25th Hour is instructive. That film is about nothing but the way the past has repercussions that reach into the present. Monty Brogan’s drug dealing, connections with childhood friends, even a dog he decides to save – in short, his history – all become part of the complex context in which he lives, which shapes and constrains him. The past is not so easily forgotten, and it does catch up with him.  In some ways, the second season of 24 shares that ethos (for example, Jack bears the wounds of his wife’s death throughout the season). But with regard to the evil actions for which characters are responsible, there is an overall pattern of ethical violations markedly not returning to haunt their perpetrators. How can they? Things move too fast for someone’s history to catch up with them. So one of the consequences of the quickened pace of time in the show is that time itself passes without trace, without consequence.

B. A World Under Extreme Threat

The reason that everybody is so darn busy in 24 is that the world of 24 is a world in extremis. In season one, Jack struggled to foil an assassination attempt on the democratic presidential candidate. In season two, the stakes are raised: he and his colleagues at CTU (Counter-Terrorism Unit) must foil a terrorist plot to detonate a nuclear weapon over downtown Los Angeles. Millions of lives hang in the balance. And the threat is drastic, not simply in terms of numbers, but with regard to Jack personally as well. In season two, Jack has only one surviving family member - his teenage daughter Kim. And, sure enough, nearly every episode ends with Kim in danger. It becomes reminiscent of the Perils of Pauline.8  And in many episodes, Jack himself is in mortal danger. Jack’s public world (the citizens of the United States, and of L.A. county in particular) and Jack’s private world (his daughter, his own person) are in constant jeopardy throughout the show.

There are any number of reasons why the world of 24 (Jack’s world) has been shaped like this, a world on the edge of a knife, where failure means humanitarian disaster and personal tragedy. Certainly it raises the suspense and dramatic tension. It keeps viewers tuned in week after week.  It keeps the story moving at such a pace so viewers won’t get bored. But what interests me more is how this world in extremis can serve as a substitute for principled moral reflection. It does this in two ways. First, it forces the collapse of time - people are compelled to rush to action because of the extreme circumstances. And that undermines the possibility of moral reflection (as we discussed above). The constant “ka-chunk” of the second hand simply reverberates too loudly. Second, it preempts moral reflection on action by installing a facile utilitarian calculus. What’s the torture or murder of one bad guy when weighed against the possibility of personal and humanitarian disaster? Why even raise the question? Evil actions are excused even before they can be interrogated.9

But it did not necessarily have to be this way. There are plenty of examples in film and television where being under threat actually serves to bring out moral discourse (and especially the nature of evil) more sharply, even in action/adventure-type plots (consider Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects). The writers and producers of 24 decided to use plot pace and imminent danger as tools to suppress questions regarding evil (perhaps to keep the audience from scrutinizing Jack Bauer’s evil actions too closely).10

One more observation about this world fictively configured to be constantly under threat: it draws compelling parallels to America’s post-9/11 self-perception. America, too, feels itself to be constantly under threat from hostile outside forces. Whether officially or not, the American government and media have succeeded in giving America a “Code Orange” heart. Intentionally or not, the creators of the world of 24 contribute to that image of America. In so doing, the writers give the series a faux-realism, not because it presents the real world, but it presents an image of the world that many Americans hold.11  We’ll see in a moment how those parallels grow even more compelling in the character of Jack Bauer.

In sum, the world of 24, by collapsing time through various narrative and cinematic techniques, and by presenting a world under constant threat, serves to undermine the possibility of reflection upon evil. In so doing, it renders any transcendent moral framework irrelevant - what is needed is not a consideration of moral principles, but a reactive pragmatism that will get the job done and save the day.12  Let us now consider the hero Jack Bauer. We will find that he is every inch a creature of this fictive world.

Notes from this page

5  Some of the online reviews that used these phrases were: Ivana Redwine, “’24 - Season Two’ DVD Review,” What You Need to Know About Home Video/DVD, n.d.,(27 February 2004). <(http://homevideo.about.com/cs/tvondvd/gr/24_S2_DVDreview.htm>.; Engineerboy, “24 (****) (TV), 12/17/2002,” CleverDonkey.com, 17 December 2002, (27 February, 2004). <http://www.cleverdonkey.com/ViewArticle.asp?ID=45&Cat=Entertainment>; and Thomas Chau, “’24: Season Two’ DVD Review,” DVD Fanatic, 9 September 2003, (27 February 2004). <http://www.dvdfanatic.com/review.php?id=24-season.2>.

6  Thanks to my friend and colleague Chris Simmons for alerting me to the pitfalls that attend the term “realism” in film and television.

7  NSA stands for National Security Agency.  It is charged with protecting the information systems of the U.S. government, but on the show it seems to have a much broader intelligence and political agenda.

8  The Perils of Pauline (1914) is a famous silent film serial that has been remade numerous times.  In each episode the heroine escapes certain death from animals, criminals, savages, etc.  The familiar image of a young woman tied to railroad tracks, screaming, as the train barrels towards her (and her inevitable escape thanks to a handsome hero) comes from this serial.

9  I am arguing from a Christian perspective that does not accept the maxim that the “ends justify the means,” or “victory at whatever cost.” Though the reader may not share my moral perspective, my point (and what I find disturbing in the show) is the fact that the issue of moral perspective is not even raised so that an unprincipled pragmatism can be given its fullest, unchallenged scope.

10  This paragraph owes a lot to Chris Simmons.

11  The question raised by such a staging of American identity is this: Could that fictive image likewise interrupt moral reflection upon the possibility that our collective actions are evil, or does it automatically justify them in the name of protecting that which is closest to us?

12  It must be conceded that there are moments when there is moral deliberation going on, but it’s not being done by Jack. The moral center of the series is represented by President David Palmer (played by the sagacious-looking Dennis Haybert). But even President Palmer’s agonized moral decisions are inevitably brought to a close prematurely by the press of time and overhanging humanitarian disaster. Such extreme circumstances also force Palmer into making some morally questionable choices himself, such as ordering the torture of NSA Director Roger Stanton, whom he believes is involved in a conspiracy concerning the nuclear bomb.