Television Review: 24 (Keifer Sutherland)

It’s enough to make an ACLU lawyer quail in anguish.

24 is a series about a US Government organization called the Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU), ostensibly part of the CIA. Each season consists of 24 episodes, is played out in real-time, and covers one chronological day, centered on a crisis dealing with one terrorist activity or another. Most of the episodes center on super-agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), an operative who has more events happen to him in a single episode than most government agents their entire careers.

Seasons are referred to as Days. In Day 1, Bauer runs the LA CTU, and has to work fast to prevent the assassination of a presidential candidate. Day 2 (which does happen months later), he has to find and deal with a nuclear bomb somewhere in LA. Day 3, Jack Bauer undergoes deep cover to infiltrate a drug ring that’s trying to release a deadly virus in LA. Day 4, he has to avert nuclear meltdowns at over a hundred power plants. That’s just in the first four hours. And so it goes.

At least CTU is ready for the job. The place is loaded for bear with technology. IP phones, gigantic color displays, and a decidedly stark surrounding have an interesting contrast to what one would find in, well, any other government agency. The place looks more like a Seattle Internet venture than a government organization (albeit with fewer windows, and not a coffee cup in sight). And everyone there is not only well versed with computer systems, but continually speak in terms of servers, encryption protocols, and IP and NAT addresses. If not for the occasional lapses in terminology and accuracy the show would be a techie’s dream. CTU seems to have access not only to every traffic control camera in LA, but also the blueprints for every building, the ability to identify and trace phone call and credit card usage in real-time and immediate access to satellite reconnaissance. Encrypted documents are a mere hindrance to the crack computer team.

I can imagine every CIA and FBI agent watching this show now, thinking, “Yeah, we wish.”

By now you probably realize that you need a willing suspension of disbelief to watch this show. In the course of a single episode, I’ve seen Jack Bauer manage to leave CTU headquarters, fly by helicopter to an abandoned electrical facility 40 miles, take out a group of terrorists (but miss by mere seconds to get the critical package that could be used to detonate a bomb), and fly back to CTU for a 30 second debriefing. Not bad for an hour’s work.

In the world of 24, a bad guy can hack into a nuclear power plant through a specialized computer program, override safety protocols, and force it to go critical while control workers inside helplessly watch. Before you watch this show and get nervous about that scenario, let’s just say the odds of that are worse than astronomical.

You also have to believe that an Ebola virus can be “accelerated” to kill its victim within 2 hours.

You also have to believe that Jack is a master of traffic control as he moves from one end of Los Angeles to the other in a matter of minutes (having driven in LA, that’s even less likely than that nuclear plant going critical).

Jack also has to deal with moral issues on an episode by episode basis, which would make most officers sworn to uphold the law scratch their heads with dismay. For example, to get, um, “material” to infiltrate a terrorist group, Jack thinks nothing of killing a felon at point-blank range inside CTU headquarters (Day 2, episode 1). He even holds up a convenience store to buy time for satellite coverage on a terrorist (yes, really). Torturing suspects to get critical information is a day in the life at CTU. Go ahead, you deal with the question: would you break a couple of fingers on a suspect to get information that could save millions of people? Your answer will likely depend on your politics and your conscience, but I tend to think that most normal people would say “yes.” Such dilemmas pile up on 24. The Book of Questions would be rewritten as an encyclopedia.

In one episode (Day 4), Jack is stopped from “interrogating” a suspect by a lawyer from “Amnesty Global” an ACLU/Amnesty International knockoff. Jack takes the lawyer aside, and tries to explain the situation to him:

Bauer: You and I both know that your client isn’t clean, and that he conspired to steal a US nuclear warhead.
Lawyer: All my client wants is due process.
Bauer: These people are not going to stop attacking us today, until millions and millions of Americans are dead. Now, I don’t want to bypass the Constitution, but these are extraordinary circumstances.
Lawyer: The Constitution was born out of extraordinary circumstances, Mr. Bauer. This should play out by the book. Not in a back room with a rubber hose.
Bauer: I hope you can live with that.

Of course, almost all of Bauer’s hunches are correct, and he’ll get his information in his own way. But there are two people I would avoid like the plague in any normal environment: Murder She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher (where a murder seems to occur soon after she appears), and 24’s Jack Bauer. The body count just seems to rise around these people.

Having said all that, this is a fun show. Inaccuracies aside, it’s smart. The villains aren’t idiots, and are well funded with clear objectives. The plot moves along in a ‘gauntlet’ style progression, where the resolution of one crisis just means that a new crisis will materialize in the next episode. Intrigued by stories about weapons of mass destruction? Pick your poison. Aside from the usual terrorist staples of assassinations, kidnappings, and infiltrations, the 5 seasons of 24 so far have featured potential and real disasters such as nuclear warheads, nerve gas attacks, deadly viruses and nuclear plant meltdowns.

Good guys and bad guys alike make mistakes. The show doesn’t pull punches. If you like a character in the show, and it’s not Bauer, don’t get your hopes up that they’ll survive by the end of the episode. (Indeed, Bauer himself has been ‘killed’ in more than one episode.)

I’m not sure how many more Days 24 can last, or if it can hold my attention past this season. But in the meantime it’s a great thrill ride.

4 (out of 5) stars.

Reviewed by Hal Crawford. Copyright © 2006.

To send me mail: (hal) @ (XhalcrawfordX) . (org) (remove the spaces, X chars, and parens)

This page last updated June 14, 2006.