It’s been a stressful few months, so Kate & I relaxed this weekend in front of Season 1 of 24. I’d already seen it, but no matter. Watching Kate’s jaw drop at the appropriate moments was as much fun as my own jaw dropping the first time around. As it happens, 24 got the New Yorker treatment this week—no umlauts, unfortunately, but an impressively long, 78-word opening sentence and, later on, this perfectly opaque, parenthetical, quasi-hip, meant-to-be-funny throwaway line: “Good, because Pachelbel’s Canon is so 1990.” Huh? It’s like a New Yorker cartoon embedded right there in the middle of the story.
(At our house, we love to loathe the pretensions of The New Yorker, but we would’ve been crushed had Nancy Franklin dissed our favorite show.)
This comment stood out:
“24” works on us a little like a homeopathic treatment, helping us fend off, we hope, what we’re most afraid of these days. If we see Jack’s daughter kidnapped but then rescued, or a nuclear bomb safely detonated in the desert instead of in Los Angeles, maybe that will ward off disaster in our own lives.
24 trades on its gritty realism—although, as soon as I write “gritty” I realize what a cliché and therefore what a pose that is. Nothing is real. When we are watching television, we are immersed within the context of no context . . . OK, be that as it may . . . it’s supposed to seem real, unlike Alias, which was a comic book (in all the best ways) from start to finish. When Jack Bauer jams a needle in the bad guy’s neck and there’s that sound, it feels real, despite the fact that we have absolutely no idea what sound a needle in the neck would make, or even whether it would make much of a sound at all.
Which is not the point, obviously. The point is that realism sucks us in to a story so the story can then begin, unnoticed, to work us over. As we worry about assassins and nukes and dirty bombs, as we worry about ticking clocks and chains of command, as we worry whether Kim’s going to fall out of that thing (and how old is she anyway?), and whether Jack is ever going to get a bathroom break, and whether, if Chloe relaxed a bit, she might not actually be kind of pretty, and whether we’ll ever get a president as broad-shouldered & commanding as Dennis Haysbert, and whether we aren’t condoning torture every time Jack threatens some guy’s eyeball with a Bowie knife, and whether the show could even go on absent the word “protocol”—as we worry about all this, we forget that the plots are completely ridiculous. No matter. Jack is one of our gods, and 24 one of our precious myths.
Even the Greek myths traded on realism. The gods weren’t from Olympus—too spectacular. They were from the lowlands, from greater metropolitan Athens. “A familiar local habitation gave reality to all mythical beings,” wrote Edith Hamilton in Mythology. “If the mixture seems childish, consider how reassuring and how sensible the solid background is as compared with the Genie who comes from nowhere when Alladin rubs the lamp and, his task accomplished, returns to nowhere.”
In an age where terrorism meets politics, where the terrorists have, lately, even become politicians, we need some reassuring. And each season, after 24 twisting, turning, confusing, breathless, exhausting, fear-mongering episodes, so far, the endings have always been happy.