This article explores how the Fox television network program 24 offers a compelling yet oddly ambivalent vision of the U.S. presidency. Specifically, 1 examine 24V articulation of presidentialism in depictions of the nation's chief executive and reveal how those depictions are actually quite complex and layered. Ultimately. I suggest that as 24 continues to circulate as a meaningful popular culture text, it may also continue to influence how Americans see the presidency, offering its audiences a sense of the presidency that is conflicted and complicated, yet strangely reassuring in its vision of presidentialism and presidential authority.
The first season of the highly popular, very controversial Fox network program 24 took place, as viewers were told at the beginning of every episode, "on the day of the California presidential primary." And on that day, Senator David Palmer, the likely winner of the primary and the odds-on favorite to be the next president of the United States, was having a very bad time of it. Two assassination attempts were just the beginning. As the minutes and hours of the program's first 24-hour day ticked by, Palmer learned that his son was implicated in the murder/death of his daughter's rapist; that his wife was an unethical, controlling manipulator who orchestrated his own seduction by a campaign aide; and that Serbian terrorists were trying to engineer his death and political demise.
As he ponders the end of his marriage in the midst all of the turmoil engulfing him, Palmer receives sage advice from his chief of staff Mike Novick. "Let me explain something to you," Novick tells Palmer. "Once you're in the White House, everything defers to the office. It's what you need to do the job. If it's your marriage that helps you, that's great. But if not, that's okay too. You can have whatever you want, David" (Surnow and Loceff 2001). It is tough to be the president on 24, and Novick's advice to David Palmer proves prescient. The nation's chief executives, as they are portrayed on this dramatic program, face an array of significant, even existential, national threats that demand their immediate action and attention. They are killed and injured, stressed and
relieved, decisive and vacillating, noble and venal. But however they are depicted over the show's eight seasons, "everything defers to the office," and the presidency plays a critical role in the program's action-packed days of adventure and suspense.
24 debuted on November 6, 2001, after a week's delay because of the 9/11 attacks. For eight seasons over 192 episodes (along with some additional "special" episodes and movies), viewers of the Fox network program watched as Counter-Terrorism Unit agent Jack Bauer along with a his co-workers, family, and friends confronted an array of terrorist threats, from nuclear bombs to chemical nerve gas, from random suicide bombings to biological weapons. As Bauer relentlessly pursued terrorists of every hue and nationality, various government agencies, from Homeland Security to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, as well as other state and local law enforcement, assisted him or impeded his efforts. At the same time, 24 also depicted over its eight seasons seven presidents and their administrations, often devoting considerable plot and character development to these American chief executives. This analysis takes seriously 24's depictions of the U.S. presidency and offers a critical reading of the various meanings and messages about the presidency offered by the program.
Reading 24 Critically
Much of the critical attention paid to 24 as a significant television text concerns the management and negotiation of torture by the program's primary character, Jack Bauer. From a variety of angles--from ethics to political and critical theory to legal analysis to gender--critics have scrutinized the program's discussion of torture in the context of public concerns about terrorism. As he worked to prevent and fight terrorism, Jack frequently tortured prisoners, witnesses, and anyone at all who threatened to interfere with his mission. Downing (2007) laments 24's depiction of highly racialized terrorism and the show's moral grappling with torture, concluding that "[p]rime virtues implicitly extolled in these situations (of torture) are decisiveness, the readiness to opt for the least worst outcome, and the moral courage to swallow one's own moral scruples" (77, emphasis in original). Downing worries that in this way, torture is "legitimated" by 24 as a justified means of fighting terrorism in a post-9/11 environment (2007, 78).
24's influence on political and public deliberations about torture is evident in the mantra that confronted citizens, media voices, and even presidential candidates: What would Jack Bauer do? In a rather famous appearance at a Canadian legal conference, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Antonin Scalia defended Bauer's techniques, concluding that no jury would convict Bauer at trial (Globe and Mail 2007). Former president Bill Clinton discussed the Jack Bauer scenario with Tim Russert on Meet the Press, and several Republican presidential candidates during the 2008 primary campaign referenced Bauer and 24 as they addressed questions about torture and the effective means of stopping terrorism. As Brooks (2007) noted in a commentary about one GOP debate, "It wasn't an edifying spectacle: a group of middle-aged white guys competing with one another to see who could do the best impersonation of Jack Bauer, torture enthusiast and the central character on Fox's hit show '24.'"
Via Bauer and the problems he confronts, then, the viewing public is asked to assess its own moral position, its specific moral theory, in the face of terrorist, ticking-time-bomb threats (Jensen 2008). Perhaps it is the program's proximity to the attacks of 9/11, but 24's subject matter routinely gives rise to parallels and meanings that resonant in larger public conversations about the U.S. approach to torture, terrorism, and trauma in the wake of the 9/11 events. As such, Krakowiak (2010) wonders if 24 does more harm than good in the public deliberations about torture, concluding that the program's "misrepresentations" of torture and its "flawed" justifications for torture are problematic (256). Sutherland and Swan (2010) highlight how 24 has influenced significant public debate about terrorism and torture, arguing that 24 is "fascinating as an example of how popular culture not only provides the metaphors for, but actually informs, sophisticated international debates" (146). With his usual hyperbolic propensities, Zizek (2006) labels 24's heroes the "Himmlers of Hollywood," as he identifies the "lie of 24": "it is not only possible to retain human dignity in performing acts of terror, but that if an honest person performs such an act as a grave duty, it confers on him a tragic-ethical grandeur." With the rather unusual exception of Spigel (2004), most commentators on the power of 9/11 on popular culture and cultural discourse in the United States mention the power of 24. Indeed, Tenenboim-Weinblatt (2009) highlights several examples that demonstrate "the extent to which 24 and its leading character are embedded in the U.S. political culture, but also the complex interplay among various cultural and political figures in shaping and negotiating the effect, meaning, and uses of 24" (368).
Legal critics also express concern about 24's influence on legal proceedings, interrogations, and public attitudes about torture. Keslowitz (2008) argues for the impact that both Homer Simpson and Jack Bauer may have on congressional deliberations and judicial proceedings and particularly the "judicial reliance on both Homer Simpson and Jack Bauer as primary frames of reference in the contexts of employment and terrorism cases, respectively" (2790). Along similar lines, Kamin (2006-07) worries about the "24 Effect" that may result in a public "inured to torture by its repeated factual and fictional representations" such that it neglects the value of non-tortuous interrogation techniques in domestic contexts (694).
Among the more intriguing critical insights about 24 is the discussion about Jack Bauer as a marker of early twenty-first century masculinity. Carroll (2011) sees 24 as a program that updates masculine identity by routing that identity "through exceptionalist forms of patriotism and heroic masculinity." In so doing, the show "provides a cultural instantiation of the exemplary neoliberal citizen" (Carroll 2011, 28). Jack Bauer, in this context, works as "a figure of heroic masculinity untroubled by the old relativism of identity politics" (Carroll 2011, 47). O'Donnell (2008) sees in Jack Bauer the embodiment of "two mythic stories central to American identity" and that both of those stories ("the story of the apocalyptic and the story of the frontier") "give rise to particular versions of masculinity" (33). Intriguingly, O'Donnell links Bauer's masculine identity to specific narratives of presidential authority.
Given 24's primary emphasis on Jack Bauer, terrorism, and torture as plot mechanisms, the fact that most of the critical attention devoted to the program highlights these dimensions is hardly surprising. Alongside this social and political commentary are also the discussions about 24's unique qualities as a program, including its use of time, elaborate staging and plots, and the dynamic filming that includes split screens and complicated action sequences (Cantor 2008; Schuchardt 2008). But 24 is a highly complex, richly textured program, with numerous points of entry and hours of textual artifacts that beckon critical interrogation. While some attention has been paid to 24's depiction of the American presidency, most of those analyses have been cursory or impressionistic (Rusch 2008; Weed 2008).
My goal here is to explore how...