Monday, February 12, 2007

Et Tu, "24"?

Hi, everybody! Hope everyone enjoyed their weekends. My 30th birthday weekend went just great, thanks to everyone who wrote or called to say Happy Birthday. I really appreciated it. Anyway my folks took me and whole gang out Saturday night to watch me gorge myself on sushi in a frigid Atlanta restaurant. We all had a good time so thanks to my muzzuh and fazzuh for that. The next day, Peggy's folks took the wife and I to a barbecue joint called Smokey Bones and presented me with, among other things, "Gears of War" as well as a customizable face plate for the 360. I got home and promptly printed out this drawing of Blinky and made it my new faceplate. Looks pretty cool, I think. Then we went to see "Hannibal Returns", but that's for another post.

Okay, onto the topic at hand, namely "24". This show, of which I am a fan, airs on Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox. The show, not surprisingly, skews right. Previously, in interviews with the press, the writers have been careful to assure viewers that the writing staff has its share of conservatives and liberals and no one ideology dominates the room, but it's still pretty obvious the right-wingers have more sway. I also know there's a fair amount of hypocrisy on my part for enjoying the many many scenes of torture depicted on the show, while at the same time deeply opposed to the practice in real life, but so far it hasn't swayed me from watching. I started watching this current season of "24" reasonably comfortable with these contradictions.

This article from The New Yorker, however, has got me thinking in a different way. Is it possible that "24" is normalizing the idea of an America that tortures where, just a few years ago (pre-Bush the Younger) it was a point of moral pride that Americans did not torture? Could my support of the show be perpetuating the myth that torture is effective and something that self-sacrificing patriots do to extract information? As the article reveals conclusively and horrifyingly, Joel Surnow (pictured), who is the executive producer of the show, is a self-described "right-wing whacko" who likes and agrees with Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, Lynne Cheney (whose a "big fan"), the President, Karl Rove, the Vice President, Joe McCarthy, and a host of other Republican low-lights. They seem to like him back. After reading the article, my kneejerk reaction is that I want to scrub all the seasons of "24" from my brain and curse it from the rooftops so loathsome and antithetical to my belief system is Surnow and his ilk.

That being said, I am a little hesitant to embrace the implications of this article whole-heartedly because the argument is, at heart, "don't put this on TV because look what it's making people do". Which is one of my least favorite arguments. Don't let them make violent video games because look at all the people it made my little Timmy kill. Don't let them put those curse-word lyrics on that CD because look what it's making my little Timmy say. The links between consuming those media and then perpetrating crimes is, to my mind, essentially zero.

On the other hand, the link between six years of a popular show like "24" in which nearly every other episode features a scene depicting extreme torture, and six years of an administration working non-stop to legalize torture for use by the U.S. military, maybe isn't so tenuous. According to the article, U.S. military brass had a pow-wow with the show's writers asking them to tone down the torture and find ways to make it more realistic because it was giving the military interrogators the wrong idea about how torture really works. That's a big deal. (Surnow did not, by the way, attend that pow-wow. He had a "meeting", supposedly with Roger Ailes. Shudder.) When Jack Bauer himself, Kiefer Sutherland was presented by this delegation evidence of the show's unintended consequences, he got worried because he's anti-torture himself. (As for Joe McCarthy-apologist Surnow? Not worried a bit.) (By the way, the writers agreed to change nothing.)

As the article references, many a rightist pundit has held up the popularity of "24" as a kind of unofficial referendum on where Americans are on torture, and in their eyes, the big numbers for the show mean America's pretty much for it. Now if it were just the radio fascists like Hannity, Limbaugh and Ingraham who were trying to equate "24"'s popularity with a silent majority concensus on torture, than I don't think it would be an issue. Ninety-five percent of what they say is bullshit anyway. But when the "Torture-is-AOK" crew at the Bush White House (like Cheney, Gonzales, Bush,) start using the show to push their pro-torture agendas, I start to get a little more than just queasy about tuning in myself every Monday night. It feels like if I watch "24", then the Bush White House wins.

Also, I don't want anything to do with enriching this Surnow character. In addition to the right-skewing "24", he's going to executive produce the new Fox News "comedy" show designed to be the answer to "The Daily Show", which sort of offends me on a visceral level. As if these Bush White House apologists could make something legitimately funny. This from the network that brought Dennis Miller onto "Hannity and Colmes" for a few minutes of stand-up every week. I caught a minute of that. Wow. Even the crickets withheld their chirping. (The fact is conservatism is inherently unfunny. It's something they have to learn to deal with. They get to be the unapologetic macho alpha-male assholes, and we get to be funny.)

Anyway, "24" airs tonight. "Two hours of Bauer" as they're saying. Ordinarily, I'd be hyped for this, but now all this Surnow stuff. . . I don't want to be led around by the nose by the New Yorker like a good liberal, either, but it gives me serious pause. I don't know.

Anyway, if you're a fan of the show like I am, I strongly reccomend this disquieting article. Let me know what you think.


blankfist said...

Rubbish. Torture is awesome. We're fighting a war and the mexicans are taking our jobs and 9/11 and children are being left behind and sanctity of marriage and all that. You can just pick whichever one suits this particular issue, because I'm too stupid and too much of a follower to really know what my talking points really are about except that I just need them to be what my group thinks. Oh wait, no, that's not right because I'm not Republican. Right.

I don't watch 24. Never liked it.

harwell said...

I'm with Heath - never caught on to 24 but that's a damn interesting post. I don't think you should let it deter you from watching the show; in fact, you might watch it just to learn how it's informing the discussions on torture.

The fact that the military asked the producers of a TV show to tone anything down illuminates the problem with torture in the first place: it depends upon one person to know when not to cross the line and then not cross it. The interrogator who crosses the line may never even have heard of 24 and I think it's kind of silly to blame a show for any sort of societal problem. And the fact is that if they get the ratings they're not going to change a thing.

The military (and the leaders who influence it) should talk to the interrogators not TV writers. If the person doing the interrogation is unable to tell the difference between the rules of the military and the fiction on "24" then they've got the wrong interrogators and should evaluate their own systems.


blankfist said...

I found it, Crane. Funny.

Steve said...

I'm also a fan of 24. I think the truth of the matter is that with or without 24 there is always going to be an interrogator out there that really just doesnt care how he/she gets their answers. Unfortunately that shit is going to happen. I can't believe that the military actually approached the producers of the show. If this is the case I think we're in bigger trouble than I ever thought. The fact that the military has to ask producers of a tv show to help them control their interrogators is absolutely insane to me. Yeah I get the whole media is powerful bullshit, but really this is scary.

I have a question: Where did all of these stupid people come from?

As for the torture specifically....well I'm definitely not for it, but its a tv show. And a very entertaining one at that. This all sounds like 24 is just an excuse for a bunch of people that are trying to take the attention off of the fact that they might not be very good at their jobs.

And for the record I too watch the show with a tinge of guilt thanks to Mr. Murdoch etc., but I'm not sure I can stop watching. At least not yet.

Brian O'Malley said...

I have to disagree with all of you. 24 is too liberal for me. In my opinion we aren't stiff enough on these towelheads! You asked "Where do all these stupid people come from?" Well I have an answer: the middle east!

JudgeHolden said...

I agree with the thrust of Shawn and Steve's arguments -- I think the Bush administration has done a hell of a lot more than "24" to erode American's rejection of torture during their six year reign. But I think, whatever the cause, there's been an undeniable "normalizing" effect on the populace in regards to torture. I'm sure you all remember the pre-9/11 movie "The Siege" which climaxes when Bruce Willis, who plays a tough, authoritarian general, murders a terrorism suspect after torture didn't work. Fairly shocking back then (not to mention prescient), but I wonder if that scene would have the same impact today as it did back then before Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and a systematic effort on the part of the Bushies to make torture "ok". Cheney and Rumsfeld are responsible for those fiascos, not Surnow.

But I think what may be most troubling about "24" is that, in terms of mass media engaging in the torture debate, "24" is the only game in town. There's no (as far as I know) hyper-realistic show (e.g. "The Wire") that essentially offers an opposing viewpoint to "24"'s fanciful tone. What the question becomes now in light of the New Yorker Surnow profile, is to what extent is "24" shaping public opinion on torture, and to what extent is it merely reflecting it. The article seems to point that, at least in intent, the man behind "24" seeks to shape it.

Craig Moorhead said...

First of all, I waited until today to say Happy Birthday, Crane! There. Now my birthday wishes won't get lost in the shuffle.

You can't ignore the pedigree of the show. No matter how ridiculous it may be to draw correlations between the media and the way people think, you can't ignore that pedigree. And I hate that, because I really like '24'. I must sheepishly admit that I never caught on to this, though now it does seem startlingly clear - Jack has to do some really awful shit, but it's always totally cool because the bad guys are totally bad. So let's cheer him on! He doesn't like that he has to get down and dirty, but thank God there are people like him out there who can do really horrible bodily harm to folks in hopes of getting some info.

Damn. That kinda makes me sick.

Is '24' good enough to continue watching knowing this?

I don't know. Crap.

JudgeHolden said...

Thanks for the b'day wishes, Craig.

And I'm with you on this thing. No matter where you come down on it, this New Yorker article essentially makes watching "24" into a political choice. It's not an innocuous decision like whether or not to watch that rerun of "King of Queens" or "Heroes", it's more like you're weighing in every Monday night in the national debate on torture. Obviously, I don't think it's exactly like that, but if this were just a bunch of irresponsible non-political film-nerd who'd taken the torture thing a little far, that would be one thing, but Surnow believes torture is the right policy for the country, and his show reflects those values.

For instance, I'm not sure if it was last season or the one before that, but in one episode, a representative of Amnesty International (or a facsimile of that group), comes to CTU to keep Bauer from torturing someone who has key information that will save an American city from a nuclear bomb. The Amnesty guy is strident and unpleasant, and all the heroes at CTU have to restrain themselves from torturing him instead. Jack gets to yell at him, which I'm sure was cathartic for the show's right wing audience. I did my part and shouted "Bullshit!" at the TV for all this not-so-subtle agenda-insertion, but I cared more about what was going to happen next than about the "24" writers getting in a stab at a sacred cow of the liberal establishment. But back then I thought that deciding on which political road to take was constant a back and forth between left-wing and right-wing writers on the show, like they say "SNL" is. I don't really believe that anymore.

My point is that, although "24"'s really just a goofy action-adventure show that never lets itself get too bogged down in reality, knowing now what sort of guy Surnow is, and how his politics have informed the plotlines, the context of all that's come before changes quite a bit.

I actually watched most of the two hours of "24" Monday night, and sure enough, there was some more torture in the second hour, though this time it was the bad guys doing it, so in that case it's just titillating, but not making a statement other than wer're no better than the enemy. But next week or the week after, I'm sure Jack will be back at it, and he'll be really upset with himself afterwards for about 1 minute and a half.