Jane Mayer on 24 in the New Yorker (via zp, chuck) is a Fast Food Nation for liberal TV junkies. Those Chicken McNuggets might be delectable, but the conditions of their creation would make any sensible person think twice before dunking them in honey, and their consumption exacts an unreasonable cost. Mayer's piece subtly makes the case that the brain behind 24, Joel Surnow, is a wingnut, and that U.S. military personnel who watch the show model themselves on Jack Bauer, the heroic torturer. Every sentence of Mayer's piece seems designed to make any leftish 24 viewer blush a little redder. Nice Jewish boy...raising his three kids Catholic. Calls his show "the Hollywood television annex to the White House." Buddies with Limbaugh and Coulter...wants to rehabilitate the good name of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Thanks to Surnow, everyone in the U.S. military wants to be like Jack Bauer and extract vital info from terrorists by injecting mysterious pain-inducing drugs that get carted around in a silver suitcase. I made up the last bit but you get the idea. It's a right-wing show having a right-wing effect. No surprises there, just occasion for a gut check. But what makes 24 so popular among liberals? Everyone I know seems to watch and like it, and my peeps are hardly the magnetic yellow ribbon crowd. Here are some thoughts on why, as Mayer notes, the show is popular with folks like Barbara Streisand and Bill Clinton.

-We like it for the narrative conceit and the suspense, and in spite of the politics (or without much reflection on the show's message). This is me, sometimes. Other times I find the narrative conceit tiresome, the situations excessively contrived, and the suspense cheap and repetitive. I always have the sense that they're making it up as they go along (which is the problem with Lost for me too) and I hate having that sense--I like to feel I can trust my TV storytellers. When I'm bored by the narrative conceit (or find it excessively familiar now in season 6), not gripped by the suspense, and attentive to the right-wingness of it all, why do I continue to watch?

-We like it as a wish fulfillment: if only the war on terror were being fought by people like Jack, a courageous hunk with a preternatural pain threshhold and a perfect moral compass. In other words, we oppose the "war on terror" as framed by the Bushies but wouldn't mind a war on terror carried out by the likes of Jack and Chloe and President Palmer. This is a suspended-disbelief stance that allows for enjoyment without endorsement. This stance describes me too, sometimes. More often I feel that it may be wish fulfillment for others, but it's worst-fear fulfillment for me. Maybe there is a masochistic pleasure in realizing your worst fears, a kind of thrill you get from entertaining a paranoid fantasy.

-We use it as cultural slumming. Many leftish sorts (like my brother) apparently like to listen to conservative talk radio, too, not to hear their opinions voiced but for that "can you believe he said that?!?" feeling. For a sense of moral superiority. And to know what they other side says so that we can beat them in arguments. I don't like right-wing talk radio, but I do sometimes find the politics of 24 fascinating in a freakshow sort of way. Other times, it just leaves me aghast and I say, no more! Then, this season, I keep watching.


Heather Havrilesky, funny as ever, compares Jack's torture methods with childbirth and praises the show for jumping the shark. It's not a bug, it's a feature! I love.

Nikki Finke wants to organize a boycott. Do these things ever work?

Jennifer Holt's In Media Res entry offers a vid clip and commentary. She says she would argue that the notion that the show is right-wing is too simplistic but doesn't make the argument. Jennifer: I want to know!


Yahoo News.

24 Bingo.

"The Orwellian Ideology of 24", a slightly overheated essay by Matt McCaffrey, who says that the show's politics "almost makes [him] want to root for the bad guys."


zoe p. said...

That's a smart response, to ask why liberals watch it.

I've got no leads, though. I'm still watching X-Files. I'd like to see more discussion of the pilot episode of The Lone Gunman, the X-Files spinoff series, myself.

zoe p. said...

Oh, nevermind. I've got an answer.

Wish fulfillment is headed in the right wrong direction.

Liberals watch it because it allows them to feel like - even knowing what they do about the US torture policies and practices - they don't need to anything to prevent torture, that deep down, it's necessary.

I'm desperately afraid that deep down, it's that simple, and that sad.

Jim Donahue said...

I only started watching this season. (Yes, late to the table.)

I was enthralled, I admit, but that New Yorker piece made me stop watching the show. It really turned my stomach and made me rethink the torture-as-entertainment angle.