We live in the age of the anti-hero. The time of the Constantines, the Punishers, the Dirty Harrys. Webster defines hero as “a person noted or admired for nobility, courage, outstanding achievements”. The picture that you should probably see next to that definition is that of Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) from the television show 24. Jack Bauer lives the story of one man out to save the world (though in this case, the world usually means America).
24 is an action thriller paced in real time (one minute of the show is one minute for the audience), the 24 in question being the number of hours in Jack’s tumultuous day. The show seems to have reinvigorated itself this season. Few cast members returned from last season (of those that survived), most being relegated to recurring characters. For the past three seasons, Jack was a member of the Counter Terrorism Unit, but now he’s assigned to the U.S. Secretary of Defense. With a new president, a new CTU staff, and their requisite stories, there are plenty of new faces to get to know and, as usual, no one is who they seem to be. As an aside, I don’t care what you people say: I like Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub). We all know a Chloe (maybe the source of many people’s dislike of her): a socially awkward (read: clueless), by the book, straight shooter (because she can’t pick up on social cues), who’s brutally efficient at her job.
Sometimes you have to “buy into” some of the story twists (as they sometimes strain the “implausibility meter”, our ability to suspend disbelief). How much bad stuff can possibly happen to one man during one day (never mind that this is the fourth such day)? However, such concessions to narrative are necessary to make the roller coaster effect work. Starting with the kidnaping of the Secretary of Defense, leading into the nuclear reactor meltdown crisis, leading up to the revelation of the true bad guys, this season the show seems to be firing on all cylinders. Previous seasons have been marred by detouring, 3/4 of the way through, into lulls marked by such filler storylines as Jack’s wife getting amnesia (season one) or his daughter being trapped by a cougar (season two).
The show ran into some controversy over its depiction of women and Arab Americans. Kiefer Sutherland even had to break character to give a public service announcement regarding the portrayal of Muslims as terrorists on the show. Assuring the public that 24 was fictional and that Muslim-Americans stand firmly against terrorism, the PSA addressed concerns from the Council on American Islamic Relations, who objected to the depiction of the Araz family on the show. Dina Araz (Shohreh Aghdashloo, House of Sand and Fog) continued the line of evil women in the show. This season we also saw another African American woman scheme her way into power, Marianne Taylor (Aisha Tyler), a combination of reigning villainesses supreme: David Palmer’s former wife Sherry Palmer (Penny Johnson Jerald) and Nina Myers (Sarah Clarke). Women on the show tend to be powerful, like this season’s Erin Driscoll (Alberta Watson) or victims (Jack’s wife, daughter, or love interest du jour).
On the other side of the coin, a reason that they receive so much attention is because bad people are flashy. Being good is often quiet. Being bad not only is more fun for an actor/actress to play, but can be more difficult since they have to imbue their character with something sympathetic for the audience to latch onto. By that same token, it’s rare that women, especially African American women, get opportunities to play strong, complicated characters, good or bad. That being said, the writers for the show aren’t stupid. Though racial stereotypes are indulged on occasion, such as Muslims as terrorists, they are often played against the audience’s expectations. Turning the tables because appearance can often be deceiving.
THE HEROIC JOURNEY
Jack does what it takes to get results, often with a consequence be damned attitude. It helps that he’s conveniently rarely wrong and always seeks to do the right thing. No matter how it looks to his peers and superiors. Not quite overturning tables in the temple, as Jesus did to shock the religious culture, but heroes often upset the entrenched system, the status quo. The “pharisees” of Jack’s world are bureaucrats. Jack has often sacrificed his reputation for the sake of the job, such as in season two when he risked being branded a traitor by the nation for his actions, bringing to mind the image from Hebrew custom of a man having been hung on a tree being seen as under God’s curse. He proved that he was as human as anyone else with his drug addiction during season three that culminated with his death and resurrection.
David Palmer, the president for the previous few seasons, was a different kind of hero. His is the moral hero, as unreal a political hero as Jack is an action one. Read: to good to be true. As his then girlfriend, Anne Packard (Wendy Crewsen) says to him, “you’ve“never been about what’s easy. You’ve been about what’s right.” This being an action show, the political intrigue usually took the back seat (and it’s virtually non-existent this season), but he underwent similar heroic tests. Sometimes this led to political compromises, but morally, he drew the line and stood by his convictions, again, ready to face whatever consequences.
They share many similar traits that make them heroes: noble, trustworthy, loyal, just, and good. A mix of patriotism and professionalism, as they are both true to their country and their jobs. Joseph Campbell, in his landmark work The Hero With a Thousand Faces, outlined the prototypical path of the hero’s mythological adventure. Campbell defines the journey this way: “A hero ventures forth from the world into a region of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Put another way, the essential story, the monomyth, echoes the story of Christ.
We see this pattern--separation (the reluctant hero taken from the world that he knows), initiation (the hero tested), and return (the hero returns as conqueror) in many of our great heroic epics: Luke Skywalker (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, RETURN of the Jedi) and The Lord of the Rings (Fellowship of the Rings, The Two Towers, RETURN of the King). For the hero’s task to be worthy, he must overcome various trials and temptations. The more grand the goal, the greater the difficulties. For the action hero, the challenges are physical (as opposed to the moral challenges that David Palmer had to face). In season one, Jack chased down international war criminals. Season two found him tracking a nuclear device. There was a virus threat in season three. This season, he faces the threat of nuclear reactor meltdowns.24 is not relaxing television, unless your idea of relaxing involves screaming at your television. Sure there are bombings, car chases, and shoot outs, but tension can be found even over a family having breakfast together. In 24, the serial suspense thriller has returned to television in fine form. Though the show is mostly about enjoying the ride, through 24 we’re reminded that there are bad people out there and they can look like anyone. There’s no racial profile for evil. All they need in order to triumph is for good people to do nothing. Being good is more than feeling like you’re good, being good demands action. doing good, doing the right thing, requires sacrifice.