John Rash: Fox’s Jack Bauer may be too tough for tough times

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 29, 2010 - 6:57 PM
Monday, Sept. 10, 2001, was the first day of the new fall television season. As usual, most new shows were escapist entertainment. But reflective of a nation enjoying peace and prosperity -- the war in Kosovo had wound down, while the economy was wound up -- the new season featured an escapist inversion, with three new series about the CIA: CBS's "The Agency," ABC's "Alias," and Fox's "24."

All three networks had apparently surmised that viewers would seek out international intrigue in order to balance their domestic tranquility.

The next day, Tuesday, Sept. 11 ... well, we all know.

After weeks of 9/11 coverage -- a television testament to truth being stranger than fiction -- the shows went on.

From the start, "24" was distinctive in tone and technique as it tracked in real time the day of rogue agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland).

Most striking was how "24" characterized what would be soon called the "war on terror," perfectly capturing the Bush administration's "you're either with us or against us" worldview. Moral ambiguity wasn't Jack's strong suit, either. Tough tactics -- including torture -- were standard, as agent Bauer's ticking watch didn't save time for the Geneva Conventions, let alone Miranda rights.

For this, Bauer became a rare pop culture folk hero for conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh. But his appeal wasn't limited to red states -- "24" was an instant hit nationwide.

Eventually, more questioned the message being sent, and "24" smartly reflected this in its plot line. Bauer was taken to task for his methods. But in the end, he always found a way to save the day (in a day).

But now TV terrorists can breathe a little easier. On Friday, Fox canceled "24" due to declining ratings.

In one sense, the show's demise could be interpreted as Americans tuning out of the war on terror. But as Monday's suicide bombings in Russia indicate, the war is not over. And polls indicate that, hidden behind health care, one of the reasons for U.S. Sen. Scott Brown's stunning victory in Massachusetts was his Baueresque attitude toward "enhanced interrogation techniques."

Instead, "24" fell victim to another escapism inversion. Tough times have many turning toward reality.

No, not real reality, like actually following the complexities the CIA faces by watching PBS's "Frontline" or "Newshour." But reality TV, be it "American Idol" or "Jersey Shore."

Social scientists are continually looking for leading indicators of the American mood. Maybe they should study next year's fall lineup.

JOHN RASH

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