Torture has become a major focus of the debate about 24, so much so that Season 7 of 24 opens with Jack Bauer having to justify himself in front of a Senate committee hearing on torture, after a subpoena that chases him around half of Africa. The entire controversy is more than a little silly at a time in which Dexter, a show which brings new meaning to the word torture, is a critically praised darling. The real objections aren’t to torture on 24, but the perceived politics of torture, namely the idea that 24 supports the Bush Administration’s use of torture, which isn’t torture in the 24 sense and looks nothing like the sort of things Jack or CTU has done to terrorists.
That entire argument is painfully lame, particularly when 24 is then blamed for what goes on at Gitmo. And while Joel Surnow may be a Republican, the rest of the producers and writers certainly aren’t. Nor is Kiefer Sutherland of all people. And the series’ storylines are more Anti-Republican than they are anything else. Season after season has featured storylines that only Sean Penn or a 9/11 truther could love, with shadowy government forces and even the President, staging terrorist attacks in order to justify a war.
Putting that aside though, torture has become more of an issue on 24 itself for all the wrong reasons. In this season and the last, the show’s writers are clearly reacting to criticism of the series. But torture has become a larger factor on the show as the series has begun to run low on ideas.
Torture was always present on 24 as part of a larger background showing that Jack Bauer would break any and all the rules to stop the bad guys. From staging a convenience store robbery in order to delay a terrorist, going rogue, getting addicted to drugs, breaking out a terrorist kingpin, staging an assassination of a Presidential candidate, carjacking, shotgunning a guard dog, staging the killings of family members of a terrorist leader and shooting his own boss, and yes torturing suspects, the message was that Jack Bauer would do anything to get the job done. Torture was just one of the desperate and illegal things Jack Bauer would do while racing the clock. And then the series began to focus on the torture, as it ran out of clever ideas and things for Jack to do while beating the clock.
Torture on 24 isn’t a problem because it’s morally wrong. Or else what would we make of half of what’s on television. It’s a problem because it’s symptomatic of 24’s creative bankruptcy.