24 had a strong claim to be the defining American TV show of the last decade, mirroring the anxieties and fantasies of the society that produced it in a way that wasn’t always flattering or appealing. Even after the show left behind its sprightly early seasons in favour of a slow, turgid decline into unimaginative repetition, livened up by the occasional bright spot (such as Gregory Itzin’s memorable performance as the slippery President Charles Logan), it still maintained a looming presence in popular consciousness, thanks to the continuing appeal of its seemingly indestructible star; the icon of American manliness that was Jack Bauer.
Even as the show went through the increasingly tired and illogical motions of manufactured suspense and convoluted scheming, Canadian actor Kiefer Sutherland managed to imbue his character with a certain tortured, charismatic intensity that anchored the insanity swirling around him every season. The very name of Bauer became shorthand for steely competence and daredevil heroism. The viral recognition of the character has only recently begun to be edged out by the memetic popularity of Liam Neeson’s avenging father character in the otherwise average action film Taken (perhaps itself another grisly snapshot of the boiling, buried desires of modern manhood).
There has to be more to Jack Bauer’s swollen fame, enough to keep a show recycling itself through eight long seasons, than his sheer raw awesomeness, even though he had that in abundance. After all, what earns something the vague, subjective moniker of “awesome?” TV shows, movies, and their stand-out characters tend to boost themselves to iconic status by capturing a zeitgeist, splashing the dreads and cravings of a generation across the glowing screen for audiences to gawp at with primal recognition. And what is Jack Bauer but a hyperactive, hyper-competent, sadomasochistic ideal of the modern Western/American man, stretched out to lunatic, unapproachable extremes?
From his earliest appearance as a highly-trained and skilled, yet mortal, counter-terrorist agent, Bauer was quickly promoted to somewhere between force of nature and Angel of Death. In a given season he would distinguish himself by remaining wide awake for a 24-hour period, maintaining his blinding intuition and laser-like focus until the final credits rolled (except when the plot needed him to make a mistake or get screwed over, of course). He was the ultimate man of action, always able to see the path to the next plot-point with ruthless focus, while the clueless bureaucrats he constantly upstaged blundered around with their feeble “protocols” and “rules”. As well as intelligent, he was also physically powerful, racking up mammoth body-counts with lethal precision. And he never flinched from ever more gruelling acts of torture, which was always portrayed as a grim necessity for swift and easy information extraction, objected to only by the feeble-witted (at least when the heroes did it).
So far, the fantasy has been fairly obvious and unoriginal. Bauer is an everyman’s Total Recall-type dream of being a super agent, swapping out contemporary fears and weaknesses for unflappable strengths. Instead of swarming doubts and uncertainties about the future, there is pinpoint certainty, constant motion from one evolving crisis to the next, not a minute of the day lost to frailty or confusion or ennui, work ethic escalating to some sort of gun-toting apotheosis. Instead of suffocating social norms and endless red tape, there is direct, vigorous action and cathartic yet totally justifiable violence. Instead of a mix of never-ending foreign wars that bleed American youth for unclear future rewards, and thankless unglamorous behind-the-scenes investigation stretching across decades, there is rapid progress, excitement, a compelling narrative that races through an epic cat-and-mouse game of Good versus Evil with the swift and obvious rewards of survival, victory, righteous vengeance, with fresh battles and triumphs emerging with every passing hour.
But there are two striking aspects to the fantasy that weirdly derail the adrenaline rush. Something that always struck me about Bauer’s infamous abilities as arch-torturer was how often he was captured and tortured himself. The dynamic, hyper-mobile man of action found himself helpless, vulnerable, and trapped on a regular basis, his iron flesh wracked with horrible suffering by some gloating enemy before he inevitably seized the opportunity to deal out some violent payback. By around 24’s sixth season, he was basically an automaton trapped in a cycle of pain and brutality, making mountains of corpses and torturing multiple people while being repeatedly battered and betrayed from all sides, only to have fresh terrorist gangs and arch-villains come clambering out of the woodwork. There was no sense that Bauer was finding any sort of gratification or fulfilment, not even grim satisfaction at squashing evil or pride and relief in having kept civilians safe. There was only endless, aching misery.
Similarly, the power fantasy never had a proper coda, a personal element of triumph or reward after desperate struggle, such as might be found with similar hyper-masculine icons like James Bond. Forget parades of enthusiastic love interests (Bauer’s handful of paramours usually end up alienated or dead), forget respect and recognition by a frequently inept government. The man barely gets a proper rest, finishing nearly every season bereaved, exiled, imprisoned or just physically and mentally devastated. Part of this might be the American tradition of the wandering loner hero, like Shane or John Wayne in The Searchers, rugged and unsettled. Another part might be the general air of pessimism and gloom that hovered over a lot of the popular entertainment of the Noughties, and still lingers on in the likes of the tragic masculinity of Breaking Bad. And part of it just might be seething cultural dread, post-action hero exhaustion, and the unattainable cult of hyper-masculinity mashed together and revved to a logical conclusion as a 24-episode death march, where endlessly expendable male bodies are savaged by exhaustion and chewed up the twin engines of relentless toil and vindictive violence. The seedier aspects of a standard cinematic power fantasy are on full display, but the glossy sheen, the smug one-liners and the trauma-free coda are all absent. For such a conservatively mainstream show, the quasi-realistic emphasis on the cost of an endless appetite for violence is almost respectably subversive, celebrating male heroism and undermining it with male horror at the same time. At the end of the day, Bauer was someone to be cheered on from a distance, but never truly identified with, his overblown world of constant apocalypse clearly a place we were supposed to be glad isn’t real. It was a blunt, probably unintentional statement of the sheer inadequacy of drawing our ideas of the Ultimate Male from the lurid obsessions of pop culture.
Of course, then Spartacus: Blood and Sand popped up, grinning like a maniac, and made overblown hyper-masculinity glamorous and cool again. But that’s another story.