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24’s Five Most Subversive Messages

February 6, 2007

24Jack’s back, and as usual, there is a lot of noise about people who want to get publicity by being offended to be offended by the show.

The other day, one of my offspring caught me watching it, and had a little hissy fit about the show helping keep the public in a state of fear by making terrorism seem likely.

Other popular complaints seem to be the promotion of violence, the unlikely invulnerability of the main character, or targeting specific minority groups.

Fair ’nuff.

Of course, it seems that the people who keep the climate of fear stoked mostly work the news desk and capital hill (or Boston city government, these days).

The show is certainly violent, but you’ve got to target your demographic, and frankly, males 18 – “still breathing” like watching stuff getting blown up; if you want to target a different demographic, bring back “Touched by an Angel”.

Is Jack doing a Superman turn? Of course — on the other hand, action shows whose charismatic main characters get permanently “killed to death” don’t go on much further.

Does the show target minorities? Somewhat, particularly as the “small bad”, but the minority in question changes a lot from season to season (Central American, Eastern European, Russian, Turkish, and corrupt US officials, to name a few).

So, the show does all of these (for the sake of argument) crappy things — if there’s an audience for it, someone will do a show that appeals to them.

The more interesting question is once you get past the superficial hook to get an audience sitting in front of it, what messages does the show actually tell?

24’s messages have gotten increasingly “subversive” over its lifespan, and interestingly, often run quite a bit counter to what it’s usually accused of.

  1. Just because I’m from the Government doesn’t mean I’m here to help you — or even have your best interests at heart — The government doesn’t get off easy in 24. We’ve had weasily Presidents who are actually supplying terrorists. We’ve had senior military people trying to keep the public panicked. We’ve had any number of middling to high level officials screwing everybody to line their pockets.
  2. “I’m just following orders” isn’t much of a defense — Blind obedience to authority is almost always the hallmark of “bad guys” in the show; having an innate sense of right and wrong and listening to it almost always turns out to be the right thing to do.
  3. Just because I hate what you stand for doesn’t mean I won’t help you — Early suspects, ideological enemies and “profiled” minority individuals often turn out to be ready to step up and do the right thing once they find someone who’s willing to listen to them.
  4. Just because you love me doesn’t mean you should automatically trust me — Partners, long-time coworkers, and family members aren’t always who (or what) they seem to be. Judge people by their actions, not by who you want them to be.
  5. Sometimes you have to make tough choices — Taking (what appears to be) the easy way out doesn’t always (or often) work out for the best.

All in all, not a terrible set of messages to be sending, and at least a little more comprehensive than American Idol’s “life lesson” (don’t humiliate yourself just to get on TV).

Of course, 24 could lose the violence, terrorism, superhero main characters and just preach the “good stuff”, but who would they preach it to?

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