Tuned In

Bringing the Pain to 24's Torturers

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Thought-provoking piece by the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer about 24 and its use of torture. Some military officials, she reports, including the dean of West Point, are so concerned about the show’s outlandish use of torture that they recently appealed to the producers to change it. And if you’d like to judge your torture and watch it too, you can see Mayer analyze some choice 24 scenes here:

I’ve held forth on the show’s terror politics before, but here’s a few of the thoughts this article provoked from me:

1. Do our political labels mean anything anymore? Think about it: what would you have said, ten years ago, had someone told you that progressives (the vocal, if not the only, critics of the administration’s terror-fighting tactics) would be applauding a group of military officials for trying to change the message of a popular TV program?

2. It’s definitely disturbing to hear about military students citing 24 as an example of when it’s permissable to torture. I’m not convinced that that means the show is that effective as propaganda, though. First, isn’t the onus on military leaders to find students who can tell the difference between life and a loud, dumb TV show? Second, and more seriously, there’s a chicken-and-egg question. People who are disposed to break the laws of war are going to look for narratives that support their worldview, like 24. That’s not the same as saying that 24 created their worldview: I’d be a teensy bit more concerned, say, about the vice president–the actual real person, not played by Powers Boothe–saying that we need to go to “the dark side” to defeat the bad guys.

3. There’s a mention in the article of the recent statement by the Parents Television Council complaining of the number of torture scenes in the show. I got that press release a while ago, and my first reaction was, another genius move by the PTC-it only took them five and a half years to realize that 24 is not appropriate for children. But there may be more to this. The PTC has certainly criticized violence in TV before. But I wonder if they’ve savvily realized that–with the Democrats on the rise–they’ll get farther in the current political climate with anti-violence rather than anti-sex campaigns. (The former being liberals’ preferred arena of meddling in pop culture, the latter being conservatives’.)

4. All that said, should 24 dial back on the torture? I think it should, if not for political or national security reasons. The producers should do it because the constant, over-the-top torture scenes are making the show ridiculous. The show repeats itself too much as it is–the Treason-Against-the-President story, the Lure-the-Feds-to-the-Exploding-House gambit. Overusing what is supposed to be an extreme and horrifying image turns the show’s shock into shtick. Give the hypodermics and cordless drills a rest for a while, guys; watching a great entertainment turn into self-parody is like getting bamboo shoots stuck under your fingernails. Oops. I probably shouldn’t give them any more ideas.