If you've been following 24 this season (and I certainly hope you have, since it's been such an improvement over last season), you probably saw the Kiefer Sutherland public service announcement that aired during the episode a few weeks back. If you didn't, the gist was thus: "Hi, I'm Kiefer Sutherland, and you may recognize me from playing Jack Bauer on Fox's hit 24, or possibly from Celebrity Justice. You may have noticed that this season's 24 features a Middle-Eastern family bent on destroying America. We at 24 would like to assure everyone that this storyline is not intended to besmirch the good name of America's hard-working citizens of Middle-Eastern descent. Contrariwise, America's Middle-Eastern population is hard working, patriotic, and devoted to their family units, which are hardly ever actually covert terrorist cells bent on mass destruction. So chill out, m'kay? (beat) Are we still rolling? Somebody get me my flask!"
The PSA was a response to harsh criticisms from a variety of groups, which asserted that the storyline would inflame racial tensions and suspicions toward Muslim and Middle-Eastern Americans. Co-creator Joel Surnow spoke to several outlets about the matter, and while he insisted that they were in no way suggesting that all Middle-Easterners or Muslims are terrorists, he told the Observer that, "This is what we fear, Islamic terrorism. This is what we are fighting." In effect, this was a variant on the argument that while Al-Qaeda could theoretically enlist a portly septuagenarian grandma from Idaho to their cause, it makes more sense to focus our security efforts on the demographics that correspond with what we know about the make-up of the other extremist groups in question. While Surnow's comments, taken in context, were not nearly as inflammatory as they've been made out to be in the aftermath, they mainly just stirred the pot and made all the shouting louder.
And so we have Jack Bauer telling us that not all Muslims are crazy-eyed jihadists. And remember, kids, reading is fun-damental!
Then we reached last week's episode. Jack Bauer, cut off from support in the darkened chaos of downtown Los Angeles in the aftermath of an EMP blast. Pursued by highly trained soldiers with orders of to dispense with him with extreme prejudice (no, not that kind of prejudice). Dragging along his girlfriend's British ex-husband, who's having a really bad day what with the torture via table-lamp and whatnot, Jack needs to find someplace to hole up and make his stand. And what should he stumble upon but a gun store run by a pair of Middle-Eastern brothers, bravely defending their little patch of American Capitalism against the looters the darkness has unleashed. After Jack explains the situation, the brothers refuse to flee for the relative safety of Somewhere Else, but instead insist on staying and helping Jack fight off the Bad Guys. After all, explains one of the brothers in a stirring if slightly overwrought manner, it's because of the terrorists that he and his brother have suffered prejudice and suspicion from their fellow citizens, and if they now have the chance to rain some righteous gunfire down on the agents of their oppression, then yippee-ki-yay and pass the ammo.
Now I, brimming with optimism and lacking a single cynical bone in my entire frame, would never be so callous as to suggest that these heroic brothers of Middle-Eastern descent were calculatedly inserted into the storyline solely to retort the accusations of hatemongering. No sir, I have a little more faith in the honesty, decency, and general straight-shooter-ness of Hollywood, my friends.
At any rate, it doesn't really matter to me whether or not the gang from 24 are now altering the course of their storytelling just to save face. I'm more interested in the big question here, which is: what are the responsibilities of a writer, in any medium, toward his audience?
Let's say that the writing staff had everything laid out from the get-go: the family terrorist cell; Dina turning against her husband to protect the life of her son; the eventual introduction of the heroic, gun-toting brothers. And let's ignore for the moment the fact that the show is broadcast on network television, and therefore has to worry about cheesing off the advertisers. Purely from a storytelling standpoint, what is the duty of the writers when tackling as muddled and controversial a subject as this? Is their duty to write whatever they want, audience reaction and any tangential results of the storyline be damned? Is their duty to whitewash and second-guess, to try to find a way to tell an exciting, engaging story while simultaneously dodging anything that might potentially offend?
I think the writer's two most important responsibilities are 1) to tell a damn good story and 2) to tell it honestly. This doesn't mean you can't bend nature or history or even the laws of physics to suit your needs...hell, that's part and parcel of what writing is. Writers are liars by nature, and the best writers can spin lies that live well nigh forever. Even stories based on real events take license with the facts, cutting, pasting, and deleting as needed to shape "this is the way it happened" into "this is the way it could have happened." The honesty part means honesty within the context of the story: that they play fair with the reader; that they don't violate any of the rules they establish; that they don't "cheat." The best writers also play fair when it comes to viewpoints opposing their own. It's easy to set up a weak-minded, stereotypical straw man for the hero to philosophically steamroll; it's a lot trickier to take a diametrically opposed charactereven one the writer would hate in real lifeand portray him as a real, flesh-and-blood, three-dimensional person, whose beliefs are strongly held for deep personal reasons, not merely because it's convenient. So, whether we lived in a world where no Middle-Easterners are terrorists or where every Middle-Easterner is a terrorist, that should have no bearing on whether, within the world of 24, there exists a Middle-Eastern family that is operating as a terrorist cell. Reality isn't the point; in Jack Bauer's world, this is the way things are.
The question then becomes, are the writers being fair within the context of their story? Well, consider the villains in question. Are the writers portraying them honestly or are they little more than cardboard props used to advance the storyline? I've been watching all season, and I've yet to see any of them twirl their mustache or cackle maniacally (although Behrooz did consider tying a blonde girl to the tracks in front of an oncoming train at one point, but he was foiled by Constable Benton Frasier of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police). They have been portrayed as layered, complicated, occasionally contradictory human beings who are doing terrible things in the name of a cause they believe is larger and more important than the lives in the balance. Behrooz is devoted to the cause primarily out of a desire to please his father, but he seems like he'd be much more content to be downloading MP3s and hanging out with his girlfriend. When he realizes that not only is his father willing to sacrifice him for the cause, but that nothing he ever does will be enough to impress his sire, he pops a cap in pop's ass. Dina is fiercely loyal to their cause, but even more fiercely loyal to saving her son. As she told Jack, she is cooperating with CTU solely for Behrooz's sake, and if Behrooz dies, she has no qualms about letting the reactors melt down. Even father Navi, closest of the family to fitting the unredeemable villain archetype, is portrayed in shades of gray. He believes in the cause above all else, even above the lives of his family, but that doesn't mean he doesn't love them. Just because he's a bad father, that doesn't mean we can ignore those aspects of his character.
Good writers know that two keys to writing believable characters are that 1) every character in the story believes they are the main character, and 2) no one ever believes that they are evil. Even Hitler, at his core, must have thought he was right and everyone else was wrong. If 24 had offered up a family that was evil simply for the sake of being evil, like the monstrous Japanese or German caricatures from World War II propaganda posters, then the writers would have betrayed their duty to both themselves and their audience. Whatever narrative sins the 24 writing staff may have committed, they have given honesty its due by not writing in black and white, but in the shades of gray that make up real life.
But that's just my opinion. What do you think? Drop me a line at the new email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) and let me know your thoughts about how 24 has handled this issue. Depending on the size of the response, I may run the best replies in a future column. Now let's move on to less weighty matters...
The Week Rerun
They Should Rename That Place St. Bauer of the Cliffhanger Memorial Hospital And speaking of 24, what's up with every dead character from that series popping up as a patient over on HOUSE? A few weeks back, Jack's dead wife showed up as a crazed homeless woman, and then last week we had the villainous and now deceased Nina Myers herself as a successful businesswoman in need of a heart transplant. Forget that whole theory that the island in LOST is actually Purgatory; if there's a Purgatory on television, it's Dr. House's hospital.
Next Up, Michael Clarke Duncan Guests as a Crime Boss With a Fondness for White Suits - Okay, I was only kidding with all the DAREDEVIL jokes about BLIND JUSTICE last column. I didn't really think the show was ripping off the popular Marvel comic based on the exploits of a blind Hell's Kitchen lawyer. But when you go and pull something like having Dunbar stand in the rain so the sound of falling raindrops briefly allows him to "see", I have to wonder. I mean, if you're going to borrow from DAREDEVIL, the rooftop-in-the-rain sequence is a nice one to borrow, but Ben Affleck got to see Jennifer Garner's lovely mug, whereas Dunbar just got to see a bunch of trees. And that's just sad.
THE SHIELD Heads Due South - Forget Glen Close. The much more exciting addition to the Barn on last week's SHIELD season premiere was none other than Detective Ray Vecchio (David Marciano), late of DUE SOUTH. This is phase two of the Great DUE SOUTH Cast Comeback, initially launched with the appearance of Vecchio-replacement Stanley Raymond Kowalski (Callum Keith Rennie) as Scruffy Blonde Cylon (as opposed to Hot Blonde Cylon, Distinguished-Looking Cylon, and Asian Cylon That Doesn't Know She's a Cylon) on BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. At this rate, I expect Constable Benton Frasier to pop up on DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES any week now.
The Lawyer With No Name - How much fun did I have watching last week's BOSTON LEGAL, which featured Alan Shore jetting to Texas to save an innocent man from execution, all to the tune of a rousing spaghetti-western soundtrack? Not nearly as much as all involved appear to have had making it. (Even if it did make everyone in my home state look like a gaggle of slope-browed, execution-happy assholes. But then so does every other show.) Seriously, this is most entertaining David E. Kelley show in years, even without Shatner. And it introduced the term "serial intercourser" into my vocabulary, for which I will always be grateful. So what brought you the televisual joy this week? Drop me a line at email@example.com. Keep your head and hands inside the television, folks...
MONDAY, MARCH 21
SOMEWHERE IN TIME (7 PM CST, WE) The movie that taught us never to carry pocket change when time-traveling.
24 (8 PM CST, Fox) Dina cuts a deal to see Behrooz, and the conspiracy enters its next phase, involving an Air Force pilot.
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (8 PM CST, USA) The original and still the best.
JEFF FOXWORTHY ROAST (8:30 PM CST, Comedy Central) If you are excited about this, you might be a redneck.
MEDIUM (9 PM CST, NBC) "I Married a Mind Reader." You and me both, buddy.
CSI: MIAMI (9 PM CST, CBS) "Game Over." Wheeled-board manipulator extraordinaire Tony Hawk guests as--wait for it--an extreme skateboarder whose death in a car accident turns out to be murder most foul.
TUESDAY, MARCH 22
HOUSE (8 PM CST, Fox) "Mob Rules." House is puzzled by the condition of a mobster who collapses before he can enter Witness Protection. Also, House's tricks last week with the transplant committee come back to haunt him. Not literally. That'd be a bit too KINGDOM HOSPITAL for our tastes.
FLETCH (8 PM CST, Spike) Maybe one of these days Kevin Smith will finally get around to making FLETCH WON, but in the meantime stick with this one and avoid the sequel.
BLIND JUSTICE (9 PM CST, ABC) "Rub a Tub Tub." Dunbar and company investigate the professional murder of a police detective. If there's a paperclip in his windpipe, it was Bullseye.
THE SHIELD (9 PM CST, FX) "Grave." Mackey hunts for a missing teen, but the trail leads to a shoot-out. Doesn't it always?
HOUSE OF THE DEAD (10:45, Showtime) Watch and marvel that Uwe Boll is still allowed to make movies.
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 23
THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (7 PM CST, TCM) During an experiment involving teleportation, a U.S. Naval vessel is catapulted through time. No, wait, that was the Philadelphia Experiment.
MYTHBUSTERS (8 PM CST, Discovery) Ever wondered what the quickest way to cool a six-pack of beer is? Adam and Jamie are at your service.
THE WEST WING (8 PM CST, NBC) "In God We Trust." Forget all this election falderal; the real question is, could any of these candidates take down an Air Force One takeover like Harrison Ford?
ALIAS (8 PM CST, ABC) "The Orphan." Via flashback, we learn about Nadia's background. Turns out she was actually conceived by Rambaldi-designed midichlorians.
CSI: NY (9 PM CST, CBS) "The Dove Commission." Why do we scream at each other? This is what it sounds like when Dove Commissions cry.
THE LOST BOYS (10 PM CST, Sci-Fi) Before he was Jack Bauer, Kiefer Sutherland was vampirically menacing Corey Haim, and before he nearly killed the BATMAN franchise for all time, Joel Schumacher was making this.
THURSDAY, MARCH 24
THE O.C. (7 PM CST, Fox) "The Brothers Grim." Not to be confused with upcoming Terry Gilliam film THE BROTHERS GRIMM, assuming that one dodges the Gilliam curse and ever actually sees the inside of a movie theater.
POINT PLEASANT (8 PM CST, Fox) "Waking the Dead." I'm not saying this show has jumped the shark, but the description of tonight's episode does include the phrase "demon hot rod." I'm just saying.
THE OFFICE (8:30 PM CST, NBC) Will it be as good as the original? (Almost certainly not.) Will it be better than NBC's version of COUPLING? (God, I hope so.) It does at least have the Steve Carell-factor working in its favor, so fingers crossed.
MAKING OF 'THE RING TWO' (9:45 PST, HBO) Yes, do explain the mechanics of making an unnecessary sequel, please do.
FRIDAY, MARCH 25
DEMOLITION MAN (6 PM CST, Starz) Hey, at least it's better than JUDGE DREDD.
STARGATE SG-1 (7 PM CST, Sci-Fi) "Moebius, Part Two." It's alternate timeline shenanigans a-go-go as season eight wraps up. (Season finale)
KOJAK (7 PM CST, USA) Ving Rhames updates the role that made Telly Savalas synonymous with lollipops.
MEDICAL INVESTIGATION (8 PM CST, NBC) "Mission La Roca." Not to be confused with the episode where they treat an ailing DAILY SHOW correspondent. That'd be "Mission Mo Rocca." (Season finale)
STARGATE ATLANTIS (8:00 PM CST, Sci-Fi) "The Siege, Part Two." Weir's plans to evacuate the city in advance of the Wraith invasion are thrown for a loop thanks to the meddlesome Col. Everett. (Season finale)
LAW & ORDER: TRIAL BY JURY (9 PM CST, NBC) "Baby Boom." Clearly this spin-off isn't as timely as the rest of the franchise, since tonight's episode is about a nanny prosecuted for killing a toddler by shaking, and that's so 1990s.
BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (9:00 PM CST, Sci-Fi) "Kobol's Last Gleaming, Part One." Geez, are we already down to the last two episodes? Why can't a show this good have a 22-episode run like network fare? At any rate, tonight Boomer may have stumbled upon mythical Kobol.
X2: X-MEN UNITED (9 PM CST, Cinemax) I still want to know what genius was responsible for that lame subtitle.
SATURDAY, MARCH 26
STAR WARS: CLONE WARS (7 PM CST, Cartoon Network) Catch all five episodes of the new season back-to-back. Then mourn the fact that they're better than any live-action STAR WARS since the original trilogy.
NERO WOLFE (7 PM CST, Biography) "Immune to Murder." Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton as Rex Stout's infamous orchid-lovin' shut-in detective and his right-hand man, Archie Goodwin.
ALIEN APOCALYPSE (8 PM CST, Sci-Fi) Bruce Campbell alert! The Chin himself stars as an astronaut who returns from a years-long mission to find the earth enslaved by aliens. At which point, presumably, he unpacks his boom-stick and kicks some ass.
SNOW WHITE: A TALE OF TERROR (10:45 PM CST, IFC) Sigourney Weaver is delightfully wicked in this decidedly Grimm version of the classic tale.
SUNDAY, MARCH 27
THE SHADOW (6 PM CST, Sci-Fi) I've always thought this adaptation of the classic pulp hero got an unfairly bad rap. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the flick that follows at eight.
MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE (6:30 PM CST, Fox) "Chad's Sleepover." Dewey's pal and sleepover guest unleashes chaos in his wake. (In that house, how could you tell?)
ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (7:30 PM CST, Fox) "Sword of Destiny." Ben Stiller guests as a magician that Gob and Buster manage to impress, despite Gob's near-superhuman lack of skill as an illusionist.
LAW & ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT (8 PM CST, NBC) "Shibboleth." You know, if the serial-killer-to-citizen ratio were as high in real life as it is in TV drama, we'd all be in deep yogurt.
DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES (8 PM CST, ABC) "The Ladies Who Lunch." The neighborhood lady of ill repute is both busted and loose-lipped (get your mind out of the gutter), which should mean trouble for Bree's masochistic hubby.
THE PHANTOM (8 PM CST, Sci-Fi) Seriously, dude, you're a jungle-based hero. And you dress in bright purple? What would Edna Mode say?
DEADWOOD (8 PM CST, HBO) "Requiem for a Gleet." Al goes under the knife. And in the 1800s, that can't be a good thing.
GREY'S ANATOMY (9 PM CST, ABC) "A Hard Day's Night." You know what we need? Another medical drama. Say, lookie there!
CARNIVALE (9 PM CST, HBO) "New Canaan, CA." How will it all end? I'm betting a quote from Kosh might be appropriate: "In fire."
MAKING OF 'SIN CITY' (10 PM CST, Sci-Fi) Can't wait for this. The movie, not the making-of special.
ROBOT CHICKEN (10:30 PM CST, Cartoon Network) "Vegetable F." From the twisted mind of Seth "Oz" Green, the most fun you can have with action figures.
This concludes our broadcast.