5 on 24, Pt 4: Bring the Pain

A five-part video essay about the real-time action series
by Aaron Aradillas and Matt Zoller Seitz  posted May 21, 2010
Email  |  Print  
A  A  A

The May 24 finale of the political-action series 24 marks the end of one of the most stylistically fresh and politically controversial programs in broadcast TV history. The video essay series 5 on 24 examines various aspects of the show, including its real-time structure, its depiction of torture, and the psychology of its hero, counterterrorist agent Jack Bauer. To view part 1, click here; part 2, click here; part 3, click here; and part 5, click here.

The following video essay takes place in real time.

Torture scenes have been around as long as cinema. They're food for the reptilian brain—a means of letting us safely confront our fear of prolonged, excruciating pain, while serving as shorthand for the villain's diabolical cruelty

But after the Supreme Court's Miranda ruling held that suspects had to be advised of their rights prior to questioning, left and right-wing philosophies started fighting it out on movie screens. Representatives of law and order were shown harassing and abusing suspects to get information. When so-called good guys started to torture villains—or just plain suspects—we were put in the uneasy position of wondering whether it was permissible to commit evil in order to prevent it.

Generally speaking, if a villain did it, it was evil. But if a hero did it, it was necessary roughness.

Post-9/11, the concept of "civil liberties" jockeyed for supremacy in a traumatized nation more inclined to err on the side of caution. Caution meant torture. 24 used torture as both plot device and a way to make audiences momentarily consider real-world consequences of the Bush administration's new edicts. 

Until fairly late in the show's run, Jack never got off on torture. It was the sole, poisoned arrow in his archer's quiver—a weapon of last resort to be hauled out when there was no other practical choice, and he and the country needed information RIGHT NOW.

24 didn't approve of torture per se, but falls in the post-1970s tradition of thrillers and action films starring heroes whose actions were politically incorrect, even disturbing, but within the context of the story, never wrong.

There were times, however, when 24 dropped its veneer of being impervious to complaints, and confronted the ethics of torture head-on.

But not for long. Jack was the good guy, our stand-in. Seeing him suffer made us want revenge.  And if there was one thing 24 was always exceptionally good at, it was giving the audience what it wanted.

But sometimes it's better to deny that satisfaction. Three Kings shows how to do it. Like 24, it's a wild military action thriller tethered to recent history. But unlike 24, it goes the extra mile in forcing you to see the world through foreign eyes. 


Fighting Words

Fighting Words
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 12, 2014

Fighting Words, Part 2

Fighting Words, Part 2
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 20, 2014

On the Margins: The Films of Patrick Lung Kong

On the Margins: The Fil…
by Andrew Chan
posted August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: A Sense of Wonder

Robin Williams: A Sense…
by David Schwartz
posted August 12, 2014

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Kiefer Sutherland in 24


San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, the founder and publisher of Rockcritics.com and the host of “Back by Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.

More articles by Aaron Aradillas

Matt Zoller Seitz is a writer and filmmaker whose debut feature, the romantic comedy Home, is available through Netflix and Amazon. His writing on film and television has appeared in The New York Times, New York Press, and The Star Ledger, among other places. He is also the founder of The House Next Door, a movie and TV criticism website.

More articles by Matt Zoller Seitz
Author's Website: The House Next Door