The day Osama bin Laden died, his name was paired once again with the agent whose illustrious career he helped make possible. The Twitter trending-topics list that social-media pulse meter that tracks what people are posting about most often filled up with references to OBL's demise: "Navy Seals," "Abbottabad," "God Bless America." And one more: "Jack Bauer," the counterterrorism ace played by Kiefer Sutherland who foiled attacks in real time on Fox's 24. "Right now," quipped user Nick Schug, "Jack Bauer is washing his hands and changing out of his bloody clothes."
It was a joke, yes, but it was also catharsis. The operation that took out al-Qaeda's leader was satisfying because it matched the retribution scenario you might have scripted in that dark autumn of 2001: The helicopters, the explosions, the villain blazing out with gunfire in his gangsta million-dollar compound. A shot to the head, and roll credits. An era that began with a scene from a Michael Bay movie people running down city streets from a billowing cloud of dust and rubble ended like a season finale of 24. It was a fitting finish to a saga that framed, and was framed by, pop culture.
Bin Laden and 9/11 generally didn't change our culture in the ways predicted. They did not contra a TIME column written after the attacks mean "the end of irony." (If anything, we saw the opposite, from hipsters wearing trucker hats to the passionate ironies of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.) They did not spell the end of gory violence in entertainment, the birth of a postpartisan media or the dawn of West Wing like elevated discourse.
In a way, this stubbornness was the perfect riposte to an extremism driven in part by hatred of the secular West. Pop culture stayed defiantly trashy. Within months of the Twin Towers' falling, America was fascinated by The Osbournes. In 2001 we had the summer of Gary Condit and shark attacks; in 2011 we had the winter of Charlie Sheen's tiger blood.
But American culture still absorbed the new wars, playing them for history, tragedy and farce. The sacrifices of the airline passengers who died in Shanksville, Pa., saving the White House were commemorated in United 93. New York City's ache (and survivors' guilt) over 9/11 was rendered with black-humored bile by Denis Leary's Rescue Me. The decade's greatest sitcom, Arrested Development, was on one level an extended satire of the Iraq war. Cable series from The Shield to Battlestar Galactica handled the wars' dark lessons metaphorically.
The 9/11 attacks didn't create 24; the series pilot was filmed well before Sept. 11. (It premiered that November.) The show ended in 2010, having maybe like bin Laden outlived its relevance. But the terrorism era gave it urgency, made Bauer an icon and drove its story lines deep into America's subconscious. After 9/11, 24 confronted Islamic (and other) extremism and ratcheted up the mass destruction nuke, bio, chemical and otherwise. It posited an agency, the CTU, which never met a threat it couldn't neutralize in a day with a little computer hacking and finger breaking.
The series at times played like an ad for the Rumsfeld School of Enhanced Interrogation. But it was always more complicated than detractors gave it credit for. Season 2 involved a conspiracy to trick the U.S. into a Middle East war on the basis of phony evidence this in early 2003, when Washington could still say the word yellowcake with a straight face. And Bauer, a sorrowful warrior, became regretful about the use of torture in later seasons.
In the end, 24 seduced viewers not with ideology but with competence, which from the phantom WMDs to the Valerie Plame fiasco to Tora Bora real life was not providing in abundance. And Jack Bauer made the fantasy personal. Imagine if a Predator drone had vaporized bin Laden from 10,000 ft. (3,000 m). Sure, it would have been celebrated. But a push-button assassination would not have felt like knowing that one of us was there, in a room, and popped that son of a bitch.
That too was what 24 was about: emotional, not just operational, wish fulfillment. Jack Bauer was personally invested: his wife was murdered by her terrorist kidnappers; his daughter was abducted; he lost friends. He, like his country, was just so damn tired.
The Abbottabad raid, like Bauer's victories, gave us a feeling of agency. But like many reruns, it came with a bittersweet nostalgia. It brought the closure we wanted with the knowledge that we had wanted it a decade before, when you could say the country felt something like a unity of purpose. (This is the same nostalgia Fox's Glenn Beck traded on with his ironically divisive 9/12 Project.)
After bin Laden died, there was that brief feeling of unity again. But now we know how that show ends. Not 24 hours after the news, there was chatter about the attack's effects on the President's re-election and the appropriateness of his speech. There were even theories that the whole thing was faked another resonance with the paranoid 24, where the "dead" regularly returned to life.
Even at this extraordinary time, you could see our eventual return to ordinary form the form the media was in when we busied ourselves with birtherism, royal marriage and celeb meltdowns like cats batting at so many Christmas ornaments. Our news cycle, after all, demands constant distraction. And, like Jack Bauer, every dawn it faces another longest day.