The Evolution of Jack Bauer

As the war on terrorism has grown more complicated, so has the conservatives' favorite thriller, 24

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Kelsey McNeal / Fox

Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer in the sixth season of "24"

Last June in Washington, the conservative Heritage Foundation held a forum on terrorism with a panel of august authorities. There was Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff. There was a pair of think-tank terrorism experts. And naturally, there were Chloe, Tony and the evil President from 24.

The panel--"24 and America's Image in Fighting Terrorism: Fact, Fiction or Does It Matter?"--was not exactly Foreign Affairs journal material. Moderator Rush Limbaugh planted a full-on mouth kiss on actress Mary Lynn Rajskub (a.k.a. tech geek Chloe), and actors and producers took softball questions as audience members cheered what Limbaugh called the show's "pro-America" stance. (Among the crowd were pundit Laura Ingraham and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.) The weird spectacle put a point on a raging question in pop culture: Is 24 just a TV show or right-wing propaganda? Or, to turn Jack Bauer's frequent refrain on him: Who are you working for?

Certainly 24, which debuted just weeks after 9/11 and returns Jan. 14, comes as close as anything has to being the Official Cultural Product of the War on Terrorism. Co-creator Joel Surnow is a rare Hollywood Republican, and John McCain has done a cameo. Dick Cheney is a big fan too, and you can understand the Administration's wanting to associate itself with Bauer's badass competence. (He nabs nuclear masterminds; we get Jose Padilla.) Most damningly to critics on the left, Bauer's means of gathering intel (grab terrorist's finger, snap, repeat) make 24 a weekly rationalization of the "ticking time bomb" defense of torture.

So is 24 a conservative show? Yes, in the sense that the thriller is a conservative genre. Ticking time bombs and pure-evil bad guys make for exciting TV. Working patiently to improve America's image in the Muslim world--not so much. (Maybe Aaron Sorkin could spice it up with an office romance and lots of walk-and-talks.) Muddy a terrorism thriller with liberal concern over root causes and you get Syriana, whose plot audiences couldn't follow with a GPS device. "The politics of the show," says executive producer Howard Gordon (a registered Democrat), "are narrative politics."

But beyond that, things get more complicated. As the war has dragged on and become less black-and-white, so has 24. In 2003 it featured a conspiracy to provoke a Middle East invasion using bogus WMD evidence. (Yellowcake, anyone?) Last year's villain was the President, who had his predecessor assassinated. In the new season, a string of suicide bombings has led, chillingly, to federal "detention centers" for Muslims, much like in the liberal pre-9/11 movie The Siege.

Then there's Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), who has seen his wife killed, executed an innocent man to stop an attack, tortured people (sometimes mistakenly), been tortured and spent two years in a Chinese prison. Unlike James Bond, who just gets younger and tougher, by the new season Bauer is tired, disillusioned and wondering how much longer he can fight the Long War. His scars are not only physical; his work has cost him relationships and perhaps some part of his humanity. He has been changed and damaged by every compromise he has had to make. By extension, he forces us to ask if we have too.

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