New Yorker Profile of “24” Co-Creator

Jane Mayer has written an excellent profile of “24” co-creator and executive producer Joel Surnow. Much of the article focuses on the television show’s depiction of torture and other tactics. Mayer writes,

The show’s appeal, however, lies less in its violence than in its giddily literal rendering of a classic thriller trope: the “ticking time bomb” plot. Each hour-long episode represents an hour in the life of the characters, and every minute that passes onscreen brings the United States a minute closer to doomsday. (Surnow came up with this concept, which he calls the show’s “trick.”) As many as half a dozen interlocking stories unfold simultaneously—frequently on a split screen—and a digital clock appears before and after every commercial break, marking each second with an ominous clang. The result is a riveting sensation of narrative velocity.

. . .

For all its fictional liberties, “24” depicts the fight against Islamist extremism much as the Bush Administration has defined it: as an all-consuming struggle for America’s survival that demands the toughest of tactics. Not long after September 11th, Vice-President Dick Cheney alluded vaguely to the fact that America must begin working through the “dark side” in countering terrorism. On “24,” the dark side is on full view. Surnow, who has jokingly called himself a “right-wing nut job,” shares his show’s hard-line perspective. Speaking of torture, he said, “Isn’t it obvious that if there was a nuke in New York City that was about to blow—or any other city in this country—that, even if you were going to go to jail, it would be the right thing to do?”

The article contains a lot of good material about torture in the real world vs. torture depicted on “24”, but the one frustration with “24” is that it doesn’t ever really go the full mile with Islamist extremism.

In the real world, Islamic terrorists crash planes into buildings or set off suicide bombs as a means to advancing any number of political agendas from creating a world-wide Islamic state to punishing nations that are friendly to Israel.

On “24”, Islamic terrorists carry out terrorist activities almost exclusively when they are manipulated into doing so by rogue elements of the U.S. government or American business.

If “24” ever confronted a plot by far right anti-abortion terrorists like Eric Rudolph, halfway through the series there’d be an episode where it was revealed that behind Rudolph was a rogue element from Planned Parenthood.

“24” confronts terrorism through an Oliver Stone lens where conspiracy layered upon conspiracy effectively diminishes the culpability of the terrorists themselves. This also has the effect of making Jack Bauer’s use of torture even more morally problematic.

Which is not to say that “24” is not highly entertaining, but to the extent that Surnow sees the series as pushing a conservative agenda in the War on Terror, the show is clearly a failure unless all conservatives have left is their devotion to water boarding, extraordinary rendition and other measures which, as experts in the New Yorker article note, are rarely effective in producing reliable information.


Whatever It Takes. Jane Mayer, The New Yorker, February 12, 2007.

Leave a Reply