Counter Terrorism Unit agent Jack Bauer has a tough life: one fall day six months after seeing his wife murdered on the same day he barely managed to rescue his daughter from a gang of Serbian terrorists, he’s taken a leave of absence from his job, grown a scraggly beard, and fallen into a deep depression. Then, a few minutes after 8:00a.m., he gets a call from newly elected President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), a man whose life he saved the same fateful day. Palmer delivers shocking news: Middle Eastern terrorists have planted a nuclear bomb somewhere in Los Angeles and it will go off in a few hours. Palmer, it goes without saying, wants Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) to save the city.
That’s how the second season of Fox’s "24" (on tonight at 8:00p.m. Eastern Time) begins. During its first season, "24" probably has gained the most notoriety for its central gimmick: each of the show’s 24 episodes takes place in real time and covers an hour of the day. What seemed fresh last season probably won’t amaze many viewers this time around. But the show’s intense drama, better-than-average writing, and great acting will draw viewers in nonetheless (so far, "24" has drawn bigger audiences than any other drama on Fox). And intense is the right word for "24": Before the clock hits 9:00a.m. in the first hour-long episode, Bauer has committed a cold-blooded murder, clueless Kim has gotten into a car chase, and Palmer has let his political ruthlessness shine through. In the final analysis "24" is not exactly a conservative show—its politics don’t really fit into any neat ideological box—but it still stands out for its utter rejection of political correctness on ethnic issues and realistic, hard-nosed view of the moral compromises needed to fight the war on terror.
Producers Robert Cochran and Joel Surnow have created a show that avoids Hollywood’s politically correct desire to avoid offending protected minority groups. Haysbert (best known for the forgettable Major League movies)—creates one of the best realized black characters on T.V. Except on a few shows with all-black or nearly-all-black casts, hypersensitivity about being "racist" means that today’s television shows present very few multi-dimensional African-American characters. A handful of recent television shows include black villains but sympathetic black characters are almost invariably too sympathetic: Good, kind, and noble in every way. Talented actors like Avery Brooks, ("A Man Called Hawk," "Deep Space Nine"), CCH Pounder ("E.R."), an even James Earl Jones (does anyone remember "Under One Roof?") have a hard time finding good television work because Hollywood’s powers that be can’t imagine giving a sympathetic black character any major flaws. Palmer—every inch a President—has them by the boatload. He’s willing to behave with utter ruthlessness when it serves his interests, remained in a loveless marriage with a Hillary Clinton-type schemer (unseen thus far this season), and neglected his family life. But, because he fights terrorists, stands up to street thugs, and loves his children, he’s still someone the audience can cheer on.
While the show portrays him as a Democrat, Palmer is no pansy. During the first episode of this season’s "24," he restates the Bush Doctrine and promises to overthrow regimes that harbor terrorists particularly one in an unnamed Middle Eastern Country. Since September 11, most popular entertainments have steered clear of the central fact of the War on Terror: We are fighting it against Arabs committed to an extreme Jihadist ideology. (Last season’s "24"—which dealt with Serbian terrorists--was conceived and partly filmed prior to September 11.) But this season’s "24" deals with a fictional Middle Eastern Group called "Second Wave" which is an obvious stand-in for Al-Queda. The producers even show a conversation between Palmer and a Tariq Aziz look-alike in the country-that-is-not-named.
Looking at the show’s first few episodes, one might reach the same conclusion as New York Times T.V. critic Caryn James who liked "24" but called it the television equivalent of a popcorn movie. When a viewer sees the show’s non-stop action, credibility-bending plot twists, and ever growing body count (last season, characters typically lasted four episodes before being called home), James appears to have a point. Behind all this sound and furry, however, "24" has an important underlying theme: fighting terrorists sometimes requires moral compromises. Many on the Left and more than a few on the Right fail to understand that it’s impossible to fight terror without, perhaps, killing a few innocents or making a few moral compromises. During the first season, every character—even sympathetic ones like Bauer and Palmer—took morally questionable actions. This season, Bauer has already shot a handcuffed man, (albeit a pedophile stool-pigeon) and brought his head—literally-- to a group of terrorist collaborators. And he’s the good guy. But this sort of action—messy as it is--underlines the fundamentally disordered nature of a conflict with a faceless, hidden, irrational enemy. In providing this insight alone, "24" offers something more than just a mindless entertainment. And, anyway, it’s damn good television.