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On Air: Jack Bauer

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Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer.

Gun playa: Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer strikes some as quick on the draw. Others think we need a few more like him. Kelsey McNeal, FOX hide caption

toggle caption Kelsey McNeal, FOX

Here it is: The one you've been waiting for since, oh, at least Jan. 14.

NPR's homeland security correspondent Pam Fessler, who usually covers real-world developments in national security, goes digging for answers about why 24's corner-cutting patriot Jack Bauer inspires fanboy crushes on both ends of the political spectrum. (You gotta wonder what it is about a serial torturer, however fictional, whose admirers include both an ACLU mucky-muck and the boss-man at the DHS.)

Fessler, being an actual reporter, gets both men on tape — we critics, having been diligent English Lit students, tend to just riff on what we think the likely answers are — and also talks with civilian fan Stephanie "Melia" Romanski of and 24 co-creator Bob Cochran.

And with an assist from Fessler's producer, Felix Contreras, I've put a handful of Season 3 clips on the page for you.




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I had no idea Chertoff was a fan until I heard this feature piece today.

/Hehe. "Civilian fan." I'm so stealing that title.

Sent by Melia | 6:32 PM | 3-17-2008

How very sad and a very sad statement of our culture. I started to watch one episode of 24 the first season and was horrified at the glorification of violence. I banned the show from my home.

I want a hero that uses peaceful means to lift us up, not a one dimensional tough guy. If this is what we call a hero, we are doomed to continue to to create enemies in order to flex our muscles and show how "bad" we are in a fight. We have a phony macho guy at the top and see where that got us...more death and destruction and the literal and moral bankrupting of our nation.

It is time to reject this jingoistic, militaristic, might-is-right romantic notion of strength. Strength through Peace means we learn new ways of dealing with conflict and find ways of stopping conflict before it gets to a violent stage. Until we make peace a real priority for our hearts, homes, our communities, our country and the world, we will continue to feed the fire of violence.

We need to teach non-violence and communication from birth and make it the guiding prinicple of our nation. We need a United States Department of Peace. Call congress and tell them to support HR 808. We are the ones we have been waiting for. Be the change you wish to see in the world.

Sent by Jean Paskalides | 8:18 PM | 3-17-2008

In every episode of "24," Jack Bauer whittles away at the notion of our American freedom to live in safe and secure communities where our neighbors are treated both fairly and humanely. The only thing Jack's character is uncompromising on is his writers' conservative world view of fear as an instrument of governance.

The storyline routinely reinforces the un-American notion of a unitary executive that George Washington rejected, when he declined the colonies' coronation of him as king. Washington reinforced the notion of a strong empathetic community, when he embraced our three co-equal branch form of government. Who is the check on Jack Bauer?

Sent by Chuck | 10:52 PM | 3-17-2008

In the run-up to the War of Independence, the colonial Pennsylvania Assembly warned: "Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."

And today, we go about dealing with our enemies the same mistaken way the Redcoats dealt with us--full frontal assault. I'm not sure which sickens me more; the way media glorifies this strategy through comic book serials like "24", or discovering who are amongst the show's avid viewers.

It's time for America to regain its composure over the 9/11 attacks. Time to stiffen our upper lips and take a more stoic approach. The collateral damage our reckless "Charge of the Light Brigade" has inflicted on our standing in the world arena is significant but not irreparable.

The entire Free World awaits our return to our collective senses. We're better than this, and certainly anything that the small-minded producers of "24" can conjur up. Bravo to the head of West Point for taking them to task!

Sent by David S. | 3:42 AM | 3-18-2008

As a political moderate. As anti-war and pro social can I possibly be a fan of 24 and Jack Bauer?


I've actually experienced the show and have been an avid viewer from Day 1.

I haven't built my opinion of the show or the character based purely on media 'sound bites' nor which celebrity and politician watches the show. (btw, there 'are' fans on both sides of the aisle. When you have Barbara Streisand and Rush Limbaugh as fans you have to be doing something else than espousing only to right-wing fear mongering - but I digress)

In my opinion 24 is a story of responsibility and self sacrifice and the struggle to do the right thing. The hero is flawed for sure. He represents in many ways a good guy that is forced into unimaginable circumstances and is left to carry the weight of those decisions solely on his own shoulders. He doesn't seek out scapegoats or shrink in the face of adversity. He is the modern day cowboy. The white hat that at times dons the black hat to get the job done. He is every shade of gray just as real life is. It is good, old-fashion entertainment. It's after all a TV show that many seem intent on hi-jacking for pushing political agendas. And that's what I find is really sad.

For me what 24 does not do is glorify glorify war, torture or violence. Far, far from it imo.

Instead it is a story of one man's journey. A man haunted by the past and personal failures yet driven to persevere to do the right thing, to save others, serve the people and perhaps somewhere down deep redeem or save himself. He is non-compromising and willing to sacrifice his life in order to save others. He is a complex character with complex emotions and motivations. He's also fictional - a fact that seems lost at times.

However what the character of Jack Bauer is not is a comic book war-mongering zealot.

If anything 24 and Jack Bauer is a glorification of the ability to overcome great adversity. For those that watch there can be no doubt that there are immense personal costs that play out every season.

The other misconception I read often surrounds terrorism and terrorists as a means to excuse real world policies. Yet in the series these serve merely as background plot devices for the storytelling and relationships of the characters personal struggles.

With the real baddies often being our own government or corporations. The 'terrorists' are often secondary to the bigger political and financial conspiracies found within 24. Yet this is often overlooked for the more simple tho latch on to terrorist angle.

Yet the fact is, the fictional Jack Bauer has fought against the U.S. government and corporations more often through the seasons than terrorist groups. Jack Bauer has been at odds with the Governmental and shadow government war mongers itching to go to war or blindly retaliating against alleged terrorist sponsoring countries. Jack Bauer has brought down a corrupt President and it's administration. And for his relentless pursuit of right he has been targeted by his own government to be killed, tortured and abandoned for dead on more than one occasion to protect their corrupt policies.

Which is a really long winded way of saying that those who so freely characterize 24 as nothing more than right-wing propaganda must have never 'really watched' the show in the first place.

Sent by Jordan | 2:09 PM | 3-18-2008

Thank you very much for your balanced look at the Emmy-winning show 24. It so happens to be my favorite show and I am always amazed at the creativity of the team that continues to crank out those thrilling episodes one after the other.

Following Jack Bauer over the past 6 years, the one thing we know about him is that he is willing to do what it takes to fulfill his oath to defend the American citizen from terrorist attack at some great cost to his own life. He is a fictionalized character and thankfully none of the horrible catastrophic threats exist in our country today, but whether you agree or disagree with his methods, it definitely causes you to think about these situations for the man, the country, the enemy and for the things that people in that line of work could be called upon to do in similar circumstances to protect the innocent from harm.

Your In Character team really put together a good group of people to interview for this broadcast from Chertoff to Cochran to Steinhardt to Romanski. They all have their opinions of what might work, what might not work and what shouldn't work in real life situations, but all enjoy the thrill of watching Jack Bauer struggle to complete his mission hour after hour.

Sent by Carolyn | 8:59 PM | 3-18-2008

I really wonder if many of the people who lament "24" have ever spent much time watching the show. The central characters --- particularly Jack Bauer --- are far more complex and nuanced than those of most feature films.

The character of Jack Bauer is a complex, tragic figure. Yes, Bauer is portrayed as perpetrating outrages, but they are not gratuitous. Far from a "one-dimensional zealot," we see in Bauer a dark, tormented man who takes full responsibility for every action.

Without question, many of the the action portrayed on "24" are extreme. But "24" is drama, and character driven drama at that. The story forces Bauer to choose not between right and wrong but from a limited list of awful alternatives. The story can become shocking, but isn't that the point of good drama? Many times, in the midst of action that literally has me on the edge of my seat, I've found myself wondering, "How would anyone choose? What would *I* do?"

I find it odd to read critiques that suggest "24" extols a centralized and over-powerful government. Throughout the series, Bauer and his few allies are fighting just that kind of power clique. Often, he's got to defend himself from corrupt and cynical government agents of the country he's struggling to defend. In truth, "24" shows the dangers of a secretive, clique-ridden government. This is hardly a "right-wing" viewpoint.

One definition of the formula for drama runs: "Push the hero into the woods. Chase the hero up a tree. Then throw rocks at the hero." Drama *is* intrinsically exaggerated. It's a mistake to assume that a work of fiction endorses actions and viewpoints of its central character.

If there's one central question that "24" raises, I'd say it's this: what would *you* do to save what you hold dear? If a story that explores that question makes you uncomfortable, it's doing what it should.

Sent by Tim Cole | 12:46 AM | 3-19-2008

I've never watched this show, and after this piece, I'm going to keep it that way. If your representation of Jack Bauer is correct, I'll take "Jericho"'s Robert Hawkins over him anyday.

For one thing, Hawkins realizes that torture "only works in movies," and provides unreliable information. He seems much more ethical, too, while kicking a-- just as effectively when necessary.

Meanwhile, reluctant Sheriff Jake Green on "Jericho" is a bit of a hothead, like Bauer, but he's much more interested in keeping the peace and finding nonviolent ways to achieve his goals, wherever possible. Both men strike me as eminently more likeable and realistic than what you told us about Bauer. Long live "Jericho!"

Sent by Karen Weber | 12:55 PM | 3-19-2008

Perhaps there are others who experience a sense of alienation when reading the commentary that appears here about 24. I have watched a few installments of this series, finding that it is suspenseful and brings forth some competent acting, but my reaction differs sharply with most of what I see in this commentary and, I must conclude, it differs with the majority of people, considering the popularity of the show.

The lack of credibility of the scripts is one of its most salient flaws. In these stories, people, machinery and weaponry appear and disappear at will, instantly transported as in science fiction movies, with no realistic treatment of the logistics involved. Dead corpses simply vanish with no further mention. We are expected to believe that a sitting president of the United States is removed from office and detained instantly on the say-so of a minor employee in a security agency. No hearings take place, no testimony required, no impeachment: he is simply whisked away, presumably to some form of arrest. A well-equipped clandestine illegitimate army appears, having formed right under the noses of the CIA and FBI, not to mention state and local law enforcement. The army is populated by an unknown number of traitorous thugs who are willing to kill any citizen at the command of some unknown person without question, as if they are unthinking automatons. Every other character presented is likely to be a traitorous conspirator. Jack Bauer has a techno-buddy who can magically accomplish any eavesdropping, satellite tracking and information gathering, always in the nick of time. (Perhaps viewers identify with Chloe as they click away at their keyboards all day.) The nonsense goes on and on. This kind of fantasy is acceptable in science fiction, because the settings remind us continuously that there is no connection with reality. It is honest. In a production that purports to reflect possible real events, it is illegitimate and irresponsible.

I do not know the history of the character Jack Bauer because I have seen only a few episodes, but in recent shows he appears to be a vicious killer who somehow got placed in an official role of some sort. If he was not in that role, I hesitate to think what he would do if unleashed on society at large. I know some will argue that his excesses are justified by his circumstances, but those circumstances are largely an unrealistic fabrication as described above.

In sum 24 is a cheap, juvenile fantasy created to give the viewer a justification for experiencing the vicarious thrill of having a license to kill. It is an irresponsible exploitation of the fear and outrage that people have concerning terrorism and the fascination that the public has for conspiracies. It very disturbing that 24 gets any traction at all.

Every assault, rape, fraud, murder, atrocity of any sort began as an idea in someone's head. So did every hospital, bridge, medical breakthrough and scientific and technological discovery. Ideas are the most powerful things in our world. Choose ideas carefully.

Sent by Neil Cadotte | 11:53 PM | 3-19-2008

The combination of the original posting and the comments so far takes me to this observation: there is a LOT of energy spent on refuting the show creators' assertion that the show is "fantasy, not reality". And where that is not being refuted, there's so often the bit of telling someone else that they should be responsible for the quality of our fantasy. What's up with that?

Smearing the line between "vicarious experience" and "consumption" is what commercial TV is often all about, and "24" is exemplary in that regard. But that makes it all the more important that viewers learn to say "I'm not buying it" and move on, instead of complaining that someone else's fantasy doesn't fit their ethics.

Does that mean we have no obligation to hold storytellers responsible for the impact of their ideas? Well, of course not. Instead, it means that we have to actually understand their ideas. The amazing thing about "24" is how much it remains coherent amidst the daring degree of complexity it constantly cultivates. The show is not written for people who do not like complexity. And it hangs its complexity -- its Big Idea -- on an archetype: not the "Superhero", but the "Hero".

Superheroes, by definition, cannot really get hurt by sticking to their convictions. Heroes stick to their convictions already knowing that they are in harm's way, and knowing that it's really gonna hurt if they aren't lucky.

To show this, the writers keep Jack front and center, of course. But in the end there are two great characteristics of "24". One is that, good guy OR BAD guy may you be, your heroism has very little about it that is comfortable. Alot of heroes on "24" are not named Jack.

The other is that as long as we don't really know if or when Jack dies, then ironically we're tempted to think that he's a superhero, and (precisely because the show is a renewing tv series and not a movie or book) the plots keep drawing their terrific energy from working against that and reminding us that he probably isn't super.

Sent by Malcolm Ryder | 12:45 PM | 3-20-2008

Coming from a moderate political perspective, I have felt increasingly disenfranchised by the extremists who have dominated both political parties in recent years. It is disappointing to observe the spillover into '24,' a show I have watched since the first episode. As it has increasingly become a lightning rod, factions from both extremes have attempted to use the show to support their own personal/political views.

In a February 14, 2006 'Time' magazine essay, James Poniewozik gave, in my opinion, the best summary of the politics of the show:

"24 has always been both gung-ho and paranoid, in a way that would hearten both neocons and dissenters -- and, if they're honest with themselves, give pause to both. If it has a consistent philosophy, it is to confront us with the limitations of our beliefs -- authoritarian or libertarian -- and the ugly consequences of taking them to their extremes."

I would also respectfully, but still vehemently, disagree with a comment from someone who admits to having seen little of the show but who cites examples of the show's unrealistic plotting and then states, "This kind of fantasy is acceptable in science fiction, because the settings remind us continuously that there is no connection with reality. It is honest. In a production that purports to reflect possible real events, it is illegitimate and irresponsible."

I would assert that science fiction is not and should not be the sole purview for fantastical elements. It is also a disservice to the audience to assume and assert they are incapable of discerning unreality solely because the setting may be uncomfortably familiar.

The fact that a network television show entering its 7th season, when the overwhelming majority of shows have long since been canceled or have faded from the pop culture forefront, continues to draw such attention is simple testament to its success, complexity and significance.

Sent by Margaret Phillips | 5:02 PM | 3-22-2008

Judging from some of the comments here, it's clear that many of these commenters haven't bothered watching the show.

As for the comment about "We need a United States Department of Peace" - now who's living in a fantasy world?

It would be wonderful if the world was filled with sweet, gentle, reasonable people. Unfortunately, it is not. This idea that we can just smile and talk our way through every conflict is not based in reality. It's just as much a make-believe world as the one portrayed in '24'.

And actually, the '24' universe is a bit more based in reality, as it makes clear that there are bad, evil people in the world, and those people need to be stopped - whatever the cost.

This is something that the 'let's all just hug each other' crowd refuses to grasp, to the detriment of us all.

Oh, for a hundred real-life Jack Bauers!

Sent by Mo | 8:02 PM | 3-24-2008