Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Heart of Darkness
(Warning to 24 fans--this post contains spoilers for last night's episode. Read at your own risk.)

In the last two weeks, 24 has become the darkest, grimmest program ever to appear on American television. (Not counting any randomly selected hour of any randomly selected day on any randomly selected news channel since 2001.) This season's major plot involves terrorists from a former Soviet republic launching nerve-gas attacks around Los Angeles--and in last week's episode, they hit the headquarters of CTU, the terrorist-fighting organization and home of special agent/killing machine Jack Bauer. Last week's ep ended with the shocking death of communications analyst Edgar Stiles and 40 percent of the people who work in the CTU building; last night's ended with the equally shocking deaths of agency chief Lynn McGill and ex-agent Tony Almeida, whose wife, ex-agent Michelle Dessler, had been shockingly killed in the season's first episode, approximately 14 hours ago in the show's "real time." You can't be squeamish about death if you watch 24. But even hardened fans have to be wondering how much further into darkness the show can go without actually starting to kill random viewers at home.

It's not just the deaths of characters we know. It's the whole vibe the show has been putting off for the last few weeks. There's a developing sense that something unspeakably horrific is going to happen before the season is over, something that will dwarf the horrific events we've already witnessed. The show's vice president, a Cheneyesque presence, is manipulating the panicked, out-of-his-depth president into--what? Martial law in Los Angeles at least, but what else?

Fans of the show will note that we've got this impending feeling of spiraling horror in past seasons, and the writers haven't always delivered. (Last year's fizzle of a nuclear-missile attack on Los Angeles springs to mind.) But leaving that possibility aside for a moment--as works of art will do, 24 reflects the times in which we live. Last season's story put torture front and center, and made viewers confront it at the precise moment it was in the news. This season, we're watching a president who likes the trappings of office and the appearance of being president, but who is eager to take advice, even bad advice, if it spares him from making the hard choices that come with the trappings of office.

We don't know if this is happening in our real-world White House. He Who Shall Not Be Named seems less like someone actively seeking to avoid difficult decisions, and more like someone who has no grasp of how to prioritize his job, and is therefore the tool of people who know how he should prioritize his job. And it occurs to me that reading the news everyday gives me a tingle of horrific anticipation not unlike the one I get watching 24. There's a growing sense, as I watch the administration assert its power and the Congress roll over with its legs in the air, that we too are headed for something that's much, much worse than what we've seen so far. And despite HWSNBN's 36 percent approval ratings, we and he are one terrorist attack away from being back in the 90s--and probably one terrorist attack away from a scenario that makes martial law on the streets of Los Angeles sound like a lark from the good old days.

Cosmetics: I am still seeking your opinions on the new look. At the suggestion of reader j, I tweaked the font to make it a bit easier to read. How do you like it otherwise?

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