Well, 24 has returned, with a vengeance. The controversial hit TV series, one of the key shows of the past decade, is proving relevant in this decade, too. As recent polling clearly shows, it turns out that its hardball ethos on terrorism resonates just as well in the Obama Era as it did in the Bush/Cheney years.
I'll get to the very recent Gallup polls -- which indicate that the 24 ethos is majority sentiment in America -- in a moment.
24 premiered in the fall of 2001, a time which serendipitously made it very of the moment in the wake of 9/11. Its innovative "real-time" experiment -- the show's conceit is that each episode equates to an hour in the latest very bad day of ace counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer, well played in brooding anti-heroic fashion as always by Kiefer Sutherland -- still works. The show attracted critical acclaim and big audiences, though the viewer increasingly had to suspend disbelief at outlandish plots. After sweeping the big Emmy Awards in its fifth season, the show sagged badly in its sixth outing before recovering somewhat last year. (It essentially lost a year to the writers' strike.)
24 launched its new eighth season like a rocket with a four-hour premiere over Sunday and Monday nights. If anything, it's more topical now than it was in its first season, which saw Bauer protecting the first black presidential candidate with a serious chance of winning (a basketball-playing Democratic senator from the heartland, no less).
This time out, the intrigue centers around an impending peace plan with a Middle Eastern leader whose country had been pursuing a nuclear program. The head of a fictional "Islamic republic," no, it's not Iran but sounds more than a bit like it, complete with a Revolutionary Guards corps, has come to the United Nations not to denounce America but to finalize a deal renouncing his country's nuclear weapons ambitions and support for terrorist groups.
Other changes include most of the cast. Only technowiz Chloe O'Brian, played with an amusingly acerbic edge by Mary Lynn Rajskub, and Bauer have remained lead characters in the show for many seasons.
Past mainstays such as President David Palmer, played with calm authority by Dennis Haysbert (the first black television president), and early Bauer rival-turned-friend-turned-tragic figure Tony Almeida, portrayed by Carlos Bernard, are gone. Palmer the assassination victim of a right-wing conspiracy and Almeida, well, we don't yet know what ended up happening to him.
But disgraced ex-President Charles Logan will be back. Gregory Itzin, Emmy-nominated for his Nixonesque role, will come in late in the game this season to counsel President Allison Taylor on the intrigue, as he is a master intriguer. The Taylor character returns from last season. She's played by Cherry Jones, who won the Emmy for best supporting actress in the role. Bob Gunton, who played Taylor's chief of staff last season, is now her secretary of state.
Aside from them -- and one other about whom there's more in a moment -- it's a new cast. Bollywood icon Anil Kapoor (Slumdog Millionaire) plays the Islamic republic's president Omar Hassan. Katee Sackhoff, butt-kicking fighter pilot Starbuck on Battlestar Galatica, doesn't do the obvious in playing Bauer's new partner but instead is the Counter Terrorism Unit's information systems chief with a secret. Freddie Prinze Jr. (yes, really!) is CTU's top agent, credibly. Mykelti Williamson portrays the less than capable head of CTU and Chris Diamantopoulos plays a decidedly Rahm Emanuel-like White House chief of staff. Jurgen Prochnow plays the head of a Russian crime syndicate. And there's an intriguing addition for Mad Men fans, as Jon Hamm's longtime companion Jennifer Westfeldt plays a journalist with at least one very interesting connection.
The other big holdover from last season is Renee Walker, played by Annie Wersching, a sympathetic FBI agent who was increasingly drawn to the Baueresqe dark side, so much so that she ended by nearly torturing to death the season's hidden Big Bad, a string-pulling conservative behind a Blackwater-like security outfit.
Her character's genesis came as last season began by dealing with the controversy over the show's incessant use of torture as a means of gaining information (and an easy plot device). It was an internal debate on the show with the Renee Walker character as its arbiter. Increasingly, she leaned on the side of extreme tactics, till at the end she out-Bauered Bauer.
This season, there's no debate, loaded or otherwise. Though she is back in emotionally scarred form, having suffered a breakdown after her session torturing the last season's ultimate villain. At the end of the four-hour season premiere, she is back in the game, infiltrating the Russian mob, which has a large role in the nefarious events thusfar, horrifying even Bauer by how far she is willing to go.
While most Americans probably wouldn't go that far, very recent polling by the Gallup organization indicates that majority sentiment is largely in the Jack Bauer camp when it comes to the threat of terrorism.
Americans widely endorse the use of profiling to single out airline passengers for more intensive security searches before they board U.S. flights, based on their age, ethnicity, or gender. Seventy-one percent are in favor of this practice and 27% are opposed.
The attempt has renewed debate over the use of profiling on the basis that terrorists generally have certain shared characteristics. The practice is used in Israel, a country noted for its tight airport security, but not in the United States. Two common objections to its use in the U.S. are the potential violation of individual civil liberties and unequal treatment for members of certain groups.
The poll results suggest that Americans seem to give greater weight to protecting citizens against possible terrorism than to protecting against potential violations of individual liberties.
The largest difference in support for profiling among key attitudinal or demographic subgroups is seen by political ideology. Eighty-three percent of self-identified conservatives favor the use of profiling, compared with 47% of liberals. At 70%, moderates are much closer to conservatives than to liberals in their views.
Apart from liberals, other subgroups show majority support for profiling, although the level of that support does vary. For example, 87% of senior citizens (those aged 65 and older) favor the use of profiling, compared with 56% of young adults (aged 18 to 29).
Profiling of airline passengers to zero in on those who more closely approximate the profile of past terrorists is favored by Democrats, 59% to 39%; independents, 70% to 26%; and Republicans, 87% to 13%.
Greater profiling is backed by moderates, 70% to 29%; and conservatives, 83% to 15%. Liberals narrowly oppose it, 49% to 47%.
This is what I expected, writing on my blog New West Notes after the barely foiled 12/25 attack.
Something that some activists who criticize the Obama Administration for not having yet closed the infamous prison at Guantanamo Bay need to look at.
As I've said before, torture is a lot more popular than many would like to think.
Which is probably why Congress isn't helping Obama close the place. And that is putting it mildly. The Senate is actively blocking his bid to move prisoners to Illinois.
According to a new Gallup Poll ... Americans remain opposed to closing the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba and moving some of the terrorist suspects being held there to U.S. prisons: 30% favor such actions, while 64% do not. These attitudes could present a significant roadblock for President Obama at a time when he seeks congressional approval to move terrorist suspects from Guantanamo to a converted state prison in northwestern Illinois. ...
At the end of May, it was 65-32 opposed to Gitmo's closing.
President Obama signed an executive order after his inauguration that called for the closing of Guantanamo, and he recently reiterated his commitment to doing this in his West Point speech on Afghanistan. The plans announced this week represent the first concrete effort to follow through on his promise, but occur in the context of continuing opposition from the American public. About two-thirds of Americans in the Nov. 20-22 poll oppose such a move, virtually the same as measured last May.
An additional political challenge for Obama is the fact that he lacks strong support among rank-and-file Democrats as well. Half of Democrats agree that the Guantanamo Bay prison should be closed and some prisoners moved to the U.S., while 45% disagree. Twenty-eight percent of independents favor the prison closure. These partisan breaks are similar to what Gallup found in May.
Only 8% of Republicans favor Obama's policy.
The regional breakdowns are the same across the country, with the West as opposed to closing Gitmo as the South.
After this season, 24 will be the longest-running American espionage series in television history. (Britain's excellent Spooks -- which carries the more PC title of MI-5 in America -- has run for eight seasons but the seasons are much shorter. Like 24, it has had increasingly far-fetched plots, though it's still well-done.)
But it looks like 24's influence is more than merely cinematic. Or perhaps it only reflects popular opinion. Whether one likes it or not -- to borrow a phrase -- think of America as 24 nation.