Time was when the bad guys on TV were the interesting ones. The good guys were generally stolid and relentlessly pure-hearted sorts, always moping about their kidnapped girlfriends or how they were gonna defuse that darn bomb before it blew up a hospital full of blond children with tragic diseases. The bad guys, by contrast, were zestfully and sometimes even kinkily sadistic; they liked to set orphans on fire, gun down defenseless old ladies, kick puppies in the teeth and all that, and the more evil they got, the more we loved to hate them for it. Maybe the good guy drank a little too much or he had a pet chimp or something, but that was probably about as interesting as he got. With the bad guys, it was whips, chains, anything goes.
Well, obviously, a lot's changed since then. While TV has always had its share of antiheroes, they've never been as shockingly antiheroic as they are today. On shows such as 24, Battlestar Galacticaand Lost, the heroes tie people to chairs and do absolutely ghastly things to them, stuff that probably would've made the TV villains of old feel sick. Just the other week, Jack Bauer cut off a Russian guy's freaking finger in order to get him to talk . . . and Jack was letting the guy off easy! Heck, Jack's done worse shit than that before his morning coffee.
Post 9/11, post Abu Ghraib, torture hasn't just become commonplace in TV drama; we are now routinely asked to sympathize with, to identify with, the torturers rather than the tortured. Last month, The New Yorker published Jane Mayer's profile of 24's producers, in which she presented a persuasive-sounding case that 24 is essentially propaganda for the Neocon agenda. That article touched off a score of copycat pieces in print and online, all of them arguing that 24 and other TV shows featuring scenes of dudes getting their nipples electrocuted serve to desensitize us all to the true evil (and ultimate ineffectiveness) of torture, inflame anti-American sentiment abroad and inspire our own interrogators to new depths of sadism. As a granola-eating, tree-hugging, Bush-hating pinko who is also a big fan of 24, Battlestar Galactica and Lost, such articles gave me real pause . . . for about 20 seconds, until I realized that blaming 24 for the Lynndie Englands of the world is a lot like blaming Taxi Driver for John Hinkley busting a cap in Ronald Reagan's ass.
See, the thing is, if you actually watch these shows, torture is seldom glamorized. It doesn't look like fun, and half the time, everybody—torturer, victim and horrified bystander alike—ends up sweaty, shivering and fighting tears. I think of the recent 24 episode in which Jack tortured his own asshole brother, administering a series of agonizing injections and trying to play it tough, only to finally end up cradling his brother's head and begging him to just tell the truth and put an end to this horror show. Even if the shows stack the deck so the torture seems arguably justified within the context of the story—We need that intel in thenext 45 seconds, Jack, or the terrorists are gonna blow up the president, your daughter and El Segundo!—there's usually a bleeding heart on the scene to argue that the torture is a terrible idea, and often they're ultimately proven right. Sure, sometimes the torture victim actually coughs up some life-saving information, but almost as frequently it turns out the supposed CTU mole was innocent of any wrongdoing, and they've just been put through absolute hell for no good reason at all.
Frankly, I have a hard time grasping how anybody could seriously take these shows for right-wing propaganda. Lost's politics are ultimately beyond guessing, like everything else about this maddening series (if people stranded on a tropical island are torturing an American redneck in order to get him to give up the location of a dying girl's asthma medicine, what the heck does that tell us about current geopolitics?), while Galactica makes a merry game of portraying the humans as America and the Cylons as the terrorists for a while, only to abruptly switch it around now and again until you hardly know who you're rooting for anymore. 24 is a tricky case: co-creator Joel Surnow is a notorious Republican swine and has repeatedly claimed the show is an endorsement of Bush's policies. But show runner Howard Gordon is a registered Democrat, and I would argue that his politics ultimately come through a lot louder in 24 than Surnow's. Let us remember that this is a show that has featured a conspiracy to kick off a bloody war in the Middle East based on trumped-up WMDs, sympathetic Muslims randomly rounded up into nightmarish detention camps, and two rather strenuously noble, African-American, Democrat presidents endlessly beset by sweaty, scheming little Republican honkies. This sounds less like Neocon drum-beating than a Noam Chomsky fever dream. If Bush actually enjoys watching this stuff, it only confirms that the man has the self-awareness of the average budgie.
If 24 is giving our own interrogators ideas, that is indeed a tragedy. But you can't blame Surnow or Gordon for that. You can, however, blame an administration that sponsors the real, live, actual torture of human beings, basically handing a bunch of young Americans some pliers and telling them to get medieval on the ass of anybody we suspect is maybe our enemy. In that sort of leadership void, is it any wonder these kids are going to be looking for a hero, and finding one in the brave man who tortures people on TV? What do they care that Jack is a genuinely tragic character, whose bloody, thankless job has cost him his family, his soul and his very reason for living? When you know you have to get up tomorrow morning at 0600 and torture somebody, it must be strangely reassuring to watch Jack check his humanity at the door, square his shoulders, get into the face of some desperate character, and growl he'll do whatever it takes.