how to solve any problem in 24 hours

When I tuned in this week, it’s been almost two months since I watched an episode of “24.”

Fortunately, it’s only been a few hours. I caught up last night and Jack Bauer just stole a helicopter. (I don’t know what actually happened Monday after he did and won’t until its posted on Hulu, which, by the way, isn’t available in Argentina. Just so you know.)

The show bends time, of course. There’s no way they arrested a Russian mobster at about 1 A.M. and then arraigned him in federal court eight hours later. There’s no way for a lot of things to happen in just 24 hours. This season takes place in New York city, which means all the characters should have spend half of each show stuck in traffic, although controlling the traffic lights in real time from CTU is a neat trick.

Take the deeply embedded Russian spy who has left to deal with her ex-boyfriend a couple of times, helped him rob a police evidence locker, taken dozens of personal calls, killed a parole officer and manipulated the technology, all while pretending to help deal with a different international crisis just about every hour.

No one sleeps and Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland) heals from life-threatening injuries during commercial breaks. (By the way, in watching 15 episodes since the beginning of the year I’ve seen the exact same 30-second Sprint commercials about 3 cell phone users stuck on a ski lift 90 times. I don’t think I will ever heal.)

This is the last season and the actors are moving on. Ex-president Logan has been cast as Ken Lay in a new Broadway play about Enron, and apparently Bauer’s character will show up in a movie. They’ll have to call it “96.” No telling how much he can do in 4 days. Imagine the body count. (According to one web site that tracks such things he killed 188 people in the first seven seasons.)

But as Claudia Rosett over at Forbes says, America was ready for a post 9/11 hero and Jack Bauer was it. He has “allowed us to forget the endless absurdities of real-world politics and watch a guy whose mission in life is to protect us, no matter what obstacles the bureaucrats and politicians—not to mention the terrorists—throw in his way.”

As a newcomer to the experience (I didn’t watch the first 7 seasons), I can see her point. As unrealistic as it is, Jack will do anything to keep his word, defeat the bad guys and save his country. He’s the quintessential American hero. In a world where we get kicked around a lot, we like the fact that in this show we are doing the kicking. As Rosett says, whatever happens “he finds a gun, phones Chloe for some hi-tech backup and soldiers on.”

Sutherland has won seven Emmys so far and when the show ends it will be the longest running espionage television drama ever, surpassing both Mission Impossible and The Avengers. The ratings this year are 20% off season six, but over 12 million people still watch it each Monday night.

It raises interesting questions, though. Could you be a thoughtful Christian and be a spy? What is the greater good and what can be justified to achieve it? In this season President Taylor (Cherry Jones) protects a foreign despot and lies to his wife for the same reason.

Such ethical considerations are at the root of much academic analysis of this show.

In Tragedy as Farce: The New Model Moral Dilemmas of FOX’s 24, John Parrish writes:

Bauer is not only a utilitarian, but also a kind of moral absolutist. Utilitarianism is the right way to make moral decisions, but those decisions once arrived at acquire the unbending force of a categorical imperative, leaving no room for uncertainty or nuance.

It’s the certainty we admire, without thinking about it. In many instances he and his team must pursue “their only lead.” The right choice is always obvious, even if it’s wrong.

Life itself, of course, is more complex and challenging. We’re not always sure what the greater good is and almost never exhaust the possibilities.

That’s why we like the show, of course. Who wouldn’t want to solve every problem in a day, with no ambiguity whatsoever?

All you have to do is steal a helicopter.

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