In the opening of Agamemnon, the ancient Greek tragedy by Aeschylus, Agamemnon laments the fate that finds him torn between fulfilling his duty to his family and his duty as a military leader and sacrificing his daughter at the command of the gods:
A heavy doom is disobedience, but heavy too if I shall rend my own child…polluting a father’s hands with streams of slaughtered maiden’s blood close to the altar. Which of these is without evils?
Now, the media habit of labeling as a tragedy any event that involves loss has made comparison to Greek tragedy a cliché. In the case of this season’s TV series 24, starring Kiefer Sutherland as counterterrorist agent Jack Bauer, the analogy is in one respect apt. The most compelling dramatic moments in the opening hours of the series have featured conflicts of loyalty between family and nation, between the ties of blood and the demands of a broader mission.
With captivating characters and a pace that keeps viewers riveted to every ticking second of footage, this year’s 24 has seen a well-deserved ratings bump. As in previous years, terrorism is the basic plot line–this time with an Arab-American family at the center, a plot decision that has earned the show a rebuke from the Council on American Islamic Relations. (In response, Fox has run a public-service message from Sutherland urging viewers to keep in mind, as they watch 24, that the Muslim-American community stands with America in its opposition to terror.)
With previous seasons that featured a black president and plot lines that involve multiple twists, 24 rarely lets viewers rest with easy stereotypes. Even as some of those connected with the production of the show taunt the critics, denying for example that the “world deserves political correctness right now,” they also urge viewers to “wait until the story finishes” to make conclusions. Indeed, it is not yet clear who precisely is in control of the nuclear plot and for what precise goals, beyond destabilizing the American political and economic system.
Whatever the ultimate source and aim of the plot, the Muslim-American Araz family–a father (Navi), mother (Dina), and son (Berhooz) living in suburban comfort–is at its center. The father, Navi, is in charge of delivering the stolen gadgets that give access to America’s power plants. His ruthless willingness to eliminate any obstacle to the fulfillment of his duty is palpable in the aftermath of his partially Americanized son’s experience of conflicted loyalty. When Berhooz’s American girlfriend unwittingly follows him as he acts as a courier for his father, the son is put in the position of having to choose whether he will try to protect the girl or obey his father’s command that he kill her to insure that she cannot provide information to anyone.
When Berhooz can’t bring himself to kill, the mother, Dina (House of Sand and Fog’s Shohreh Aghdashloo), does it for him, both to get the job done and to conceal the son’s lack of manliness from the father. But the father has already given up on the son, whose execution he orders. Dina learns of this plot, which the son surprisingly anticipates and thwarts, and excoriates her husband. Without any hint of remorse, he responds, “Nothing will stand in the way of what needs to be done–not him, not you.” The father himself is beholden to a mysterious and exacting superior, who impatiently instructs him, “take care of your mess.” The father responds, “I give you my word. My wife and son will be dead by the end of this day.” With Berhooz proclaiming, “he’s not my father anymore,” mother and son conspire to outwit and escape from the father’s clutches. This puts them in a doubly precarious situation; as the mother informs the son, their previous acts have blocked off the possibility of turning now to the American legal system. Even after Jack takes the mother into custody and as one of the nuclear reactors begins to melt down, Dina resists helping the American government. To Jack plea’s for help to save the innocent, she responds, “no one is innocent” and “every war has casualties.” But her desire–she says it would make her “happy”–for the harm catastrophic nuclear meltdown would inflict upon America is tempered by her desire to make a bargain on behalf of her son.
A similar, dramatic subplot is being played out in the family of the American secretary of Defense, James Heller (William Devane of Knots Landing fame), whose soon-to-be-divorced daughter, Audrey, is dating Jack and whose son, Richard, is an antiwar activist. When the secretary and his daughter are kidnapped during a planned meeting with the son, at which meeting the secretary hoped to persuade his son to withdraw from protests against the president, the son becomes something of a suspect. In Jack’s best moment thus far in this year’s series, he foils the kidnapping plot in a successful one-man attack on the kidnappers. Liberated by Jack, Heller is immediately back on the job. When he discovers that authorities have been treating his son rather roughly, he is irate, demands to see his son, and apologizes to him for the way he was abused. Alone with Richard, the tone of the conversation shifts rather abruptly, as he begins to interrogate him. When his son refuses to say whether he knows anything, the secretary hands him over for further torture.
Never a show to shy away from controversy, this year’s 24 has been especially focused on torture as a means of extracting information. In the opening, Jack interrupts a CTU interrogation of a suspect in a train bombing because he believes that something other plot beyond the bombing itself is involved. To get the information he needs, he shoots the suspect who then reveals the truth. But other acts of torture are much less successful and involve individuals with whom the audience sympathizes to various degrees. In fact, a recent episode contained scenes of torture of a faithful CTU employee who had been framed by a traitor within the organization–a fact the audience knows well before anyone in CTU. As in the case of the partial overlapping of family narratives, so too in the case of terror, the dramatic complexity is remarkable for a TV series.
Family has always been an important subplot in 24, with the murder of Jack’s wife by his former lover and the Lady Macbeth-like performances of President Palmer’s wife. Fortunately for viewers, Jack’s daughter, Kimberly, who in previous seasons was involved in a serious of preposterous subplots that served no purpose beyond her functioning as eye candy, has not reappeared this year. She would be entirely out of place in this year’s drama, wherein family relations involve unprecedented and immediate danger and risk and thus force upon characters the sort of conflicts characteristic of classical tragedy.
However much it intersects with the headlines and plays off legitimate fears of terrorism, 24 is dramatic fiction and, as these things go on TV, it is drama at a pretty high level. At its best, it ranks well above the narcissistic shenanigans of Desperate Housewives and rivals sophisticated cable-only dramas such as The Sopranos. Sutherland’s Bauer remains convincing in his role as the most desperate defender of justice in prime time.
–Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.