Tuesday, June 01, 2010

24 and The West Wing

Last week was the end of the show 24. TheWife was a fan, so I saw a number of episodes including the last. Finales always have built in expectations that they will be transcendental, say something bigger, make meaning of the show beyond itself and, yes, they usually fail and this one did as well. While the wrap-up did not make meaning of the show, there is meaning to be found in it and its demise.

Despite Keifer Sutherland's protestations to the contrary, 24 was conservative leg-tingling torture porn. You had middle class "normal" looking fellow citizens whose families did not come from western Europe lulling us into a liberal touchy-feely,bleeding heart stupor while they were really working for terrorist cells infiltrating all aspects of American society, and unless we committed heinous acts of enhanced interrogation NOW, millions of innocent white God-fearing Christian Merkans are going to die. The show was so black and white, I always wondered why they shot it in color. And that appealed to those who love the phrase "War on Terror" so much that even conservative Supreme Court justices would cite the show as evidence in arguments in favor of the government's justification for torture.

24 was for conservatives the equivalent of what The West Wing was for liberals a few years earlier. Both were programs written to engage the ideologically predisposed in a way that put a hero who modeled their most deeply cherished virtues into situations in which those virtues were challenged and, while those around the protagonist argued for pragmatic deviations, clarity of character meant sticking to the virtues in hard cases and inevitably led to success. Should Jack Bauer or Jed Bartlett do what most people would do and what seems reasonable in the face of this situation or should they stick to their proverbial guns? We know which they did and how things always seemed to work out for them as a result.

But there is an interesting difference in the way those challenges were set up in the two shows. In 24, the conundrums were generally of three varieties. The first was the classic sort of duty vs. utility chestnut. Yes, you have a duty not to cause undue harm, but if you act humanely then lots of people die. Second was the care vs. duty -- do I act in a way that saves a person I care about or act in a way that saves the people I do not know but whom I am duty bound to protect? I act for duty, but in a way that -- deus ex machina -- somehow saves the innocent person Jack Bauer cares about. The third was self-interest vs. duty -- do I act in a way that would save me or do I do what I know I have to do? Man up and go on the suicide mission and guess what, it turns out that being tough enough and ideologically pure enough allows you to handle a poisonous snake and not get bitten.

What is important is the way these were all framed, which is that the methods were never seriously challenged, just their tactical appropriateness in the given context. Anyone questioning the real-life effectiveness, morality, or cultural effects of torture and wanton violence was portrayed as an out-of-touch silly person who was putting everyone at risk and who needed a slap in the mouth and to be locked in a room while the real men took over.

The West Wing, on the other hand, took a different line. The conflict arose from both policy-level discussions in which differences were presented within the liberal framework so that the viewer would be torn as to which side he or she supported, and from a meta-policy or procedural viewpoint in which one is led to ask the question 24 never seriously asked which is whether the messy ends that are part and parcel of the political process are acceptable, whether doing what you need to do to get legislation passed in some way taints the product. Where in 24, you felt the character's frustration at being put in a position where doing the right thing is difficult, the frame in which it was presented never wavered in terms of what it was that you were supposed to think was the right thing to do. The West Wing, on the other hand, would play with that question often.

This is not to say that there were not straw conservatives on The West Wing, of course there were, but the frame in which they presented the conflict that moved the plot was considerably different. The West Wing had a hard-core conservative character who legitimately challenged the circle of "good guys" and ended with the emergence of a centrist Republican who was intentionally sympathetic, who fared well when paired against an intelligent liberal Democrat. It is cliche to say that liberals prefer NPR while conservatives prefer Fox News and that they are not mirror images of each other, but sometimes cliches are rooted in reality and the end of 24 seems to say something interesting about what topics can be addressed within the intellectual framework of each worldview.