Hell of a Long Day

24 has been the most talked-about show of the season and for all the wrong reasons

The West Wing bowed this season with a lecture masquerading as entertainment; not since Dragnet has a network series been so condescending and pedantic. In its forthcoming premiere, N.Y.P.D. Blue has shoehorned a handful of clumsy references to the destruction of the World Trade Center. Even those clammy do-gooders at Pax are pressing Billy Ray Cyrus into duty: His show Doc, about a country doctor living in Manhattan, will feature an episode about a firefighter who survives the collapse of the Twin Towers. And that doesn't even take into account the network newsmagazines that scare the hell out of us with hourly anthrax updates by telling us not to, ahem, panic about anthrax.

So much for letting wounds heal. So much for giving us some distance and letting the nightmares fade.

But maybe that was to be expected, even after the hand-wringing that took place in the days after the attacks. Maybe it's because those horrific events happened on television--those planes, those buildings, those flames, those bodies--that TV feels the need to respond so quickly, even if it also does so clumsily on occasion. As has been said more than once since September 11, at least fiction provides the one thing fact does not: closure. The president warns of a prolonged war, but that doesn't stop the networks from giving us a tidy resolution, an ending (though, not always a happy one). Real life is unsatisfying: It's nothing but government talking heads, black-and-white shots of bombs hitting (and missing) their targets, grainy videophone footage of reporters miles from the action. And so fiction steps in to make us feel better, if only for the moment.

Eye of the needle: In 24, Kiefer Sutherland plays Jack Bauer, a government agent who has 24 hours to stop an assassination attempt.
Eye of the needle: In 24, Kiefer Sutherland plays Jack Bauer, a government agent who has 24 hours to stop an assassination attempt.

"Closure really means uplifting," says Surnow, who was a show-runner on The Equalizer and a writer for Miami Vice and Wiseguy. "People want to be uplifted. They want that in their leaders, and they want that in their entertainment. In England, their art depicts the grimness of life, and we're almost childishly destined to want to have heroes and want to see heroism. That's how we see ourselves as America: We're the heroes to the world--the white knights--and I think it makes people feel good."

In the weeks after the attacks, movie studios postponed releasing films with terrorist themes, and theater owners hurried to fill the multiplexes with feel-good product. Network executives and others have suggested that as new series are canceled, they will be replaced by fluffy shows--light romantic fare, the stuff of smiles. The return of Friends to the top of the Thursday-night schedule, where it was once beaten soundly by Survivor (and never has a series' name rung so hollow), confirms their motives; audiences want their comfort food, their happy half-hour.

But Surnow makes the case for shows that deal with the uncomfortable reality--shows that inform our real life by letting make-believe do the heavy lifting. He mentions a friend who went to a network to pitch a show about an undercover law enforcement official infiltrating a criminal organization, but he had trouble coming up with who that organization ought to be. Should it be a group of money-launderers? The Mafia? Everything he came up with felt phony and pointless--save for a story about penetrating a radical terrorist organization. "That is relevant," Surnow says. "That helps me as a viewer." But there is no way a network would touch that--not now, not with ground zero still smoldering and so many bodies still unaccounted for.

Surnow likes to say that he's a conservative who hates art that indulges in "America-bashing"; he has no tolerance for conspiracy-mongers, for filmmakers and show-runners who posit ours is a corrupt government. At the end of the day, he insists, 24 is a feel-good show--one about "hope," he says. He hopes only that people will watch it that way, without prejudice. It's not just a show about a plane blowing up, he says. It's about victory.

"I think people are going to be disappointed if they come in expecting to see us deal with terrorism every week, because it's not that kind of show," he says. "We want people to feel like the good guys are competent and that they ultimately will prevail, even though it's gonna be bleak at times, and it will be. This show has some really hard stuff in it, and it will continue to do so, but ultimately, the good guys will prevail."

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