Torture was all the rage during the Bush years. Enhanced Interrogation techniques, extraordinary rendition, and black sites represented partisans’ and critics’ views of American military policies. Bush supporters could point to these policies as proof that the administration was doing whatever it could to protect the United States and win the War on Terror. Bush’s harshest critics saw torture as a symptom of a failed foreign policy.
The ideological battle played out in popular culture. The popular TV show, 24’s hero, Jack Bauer, was elevated to a right-wing folk hero. Bauer would never shy away from doing what it took to get a terrorist to talk. While on the trail of a shipment of nerve gas, he captures Christopher Henderson (an arms dealer). When Henderson refuses to talk, Bauer shoots his wife in the leg. Bauer believes that her suffering will get Henderson to talk.
At the other end of the spectrum, shows like Battlestar Galactica used their science fiction settings to expose the horrors of torture. Early in season one, Kara “Starbuck” Thrace tortures a cylon. Her actions would haunt her until her death during the show’s final season.
Five years into the Obama era, torture has all but disappeared from our political discourse. Torture has taken a back seat to newer horrors. Drones and NSA spying have taken over as our objects of anxiety. As torture has disappeared from the political discourse, it has disappeared from television.
This spring 24 will return to Fox as a limited mini-series. Yet when it returns, it will be in a different ideological landscape.
A New Landscape
24 and the political discourse around the show made it alright for the show’s hero to torture other characters. How are the show’s producers going to account for the shift cultural framing of the War on Terror? A Search of Lexus Nexus shows that in 2013, there were 943 stories mentioning drones, while there were only 890 stories mentioning torture. This is almost certainly inflated by articles using a more colloquial use of torture. 
On television, this shift has been largely accounted for in the Howard Gordon’s creative shift from 24 to the American adaptation of Homeland. 24’s action-focused plotting mirrors the active military nation of Bush’s military-lead nation building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bush projected himself as a man of action. He shot from the hip; he didn’t need “experts” or “facts.” He based his decisions on feelings.
Like Bush, Bauer did not stop and think about the human rights implications of his actions. Somewhere in Los Angeles a bomb is about to go off. There is no time to think. Only do. Only action.
Compared to 24, Homeland’s plot is a slow burn. The events of Nicholas Brody’s life play out slowly over the seasons. It is less about the immediateness of torture as much as the aftermath. During the show’s first two seasons we see Brody fight an internal battle after being held as a POW and tortured for eight years. He has not been brainwashed by his experience. He is a zealot. He has seen the horrors of the war, albeit from a biased position designed to lead him in a specific direction. The world of Homeland has a far more nuanced representation of terrorism and torture.
We know a lot, and nothing, about Obama’s far-flung drone war. Unmanned planes piloted by Americans in portable trailers thousands of miles away conduct targeted strikes and surveillance in Northwest Pakistan and Yemen. The New American Foundation believe 286 to 890 civilians have been killed by drone strikes. They have remained largely out of the news because they happen in sparsely populated areas by the CIA.
Torture without Ideology
Homeland has captured the mantel of “politically important” television. While torture plays a role in the main characters development, drone warfare and ever-shifting meaning of terrorism lay at the center of the show’s ideological focus. A variety of other shows, like Scandal, American Horror Story, and Pretty Little Liars, have all utilized the visual rhetoric of torture without centering the subject. Torture scenes are central to the plot of 24. Hardly an episode passed that didn’t feature someone being tortured. Torture and 24 became synonyms. A good example of this happened in a season three episode arc of Scandal.
Huck, a former black-ops agent and assassin, tortures a coworker. Through the show’s previous episodes, it was established that Huck had a long history torturing targets for a clandestine organization outside the CIA’s direct control. Quinn, his female coworker and protege, is bound in her apartment. Huck forces Quinn’s mouth open with a dental tool and proceeds to pull out a back tooth. Huck’s skills as a torturer and interrogator are rooted in his training by B–613, training that taught him that torture not only gets the targets to speak, but is fun. In the early episodes of Scandal, Huck is living on the street unable to cope with realities of the world. His trauma, like that of other veterans, is very real. Yet when he tortures Quinn, all of that melts away. The scene is not about a broken vet reliving his trauma, but as a sadist who thoroughly enjoys the act of torture and the act of killing. He does this, not because he knows this will get her to talk, but because he enjoys inflicting pain others. She is ready to tell Huck everything he wants to know, but he doesn’t care. It is more fun to torture her for awhile.
There are structural similarities between this scene and many in 24, Battlestar Galactica, and Homeland. The torture scenes borrows the visual rhetoric of torture from leaked images from Abu Ghraib and the right-wing cowboy fantasy dreamed up by Dick Cheney. Physical torture is means to show fetishized violence on television. It is a plot device a show’s producers can use to brand characters.
Sonia Saraiya, writing for AVClub writes:
I really didn’t like the Huck and Quinn scenes. What struck me more than the visuals were the noises: The sound of Quinn being tortured is at least related to the sound Quinn makes when she’s orgasming. There are a lot of moans and gasps, and it doesn’t help that Huck overtly sexualizes the scene by licking her and stripping her naked (she’s bound with duct tape for the tender sensibilities of our network audiences, who can watch horrific torture—but not a boob!).
The scene exploits viewers’ emotions. After three seasons, they care about what happens to these characters and their relationships. Visual language of torture becomes a one-to-one substitute for sadomasochistic sex. Compare this to several of the torture scenes in Battlestar Galactica. Gina Inviere, a cylon copy of Six, is captured aboard Battlestar Pegasus. Over the course of the war she is repeatedly raped and tortured by the ship’s male crew members. There is nothing sexy or titillating about these scenes. There are no thinly veiled erotic undertones.
In contrast, Quinn is not repelled from her experience. Instead, it drivers her deeper into Huck’s world.
Joel Surnow, the creator and executive producer of 24, has never tried to hide his politics. It is impossible to divorce  the show’s politics from the politics of the creator. Surnow has been a major campaign donor to Republican presidential candidates. He co-created The 1/2 Hour News Hour, Fox News’ conservative answer to The Daily Show. At the peak of 24’s popularity, Jack Bauer commits seven acts of torture. The good guy, the hero, the person who you are supposed to look up to, commits seven horrific crimes in the name of national security. The viewer is encouraged to cheer him on. Jack Bauer is the hero. We want him to win. If he wins, America is saved!
Surnow and his fellow producers’ goal with 24 was to normalize the use of torture as an effective tool for collecting intelligence and law enforcement. In an 2006 editorial in the National Review, Jonah Goldberg writes.
In movies and on TV, good men force evil men to give up information via methods no nicer than what the CIA is allegedly employing. If torture is a categorical evil, shouldn’t we boo Jack Bauer on Fox’s 24?
We did cheer on Jack Bauer. Kiefer Sutherland received six Emmy nominations for the role. Surnow, several of the show’s producers and actors took part in a Heritage Foundation panel moderated by Rush Limbaugh. It was attended by several high profile members of the Bush government, conservative media personalities, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. All of whom had publicly professed their love for 24. By the time Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate a bomb hidden in his underwear, it did not seems strange to see Pat Buchanan on MSNBC making the case that Abdulmutallab should not have been mirandized. Law enforcement officials on the ground should have withheld medical and legal aid while Abdulmutallab was interrogated.
How Does 24 Fit
When 24 comes back, it will face a new real and television reality. Shows like Scandal and Homeland have continued to explore (or exploit) what 24 developed. The American television viewer is no longer going to be shocked by Bauer’s tactics or terrorism. It is old hat. 24 became more over the top as time passed and the shock of the September 11th terrorist attacks faded. 24: Live Another Day airs only 2 weeks after the 1 year anniversary of the Boston Marathon Bombing.
Based on the trailer, it does not appear 24 has wandered too far from the formula that made it a cultural touch stone. Yet we have moved on. 24’s “real time ”format leaves no room for long-term trauma of torture. Its ever escalating Ticking Time Bomb scenarios leave no room Scandal’s eroticized torture. And there is certainly no room for Obama’s far-flung drone war.
What is left for 24? How does it fit into this new world where torture and terrorism on television are no longer shocking? Will audiences embrace Jack Bauer and Chloe O’Brian?
Seasons 5 and 6, 18 of 24 episodes featured torture scenes. Season 7 had torture scenes in 19 episodes. ↩
This is not unquie to 24. Ron Moore, the creator of Battlestar Galactica, has discussed using imagery from 9–11 Terrorist Attacks, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Abu Ghraib as inspiration. ↩