n Sunday, the fifth season of the phenomenally successful television drama 24 will start in the US. Each season is composed of 24 one-hour episodes and the whole season covers the events of a single day. The story of the latest series is the desperate attempt of the LA-based Counter Terrorist Unit to prevent an act of catastrophic magnitude and the action focuses on the unit’s agents, the White House and the terrorist suspects.
The “real-time” nature of the series confers on it a strong sense of urgency, emphasised by the ticking of an on-screen clock. This dynamic is accentuated by technical tricks, from the use of hand-held cameras to split screens showing the concurrent actions of characters.
Almost a third of each episode is taken up by commercial breaks, which contribute to the sense of urgency: the breaks are part of the one-hour temporal continuity. Say the on-screen clock reads “7.46” before the break, we return to the series with the clock saying “7.51” – indicating the real length of the break, as if a live transmission has been interrupted. It is as if the continuity of the action is so urgent that it cannot even be interrupted for advertisements.
Such a sense of urgency has an ethical dimension. The pressure of events is so overbearing, the stakes so high, that they necessitate a kind of suspension of ordinary moral concerns; displaying such concerns when the lives of millions are at stake means playing into the hands of the enemy. The CTU agents, as well as their terrorist opponents, live and act in a shadowy space not covered by the law, doing things that “simply have to be done” to save our societies from the threat of terrorism. This includes not only torturing terrorists when they are caught, but even torturing members of CTU or their closest relatives if they are suspected of terrorist links.
In the fourth season, among those tortured are the defence secretary’s son-in-law and son (both with his full knowledge and support), and a female member of the CTU wrongly suspected of passing on information to terrorists. (When her innocence is revealed, she is asked to return to work immediately and accepts.) The CTU agents, after all, are dealing with the sort of “ticking-bomb” scenario evoked by the Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz to justify torture (why not torture someone who knows the location of a bomb that is just about to kill hundreds of thousands of people?).
[Extract. Appeared in The Guardian on January 10th 2006.]