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Has torture on TV gone too far?

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15323__24_lWith last night’s torture-by-electric-drill of Chloe’s ex-husband Morris O’Brian, the sudden flare-up of protests against 24‘s use of extreme force will probably stoke an even hotter fire. Some of the posts in response to my 24 TV Watch from last night begin to suggest what I’m talking about:

“Man, that drill scene with Morris was just a little too much. My wife and I were not too happy about that. I love the show, but it is going a little too much on the side of torture. The show is all about torturing people, to get information,” wrote “Doug.” And “drowe” wrote, “Too much torture — this is not entertainment to watch how to physically abuse someone. I love the show and can suspend belief — but enough of the torture scenes. Use cleverness and intelligence…”

These readers join a growing outcry over increasingly intense scenes of torture on 24 and other shows. The current issue of The New Yorker features a piece by Jane Mayer called “Whatever It Takes” that reveals that “this past November, U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, flew to Southern California to meet with the creative team behind 24.” Finnegan and what Mayer calls “three of the most experienced military and F.B.I. interrogators in the country” journeyed to Hollywood to express their concern that their perception of the series’ message — that legal niceties must be ignored in times of terrorist threat — was “toxic.”

This past Sunday, the Associated Press reported that the advocacy group Human Rights First has been keeping track of the dramatic increase in torture scenes in prime time generally post-9/11, and has met with both 24 and Lost producers, urging them to tone down such depictions. The AP piece asserted that some U.S. interrogators in Baghdad have asked to use tough information-extracting techniques that they’ve seen on DVDs of 24.

And it wouldn’t be a controversy if the blogosphere didn’t chime in. LA Weekly columnist Nikki Finke used the New Yorker piece to condemn one of 24‘s co-creators, Joel Surnow — a self-proclaimed “right-wing nut” — and called for viewers to “boycott” 24. Finke’s post was picked up by Vanity Fair contributing editor James Wolcott on his blog, where he refers to 24‘s “insidious sadism,” and seconds Finke’s disapproval.

addCredit(“24: Kelsey S. McNeal”)

Now, I totally agree with Wolcott’s suspicion that “the popularity on the right of 24‘spulp fiction is proof that the real reason they approve of torture isnot because it yields information and saves lives but because theyvicariously enjoy the infliction of suffering — it’s their favoritebrand of porn,” and with Finke’s labeling of Surnow as “one ofHollywood’s biggest a–holes.”

But here’s the thing: Hollywood is loaded to its gills witha–holes, on the right and on the left, so I don’t think that argumentis too compelling, and Finke gives her real class-animus away with thissentence: “How tragic for TV audiences that, just like that White Housecrowd, here’s another right-winger who won’t let the facts get in theway of his ideology.”

See, I don’t think TV audiences are the dumb “victims” of tragic conspiracies. I and millions of people enjoy watching 24first of all because it’s a crackerjack suspense show (let’s put aside,for the moment, our quibbles with this season’s subplots — that’s stuffI’ve gone over in my TV Watch). But we also enjoy it because it’sfiction — it’s a revenge fantasy, as much as Alias in itsteeth-pulling heyday was. I dislike it when people say, “It’s onlyentertainment” because that denigrates the value of entertainment. 24is first-rate entertainment. It is so well-written (mind you, Surnow’sco-creator is Howard Gordon, an avowed liberal, so there’s got to besome yin-yang balance at work on that set), and so well-acted (KieferSutherland, pictured, has said in interviews that his own politics lean left and thathe’s acutely aware of the difficulties of presenting material like thisin an artful, non-exploitive way) that it does not merit blanketcondemnation.

I seriously doubt that any U.S. servicemember is using 24 asa guidebook for torture; the most cursory search on theInternet will get you lots of books on torture methods that pre-date 24‘s existence, and even the New Yorker‘sMayer notes the presence of some such books in the production officesshe visited. It’s not as though 24 invented the idea of inflicting painas a pulp-fiction plot device. Maybe I have a higher tolerance forviolence than some — I think one of the greatest movies ever made was The Wild Bunch, and there was a lot of prettified violence and pain in that masterpiece.

But I also think anything that stirs debate is good. Better that 24,with its finely calibrated suspense and terrific acting, should movepeople to discuss political and moral issues than a primetimewasteland full of American Idols that prompt nothing more than gibbering about whether or not some jerk judged by professional jerks can carry a tune.

What do you think, PopWatchers? Does 24 need to dial it back? Should TV producers censor themselves if asked? Do we need to boycott this show?