24, Kiefer Sutherland
Credit: 24; Kelsey McNeal/Fox

As most viewers have become aware, 24 is not about terrorism or counterterrorism. It’s about politics. Office politics, yes — it’s the only show that’s at once audacious, fatuous, and, sadly, realistic enough to show officials dithering over desk space and protocol while the world goes to hell. But 24 is also about American politics, on micro and macro scales. Each passing season is a mirror of our national and political self-image.

Season 1, conceived and begun before Sept. 11, gave us an idealized presidential candidate, David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert). He was somewhat Clintonesque in bearing (both, after all, were jockeying to be the first black president), but morally far superior. His only stains were acquired: His son had screwed up and killed someone, the guy who’d raped his sister. (On 24, such circumstances constitute an automatic pardon.) And his wife Sherry (Penny Johnson) was Lady Macbeth, and the first in a misogyny parade that would become one of the show’s trademarks.

The tone of the show was set: The world is a dangerous place, and so America needs dangerous men — like Jack Bauer — to protect her. Bauer steadily loses his humanity throughout that first season, and he’s never regained it. He’s been shorn of family and morality, and now serves only a reflexive notion of patriotism (which is challenged on a daily basis by all the traitorous “patriots” he encounters inside the U.S. government), a purely numerical sense of righteousness (choose the option where the fewest die, regardless of any other moral or legal consideration), and instinctive get-the-bad-guy bloodlust. (Dude loves to torture. At the drop of a hat, he will acquaint key parts of your anatomy with the wall socket.)

addCredit(“24; Kelsey McNeal/Fox”)

The presidents have evolved, too. Post-Palmer, we got a blandconservative, John Keeler (Geoffrey Pierson), a nice anodyne buffer whocoincided with Bush’s wartime popularity boom. But the producersmust’ve sensed the jury was still out on this vaguely Reaganesque(Vague-anesque?), benignly large-and-in-charge vision of the Americanpresidency, and, as public opinion shifted, so did 24. Keelerwas keelhauled (pesky terrorists!), and his vice, a wonderfullyNixonian dweeb named Charles Logan (the superb Gregory Itzin), took thereins. Logan — detached from reality, willfully self-deluded andcompletely at the mercy of his snaky advisors — is Where We Are Now inour idea of the presidency.

Which brings us up to present episodes. Last week, we saw Jackbrutalize Audrey, the woman he loves, for her own good. (As is alwaysthe case with Jack, horrible things must be done to avert even morehorrible things. In this case, more horrible things happen regardless:Audrey is tortured. Whew, that was close — someone was almost not tortured on 24! I would’ve had to go out and kill something small and furry, just to achieve post-24 satisfaction.) We saw Edgar’s replacement, Shari (Kate Mara, who played Alma Jr. in Brokeback Mountain),make a break in the case — only to reveal herself as yet anotherhysterical woman! (Turns out she’s paranoid about perceived sexualharassment.)

These are both interesting issues for 24: In previousseasons, torture was almost always performed by Jack and almost alwaysyielded good solid information. Last season, Jack cut off a guy’sfinger in the CTU parking lot after his pantywaist ACLU lawyer almostspoiled the fun. The scumbag’s teary revelation cracked the case, ofcourse. But now, torture is so widespread, it’s affecting Jack’s loveinterests. And that, friends, is just not right. Clearly, a newattitude towards the cattle prod is infecting the 24 writer’s room.

Women, however, are still an issue. There’s yet anotherunderinformed ballbuster running CTU, there’s a Mata Hari in HoldingCell 1, and some crazy chick is sitting in Edgar’s chair, lobbingaccusations at starchy, upright Bill Buchanan. The honeymoon is over,it would appear: After taking care to paint Logan’s first lady (JeanSmart) as the real brains of the operation (a backhanded compliment,considering the esteem in which the writers hold this particularadministration), the 24 team is back to reminding us that womenin the workplace are troublesome at best, dangerous to nationalsecurity at worst. Sure, Chloe’s okay, but she’s an asexual robot, nota woman. And let’s not forget, her one and only sexual contact inforever was a mole (the forgotten Spenser). Sex is death, kids! Especially if you’re a woman!

Whew! What a stemwinder! And I haven’t even broached the topic ofnatural gas, which this week proved a highly explosive energy issue.’24’ is America, ladies and gentleman. And the clock is ticking…