“Jack is sort of the Rorschach test over the years,” 24 writer and executive producer Howard Gordon said in a room full of journalists at the Television Critics Association press tour this week. Gordon was there to promote 24: Live Another Day, a limited-series follow-up to the hit series about Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), the terrorist-fighting federal agent who became notorious for his use of torture. “He’s been politicized,” Gordon added. “And when you really think about it, he’s really this remarkably apolitical character.”
That’s not an assessment that many of 24’s critics would share. But it’s an important one to consider, because in the years since Americans first met, and embraced, Jack Bauer, Gordon has become one of the busiest men in television. And he’s done so by becoming the most prolific interpreter in the medium of where America stands in relation to the rest of the world in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. On 24, he wrote more episodes of the show than anyone but 24’s creators. At Showtime, he and Alex Gansa won acclaim for creating Homeland, a drama about the damage September 11 had done to CIA agents, and the harm that they were doing to ordinary people living in Middle Eastern countries — and to each other — in response to that trauma. And now, for FX, Gordon is working with Gideon Raff to create Tyrant, what could be considered the third entry in a trilogy with 24 and Homeland, and that takes audiences from the United States to a fictional Middle Eastern country.
Gordon has become one of the busiest men in television. And he’s done so by becoming the most prolific interpreter in the medium of where America stands in relation to the rest of the world in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.
Tyrant, which follows a man who went into self-imposed exile from the Middle Eastern dictatorship where he grew up, only to return for a family function and get caught up in the affairs of state, asks the question, Gordon says, “do people want to see a show over there, anywhere but here?” The key to the show’s success may be whether fans of Gordon’s previous work are psychologically prepared to embrace a story that doesn’t have American security as a leading concern, and to empathize with residents of the kind of country that in previous television shows has functioned primarily as a source of people who want to attack the United States.
24 had two animating ideas: that the United States was constantly under credible, massive threats by foreign countries, and that the country possessed the resources to thwart those threats if only it had the will to exercise them. Each season was meant to depict what happened, in real time, as Jack Bauer responded to imminent dangers, often using force and torture to elicit information about his targets (notably, when Jack himself was tortured, he, unlike his targets, successfully resisted talking). It’s true that some of the show’s villains were right-leaning, and that Jack Bauer was portrayed as damaged by his actions. But the show’s ticking time-bomb scenarios weighted the show’s cost-benefit calculation such that Jack’s actions were always necessary no matter the toll. The show’s producers are adamant that these calculations don’t imply a political stance. Manny Coto, who is executive producing 24: Live Another Day and executive produced 24, said at TCA that “this idea that it’s conservative or left is kind of baffling to all of us, frankly, because some of the season long arcs could have been a Michael Moore fantasy as well.”
But the problem wasn’t the political orientation of the villains providing each season’s apocalyptic scenario. It was how the structure of the show reinforced support for a specific tactic. Torture may have been an apolitical issue once, when the thought of it elicited disgust across the political spectrum. But during 24’s ascent, a political split — one that was more complicated than a simple left-right divide — opened up about the use of what the Bush administration renamed “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a legalistic term that was meant to protect the people who used those techniques. By suggesting those tactics work, 24 became political, if not simply partisan. And that aspect of the show had a real-world impact. As Jane Mayer reported in a 2007 New Yorker feature about the show, in 2006 U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, who was then the dean of West Point, met with Gordon and other 24 staff to ask them to consider changing the show’s approach to the use of torture because of the way it was affecting his students.
“It had become increasingly hard to convince some cadets that America had to respect the rule of law and human rights, even when terrorists did not,” Mayer wrote that Finnegan had explained to the producers. “One reason for the growing resistance, he suggested, was misperceptions spread by 24, which was exceptionally popular with his students. As he told me, ‘The kids see it, and say, “If torture is wrong, what about 24?’” He continued, ‘The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.’”
24: Live Another Day will bring back a Jack Bauer who is alienated from his country. But he’ll return in a media environment that’s been complicated by characters of Gordon’s own creation.
Gordon is a professional, and it’s hard to imagine him suddenly disavowing the show that helped break out his career after stints on The X-Files, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel. When I asked him how Jack Bauer fits into an America that’s no longer tensed for the next attack, and where many people have reacted with disgust to the U.S. government’s use of torture, he was characteristically measured, using a kind of language he’d employ to describe Tyrant the next day.
“It’s become a more complex world than it was when we began 24,” Gordon said of that show. “Things seemed, at least, you know, simpler at the time. And Jack has, I think, you know, acted in ways that have challenged his behavior. Jack has grown with it.”
What does that mean for 24: Live Another Day? At the end of the series’ original run, Jack Bauer went on the run after having been persuaded not to murder participants in an effort to cover up the Russian government’s involvement a terrorist plot intended to keep nuclear treaty talks on track. And President Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones) made a decision that was in striking contrast to 24’s general approach to its ticking time bombs. While the show suggested that stopping terrorism was worth moral compromise and psychological damage, Taylor determined that she couldn’t sign a treaty won by coercion and violence, no matter how important that treaty might have been, and announced her plans to turn herself in to be prosecuted.
Coto explained that when the sequel begins, a CIA agent (Yvonne Strahovski) will be looking for Jack, who has been a fugitive for four years, a dynamic that bears more than a passing resemblance to Carrie Mathison’s (Claire Danes) obsessive pursuit of Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban) in Homeland. Fellow Counter Terrorist Unit agent Chloe O’Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub), who ended the series letting Jack get away and vowing to expose the machinations behind the treaty “is almost a more radical, a Snowden type character.” Whether she ends up exposing both Jack’s use of torture and the Taylor administration’s relationships with a Russian government that supported terrorism, and where 24: Live Another Day comes down on the cumulative impact of Bauer’s approach to national security is an open question. But as long as the possibility of a 24 movie is still alive, and Jack Bauer needs to be available as a hero, Bauer seems more likely to be vindicated than excoriated.
Gordon suggested that when it comes to issues like torture, “as long as you are bringing them up honestly, it’s not Jack’s job to adjudicate those, you know, what’s right or what’s wrong, just to enjoy the complexity of these things and just put it out there.” But asking that Jack Bauer repent his years in the Counter Terrorist Unit is not the same thing as being curious as to whether the show about his adventures can, or is interested in, putting some daylight between how 24 sees him, and how he sees himself.
“It’s not Jack’s job to adjudicate…what’s right or what’s wrong.”
That sort of distance has, at various times, existed on Homeland, which follows Mathison, who had been deeply traumatized by a sense that she ought to have spotted the signs that the September 11 attacks were imminent. Homeland has the same tendency to affirm Mathison’s obsession with Seargent Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) that 24 did with Bauer’s extreme tactics. Though Carrie’s bosses believed that Brody wasn’t a terrorist, it turned out that she was correct that he was planning an attack.
That’s the point at which Homeland and 24 diverged. Carrie ended up preventing Brody’s attack mostly by accident, after her conversation with Brody’s daughter Dana led Dana to call him. But a technical malfunction and Brody’s deep inner conflict also contributed to his decision not to detonate a suicide bomb in a bunker full of government officials, including the Vice President. Carrie didn’t torture anyone to stop an attack. And ultimately, she was only one part of why it was thwarted.
Preventing one act of terrorism also didn’t mean that Carrie could prevent several others. Brody was first coerced into assisting another assassination attempt on Vice President Walden (Jamey Sheridan), then embraced his role with relish — once the possibility of collateral damage and suicide were removed from the equation, he proved all too happy to murder the man he believed had killed children with a drone strike. At the end of the third season, another enemy emerged, and carried out a successful bombing of the CIA headquarters during a memorial for Walden. The CIA couldn’t respond to a ticking time bomb in a white SUV because they didn’t know it existed. Carrie herself recognized that the car had been moved only seconds before the bomb exploded. It was a striking reminder of the complexity of counterterrorism, and of the limited capacities of American national security agencies. In 24, Jack Bauer could almost single-handedly save America over and over again. Homeland at its best has been a counterargument that individuals or small cells can utterly confound the bureaucracies the United States has built to protect itself.
In Tyrant, Gordon and his collaborator Raff, who created Prisoners Of War, the Israeli series on which Homeland was loosely based, are leaving the American national security state entirely behind. The series follows Barry Al Fayeed (Adam Rayner), the son of the dictator who rules the fictional state of Baladi (Arabic for “of the country”), who has chosen to live, work as a doctor, and raise his family in America. Barry hasn’t returned to his home country for decades, but succumbs to pressure from his wife, who is eager to see Baladi and meet Barry’s extended family, and from his father and brother, and agrees to return home for his niece’s wedding. Circumstances keep the family from leaving the country. And Barry, who’s never wanted anything to do with his family’s rule of the country and their brutal repression of an insurgency that uses terrorism as a tactic, has to figure out how to reconcile the ideals that guided his flight and the demands that are being placed upon him.
When I asked Gordon how the show would help viewers make a psychological shift from rooting for American security to concern for the well-being of an absolutist state, he said he thought that television audiences had plenty of prior analogues in shows like The Tudors or Game of Thrones. These palace intrigues, he suggested, made it easy for them to get excited about political machinations in countries not their own. And he said that we would get to know Baladi along with Barry, who’s become largely unfamiliar with his own country during his years in exile, and that “the mechanics of that succession are going to be part of the drama of the show.”
But simply changing settings doesn’t necessarily remove the polarities that have often been present in the shows Gordon’s worked on. The central tension of Tyrant, Gordon suggested, is “Can this man, this good man, this good American man hold onto that good American person and affect the transition that this country is about to have.” Gordon doesn’t want Tyrant to be simply about a Westernized doctor being corrupted by a decadent and fictional Middle Eastern culture, but rather by power itself. But that oversimplified narrative is the worst version of what Tyrant could become if Gordon and Raff aren’t careful. “We want to be, sensitive, I think, to potential mischaracterizations,” Gordon said, suggesting that gay characters and women, like Barry’s mother (who is of European origin) and his brother’s wife, would be vectors by which Tyrant punctures popular perceptions of Middle Eastern countries.
And, promisingly, Gordon told me that “in some ways, I’m as interesting in poking holes in the hubris of American intervention sometimes, of what that might look like.” The main vehicle for that set of ideas appears to be one of the people Barry meets on his return: John Tucker (Justin Kirk), an American diplomat who seems more concerned with the Al Fayeed family’s success in bolstering Baladi’s per capita income than with the regime’s record of human rights abuses. “One of the things we want to do is not be reductive but also honor the complexities of and the folly of American policy, and the law of unintended consequences makes for very good drama,” Gordon said of the character. “We’re going to be equal opportunity offenders, and that’s kind of his job.”
There are also at least some images of civil society in Baladi. Fares Fares, who played a CIA agent in Zero Dark Thirty, also appears in the show as Fauzi Nadal, an old friend of Barry’s who has become a dissident journalist who advocates for a transition from dictatorship to democracy. “He’s sort of the Trotsky of the insurgency,” Gordon joked to me, suggesting that Fauzi was a voice for change, but a strong opponent of terrorist tactics. And Gordon said “there is this place Ma’an which has been the traditional antagonist of our capital city and in which and so we’ll see plenty of that place, which really becomes this the sort of hotbed of the insurgency.”
Gordon explained that Tyrant “was born, you know, out of Gidi’s head but from the ongoing story of the Arab Spring. And, again, I think we’re all experiencing this as our parochial view. This is a story that predated 9/11, but certainly for our minds and to our minds, we realized we’re part of a world that is not an ocean and several continents away but very much here…24 was an iteration of that story, was a facet; Homeland, yet again another facet, but all facets of the same story which, again, I think is the story of our time.”
But it’s striking for Gordon to be resurrecting a creation like Jack Bauer, who’s very much a reaction to a particular political moment, at the same time that he’s trying to push into new physical and intellectual territory, as Gordon is with Tyrant. 24: Live Another Day premieres on Fox on May 5, while Tyrant will air at some point this summer. Curious about the contrast, I asked him if there were “ideas that showed up in 24 that you no longer think are valid as you’re making Tyrant.”
I asked if there were “ideas that showed up in 24 that you no longer think are valid as you’re making Tyrant.”
“No,” he said. “The thing I’ve learned and the only thing I probably would ever want to express dramatically is just the more I get to know, the more I realize I don’t know. I think what we are trying to illustrate and dramatize is just complexity, great drama. I think the thing that those three shows, hopefully, and this show have in common is that there aren’t good answers. There’s just the least bad of two bad choices.”