24 Red Shirts

Fair warning: If you read this but have not watched the first four hours of season six of 24, you are going to be very, very mad at me. So go somewhere else till you're good and ready. I recommend listening to Lin Brehmer's "Why We Love Jack Bauer" at WXRT.com. You could easily spend four hours listening to Lin be brilliant; when you're caught up with 24, y'all come back now.

OK, last chance. Leave now or be forever spoiled.

OK. Here's my current thinking on 24, which I freely admit upfront is my favorite show on television, perhaps in the history of television. That being said, I've noticed a disconcerting trend on the show. I'd like to see it ended, or I'd like to be convinced that I'm wrong, because I'd like to not think the show has such an inherent flaw. My concern is that to be African American in the 24 universe is to be expendable.

Over the past several seasons I have had a mild man-crush on Curtis, the strong, silent counter-terrorist field agent and torture expert, but I've often thought he's been shamefully underdeveloped. Perhaps, I've reasoned, that's simply the way of strong, silent characters: until they're good and ready to do something remarkable, they prefer not to draw attention to themselves. So I've been patient, waiting for Curtis's golden moment. And last night, Jack Bauer shot Curtis through the throat.

I warned you I'd ruin it!

Curtis is only the latest African American character on 24 whose life has been cut short. The late President David Palmer, his wife the delightfully diabolical Sherri Palmer, current President Wayne Palmer's former lover and her shrewdly dangerous husband--all were cut down in their prime--none of them accidentally, all of them violently. If I were President Wayne Palmer, I would watch my back and read my contract very carefully.

These, of course, are not the only characters to have died abruptly on the show. From the first season 24 has dared to kill the characters we've loved the most, no matter how central they were to the plot. Even Jack himself has died on the show--albeit only for a minute.

And it's not that 24 has presented African Americans in demeaning ways. The show has featured two African American presidents, and when Jack died I even thought that Curtis could very effectively take his place as the show's central character. But as a demographic, African Americans have suffered on the show far more than Anglo-Americans. I'd argue that even Arabs, who are regularly put forth as both the enemies and the persecuted minority of the show, have suffered less than the show's African American population. What good is it to so intentionally portray ethnic groups in a positive light if you keep indiscriminately killing off the members of that group?

Maybe this is just how I mourn the deaths of characters I've grown so attached to. But in a show that regularly features the stark reality of senseless violence and its fruits, people will continue to die. And the creators of the show are dangerously close to falling into the classic error of Star Trek: you can tell who's going to die by the color of their shirt. In the case of 24, the classic error is made more tragic by the blind spot they've allowed into their creative process.

Again, I'm very prepared to be convinced that I'm wrong.


Pete Juvinall said…
Is it that there are more African Americans and therefore more death of African Americans?

I, too, am a bit bitter about curtis dieing. I didn't even think about him being a replacement for Jack, but it could have totally worked.

For this season, I was kind of hoping for more than just Jack just showing up and that a big rescue would spring him.

Still, though, I did enjoy Monday nights episodes.
Anonymous said…
Ya know, culture critics used to complain about middle-class housewives being soap opera junkies. And now . . .
David Zimmerman said…
Ouch. Thanks, anonymous. I freely, again, admit that I am a 24 geek of the highest order, and thus I ascribe more importance to it than is perhaps appropriate. But if media often serves as a mirror for the culture, which I believe is true and is certainly the intent of the producers in the case of 24--a show that debuted in the immediate wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks--then I'd argue that it's a worthwhile enterprise to decode the unconscious assumptions being made by the show and its viewers.

Did that sound convincing? I'm gearing up for a presentation to my colleagues in academic publishing; trying to work in the word zeitgeist.

By the way, leave it to 24 to bring a story to a sudden halt by killing a major character, then getting the story going again by setting off a nuclear bomb. Back in the day, nuclear bombs ended most stories.
Craver Vii said…
Concerning Star Trek:
Oh no, my friend. The telegraphing hue was not an error, but a kind of Scooby Snack that throws trekkies and trekkers into a frenzy as we anticipate the inevitable. The game is then to be the first to predict who, when and how this crewman will be terminated.

Did you see Galaxy Quest? Great movie. There, they alleged it was the crewman with no last name who would be the first to die.

Can I tell you a secret? I have never seen an episode of 24. But that's just between you and me, right?

Zeitgeist?? Who sneezed?

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