The Canadian philosopher Brundlefly once bemoaned the lack of insect politicians: “Insects don’t have politics. They’re very brutal. No compassion, no compromise.” It’s a prescient idea, especially in light of the fact that human beings are one of only two mammals that builds hives.
No show embraced insect politics more thoroughly than 24. It perfectly captured the jingoism of post-9/11 America, but by the time it limped to a close, even 24 seemed to be backing away from the brink. It wasn’t that 24 had become irrelevant, it’s that another mode of thought was coming to the fore. Fortunately for a pop-culture commentator like me, there’s a show for that too: Burn Notice.
24 was so relevant that its debut episode actually had a plane crash that had to be cut so as to avoid provoking PTSD in half of America. It introduced Jack Bauer, a counter-intelligence agent who spent the next 8 days/years slowly turning into a deranged combination of Hannibal Lecter, Wolverine and the Terminator. Bauer’s enemies were equally relevant. He existed to fight the bogeymen of the 21st Century: the Terrorist. He had to be just as brutal as the bad guys, because if even a minute was wasted, the consequence was Armageddon.
At his height, Bauer was so influential that right wing politicians and pundits were openly calling for American policy to ape the show. It helped legalize the very same torture techniques that once carried the penalty of execution. In my mind, torture was something that bad people did, an idea supported by nearly every piece of pop culture I had consumed. After all, it’s Darth Vader that tortures Han Solo, not the other way around. (It was with no small amount of amused horror that I watched Christians become the most vocal advocates of torture – apparently forgetting about the foundation of their entire faith. Maybe they thought that al-Qaeda was hiding the messiah?) It was as though the country had decided to read De Vermis, turn Chaotic Evil, drop our Humanity to 1, rub our faces in Wyrm taint and pick up a Psych Lim: Doing Horrible Shit. And some of it was the fault of this show.
A show that I enjoyed. I watched the first couple seasons on DVD, diving in with weekly viewing around Day 3. Because I’m not retarded, I recognized that the show had little in common with reality. In fact, in the early days (before Jack Bauer turned into an iconic superhero), I liked to pretend that the protagonist was actually Kiefer Sutherland, and he just did crazy shit in his off time. Imagine that in the midst of a terrorist threat, Kiefer/Jack is dodging the Glendale cops on the way to a Lost Boys 2 audition and you can see how entertaining the game is. Still, Days 4 and 5 stand amongst the best action/adventure television has to offer. They’re late enough in 24’s run so that the formula insured a minimum of dead episodes, but before the show turned into a lazy parody that marked time between Jack going all Torquemada on some unsuspecting Arabtino.
By the time 24 limped to a close, no one cared. Some of that was because it did so on the heels of Lost’s bizarrely satisfying finale. In lacking a compelling mythology, 24 was running on the fumes of better seasons. Jack could really only torture so many people before he turned into Dexter. In fact, Dexter proved to be a more moral character, spending entire seasons beating himself up for an innocent death. Jack was a clear-eyed fanatic, always certain that what he was doing was for the best, because only he had an unobstructed view of what was really going on. In the better episodes, they would linger on the psychic cost to Jack. He would become a monster so that America could live free.
It’s an attractive thought. We all want heroes and we imbue them with both power and moral authority beyond what we would accept in a normal person. After all, terrorists are unstoppable killing machines, an unholy cross between Freddy Krueger and herpes, so Jack has to be the way he is. But as the Bush Administration handed over the butcher’s bill for eight years, suddenly Jack Bauer seemed quaint. Almost like the way Silver Age Superman comes off like an imperious dick, Bauer now looks like an out-of-control psychopath.
As America slowly collected its shit, we needed a spy that didn’t throw out the Constitution as soon as it became a minor inconvenience. This was Michael Westen, the hero of Burn Notice. Unlike Jack, Michael isn’t concerned with preventing massive terrorist plots. He’s about helping average folks with problems they can’t solve themselves: sort of a form of gun-toting welfare. Michael, though explicitly a patriot (meaning the show calls him that, not that he peppers the Star-Spangled banner with Deadwood-style profanity), is by definition outside the system. He can’t fight directly for the American government, as Jack does, but he can fight for Americans, so long as they live in the Miami area.
Michael also stands in contrast to Jack with their methods of crimefighting. Jack was all about combining high-tech brawn with low-tech brutality. Michael has to make do with what’s at hand, and a big part of the show’s appeal is Michael’s spy tips: bone dry voiceover in which Michael delivers fun facts, like the best way to bug a room, evade pursuers or jump out of a fifth floor window. Michael uses his brain first, only resorting to force when all other options are exhausted. He is more of a conman than superhero, exploiting the sometimes ridiculous gullibility of his enemies.
The biggest difference between Jack and Michael is one clearly intended by the show’s creator. Burn Notice can’t get through a month without commenting on the uselessness of torture. When Michael needs information about some dastardly plot, he leaves the evil at home, next to the yogurt. He uses his brain, which I’ve heard is impractical, admitting failure, and really really gay.
Burn Notice is only just starting its fourth season, it remains to be seen if it will become a parody of its politics as 24 did. If Michael starts cleaning up beaches or protecting endangered alligators or curing terrorism with hugs, we’ll know. In the meantime, it’s nice to see that there’s a liberal counterpoint to a conservative icon. Even if that counterpoint is on basic cable.