The Apolitical Position: 24, Gang Related, and Resisting Politicization

24Panel

Frank Micelotta / FOX

No one on the panel for Fox’s 24: Live Another Day seemed surprised to be questions about politics: 24 was a lightning rod for criticism of its politics, and those politics have become no less controversial four years after the show concluded its eighth season in 2010. Their answer was measured and purposeful, acknowledging the political world they’re working with and promising to reflect contemporary issues such as drone strikes; they also argued, however, that theirs is not a political show. Jack Bauer, they said, is an apolitical hero.

This is not true, but it’s not surprising that the producers would argue this is the case. It’s the classic evocation of encoding/decoding logic, in which the people who create television claim no political intent, leaving any political implications to the whims of the audiences who take the series and run with it. However, it is one thing to say that there is no specific political intent, and another to claim that a series is apolitical. By creating a series that clearly touches on and engages with politics, 24’s producers created a political hero—although interpretations of those politics vary, and I’d agree the show never presented them as explicitly “Political” in the sense of Republican/Democrat, the issues at stake cannot be made apolitical through sheer will. I would accept that 24: Live Another Day does not come loaded with a specific political message, but the idea that a show so steeped in the politics of terror could be apolitical is definitive proof that those who make television will run from the idea of politics as quickly as possible.

It’s the challenge for so many shows that are inherently political but unwilling to make a political statement. In Fox’s Gang Related, a gang task force in Los Angeles pushes the boundaries of the law in attempting to find the man who killed one of their own, and in the process plants evidence to make an arrest and casually uses NSA hacking technology to access a gang member’s computer so they can blackmail him using the gay fetish porn they discover. There are clearly politics surrounding these issues, something the pilot alludes to with the threat of an ADA investigating the task force for their recklessness, but the show appears to treat that character as a barrier or nuisance for our heroes to overcome in getting “the job” done.

When I asked the show’s producers about these politics during their session, producer Chris Morgan’s answer was that they absolutely want to deal with these politics, as they create drama for the characters. However, they don’t really want to deal with them: they want to generate conflict where the show itself gets to distance itself from the political implications therein. A show is never about its politics in conversations like this one, but rather deploys politics as a tool to contribute to elements like character that lack the label of “political.” It’s the difference between actually having a politics as a series, versus happening to have politics within your series.

I understand why this is: it’s the same reason why diversity questions that are raised for a show like Gang Related are more buried than they should be. You have a show that has an incredibly diverse cast by design to reflect the diversity of Los Angeles, and yet this can’t be a political statement: it has to be a “reflection” of an ostensibly active diversity mandate with no active social or political meaning behind it. The fact of achieving diversity within television programming has no specific political purpose for those within the industry, but rather speaks to a passive progressivism that is standard when it comes to this issue.

This passive progressivism is a clear case of post-racial discourses, in which the engagement with diversity is considered almost incidental—as Dan Fienberg noted on Twitter, it seemed like the critics in the room were more interested in discussing it than either the show itself or Fox as a network. To the producers’ credit, they responded to the questions well, navigating inquiries ranging from the diversity of their writers’ room to their casting of a Maori actor (Cliff Curtis) to play a Latino gang leader. Although there are moments in the pilot where those characters are boiled down to token conduits into gangs that share their racial background, and there’s an awful “Gangnam Style” joke that tries and fails to tap into a sense of humor regarding race the rest of the pilot isn’t capable of reconciling, the idea of a racially diverse cast that was designed as a racially diverse cast is important in an age of incidental blind casting, and the producers were very open to discussing their choices in this area. However, they still aren’t willing to claim it as a political project with any specific goal beyond reflecting the reality of Los Angeles. Fox didn’t introduce the panel touting their diverse cast, even though Kevin Reilly spoke of their commitment to a diversity mandate in his executive session—it was just a show about people, about humans.

I get why those who make television don’t want to sit up on a stage and claim a political project, and neither the 24 panel nor the Gang Related panel were entirely dismissive of questions related to their series’ respective politics. However, that these politics needed to be pulled out of them and made visible rather than inherent within their own self-disclosure is evidence of the industry’s fear of making any kind of statement beyond broad commitments when it comes to issues of social and representational politics.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Apolitical Position: 24, Gang Related, and Resisting Politicization

  1. Tyler

    In your classes, does anyone ever suggest to you that arguments require evidence?

    You make claims such as the following:

    “[T]hey also argued, however, that theirs is not a political show. Jack Bauer, they said, is an apolitical hero. This is not true [...]”

    If this piece of writing of yours is to have any actual meaning, you should take some pains to establish your claims, rather than just assuming that you know better than the producers of 24 about their own show, believing that your reader will take your word for it, then spiraling off into pontificating on that basis.

    For instance, can you demonstrate that Jack Bauer is a “political hero”? You would need at the minimum to show us what a “political hero” would look like versus an “apolitical hero,” hopefully with some justification, so that you could then provide the evidence placing Bauer in the one category over the other; it is not enough to say as you do that because “politics” has something to do with 24, the characters are therefore necessarily “political.” (Are they all “political” then, by your use of the term? Because they exist on a show that deals with situations that are sometimes termed “political”? If that’s your intended meaning, then there’s nothing worth salvaging here, because you will have reduced your operating terms to virtual meaninglessness.)

    So you understand, I’m not even disagreeing with your conclusions or saying that you’re wrong on any given subject. What I’m saying is that I’ve bothered to read this blog/essay of yours, and was disappointed to find it pointless. I’d like to see that change in the future.

    If television criticism is a worthwhile subject at all (and I believe that it is), and if you would like to participate (and it seems like you would), then why not strive to do it well? Whether you hear this sort of feedback in academia or not, this is what you must do at a minimum to improve: state your case clearly (which means that you must also identify your case, for yourself, before writing); provide evidence to make your case.

    If you can do those two things (the first being somewhat absent here, the second completely so), and do them well, then all of the subsequent matters upon which you currently appear to concentrate, such as style, point-of-view, and etc., will finally play their proper role in augmenting your writing, rather than constituting the “substance” entire.

    • Well, first of all, this was a quick blog post reflecting on the panels in question, and not an essay on 24. In doing so, I make certain statements that don’t have a full argument behind them, because that is not what this post was trying to achieve. As a result, I take the crux of your comment not as a deficiency of this article, but rather a provocation to explore those issues in greater detail, something that to me makes perfect sense to exist in the comments rather than in a brief overview of a trend emerging in two separate panels.

      My point in drawing a distinction between apolitical hero and political hero is that the latter term is so broad as to make the former impossible within the context of a show dealing with politics. The idea that 24 is not *specifically* political is one thing, but apolitical implies that Jack is in no way involved with politics, and that is simply untrue. To call him a political hero need not say that he is fighting for one particular politics, but rather that his heroism exists against the backdrop of politics. This means that his actions have political implications—although I would accept an argument that Jack is not specifically concerned with politics as he makes his choices, his heroism is ultimately created through interpretation, such that he becomes a political hero through the context of his actions regardless of his or the producers’ intent.

      The “point” of this post is to explore the articulate positions of those in the industry relative to the political, considering—reporting, even—on how and why they take certain positions relative to politics. In doing so, I touch upon a number of broader cases of how politics manifests within television programming and how meaning is constructed, all of which one could explore in immense detail. The reality of television criticism, particularly within the day-to-day chaos of press tour, is that anything one writes is the start of a conversation, and not the definitive argument on a specific subject. Should I expand this into a larger piece of writing, the concerns you raise here are certainly things one would consider; as it stands, I think your definition of “pointless” ignores the role of starting conversations like this one.

  2. rob

    Check out Marvin Bragg’s bbc 4 interview with Nadine Gordimer and Ariel Dorfman on writing and political oppression. Those two authors there both strongly rejected the claim of being “political authors” because, as Gordimer claimed it essentially allows an argument where the cause triumphs over the work. For instance, torture gets pushed to be black and white as other ways hurt the public image of the issue and this neglects the richer points made in the story and doesn’t let the be fully told.

    Though Tyler, I’d interpret the Bauer/political angle as something implied to be self-evident (the ticking time bomb terrorist justification, etc).

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