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.