Osama bin Laden is dead. But TV’s war on terrorism — long identified with “24” — didn’t die with him. Instead, it has changed with the times, reflecting a decade-long shift in the public mood about the costs and consequences of how America pursues terrorists. The vehicle for this evolution is Showtime’s “Homeland.”
Like “24,” the new series is a terrorism thriller that chronicles a high-stakes hunt for an elusive terrorist mastermind suspected to be planning some sort of attack. But where “24” captured the Bush-era zeal for revenge with a combination of vicarious violent thrills and absolute moral certainty, “Homeland” offers a far less enthusiastic, far more ambiguous picture of an uncertain campaign against an uncertain enemy — and a security infrastructure that is often as invasive as it is effective.
In November 2001, less than two months after the 9/11 attacks masterminded by bin Laden, the war on terrorism came to prime time with “24.” A grim, often gleefully violent show, the series revolved around a gung-ho American counterterrorism agent working to stop what usually turned out to be spectacular, high-profile terrorist plots — the follow-up attacks that many expected after 9/11 but never materialized.
Set in real time, with each season taking place over the course of a single day, “24” was a show that affirmed America’s worst fears about terrorism — that massive, coordinated attack plans were numerous and perpetually imminent — while simultaneously attempting to reassure viewers that the country’s essentially superpowered security agents and godlike surveillance capabilities ultimately could prevail against any threat, and would stop at nothing to do so.
Over the course of the series, the show’s hero, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), emerged as perhaps the most visible pop-culture icon of the war on terrorism. Still, as the show wore on, its relevance declined as universal public enthusiasm for the war on terrorism faded into ambivalence.
Now, two of that show’s executive producers, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, are attempting to catch up. The pair are heading “Homeland,” which patrols much the same turf, but from a decidedly more skeptical perspective.
The difference between the shows is the difference between the public mood in the immediate wake of 9/11, when few questioned the need for a new federal agency to monitor homeland security, and the public mood today, when polls report that most airline passengers are angry about the Transportation Security Administration’s array of pat-downs and full-body scans.
Much of the difference comes down to self-confidence. “24” came off as brash and self-certain, taking as a given that the surveillance state was a powerful, effective, necessary tool for fighting terrorism.
The series’ confidence frequently extended to the technology itself — the assorted networks of computers and satellites, the array of superspy gadgetry — which it tended to portray with expansive, worshipful awe. On “24,” nowhere and no one was safe from the government’s prying eyes in the sky.
Nor, for that matter, were they safe from Jack Bauer, the show’s hypercompetent lead agent. Bauer was a sort of Americanized, post-9/11 update on James Bond, brutal and remorseless rather than cool and suave. Like Bond, Bauer was effectively a superhero — invincible and unstoppable — and the impossible technology at his fingertips was an extension of his powers.
To some extent, this was a reflection of the show’s pulpy, techno-thriller trappings and its tech-bubble-era (the show was conceived before the crash) belief in the power of the new digital world. Few shows have inundated viewers with as much dizzying, mostly made-up techno-gibberish (actor Sean Astin, who appeared in the series’ fifth season, once complained that his main challenge was “memorizing all the techno-talk”). At times, the show made “Star Trek” seem positively Stone Age.
But it was also a sign of the show’s blustery faith in its mission — and the power of America’s counterterrorism infrastructure to carry it out. Most of “24’s” dramatic conflicts, including its infamous depictions of torture, revolved around whether or not to use that power. The details, technical and otherwise, didn’t really matter. Jack, its superhero of a counterterrorism agent, would almost make the case that it was worth the cost.
Indeed, the show hardly ever questioned whether Jack and his fellow agents had the capability to catch even the smartest terrorist baddies; it was assumed that they did. Instead, it asked whether they had the will.
Where “24” zeroed in on the cost of inaction and the power of surveillance, “Homeland” offers a reticent take on the costs of action and a more skeptical assessment of America’s mission and its ability to pull it off. It is not quite a deconstruction of “24’s” counterterrorist-as-superhero formula, but it is certainly a complication of it.
Rather than portraying the bureaucratic process as a trifle to be dismissed, “Homeland” goes out of its way to remind viewers that the internal politics of the security bureaucracy — as with other government agencies — revolve as much around the personal biases and hidden goals of the leadership as around questions about effective policy.
Its heroes are not flawless superspies, but government agents of sometimes questionable judgment. Instead, it features a CIA agent (an antic Claire Danes) hiding her bipolar disorder from her colleagues, and a Marine (Damian Lewis) returned from eight years of captivity in a terrorist hideout who may or may not have been turned by his captors.
Although it still indulges in too-convenient surveillance, it recognizes that all such technology has limits, bugs, flaws — and so do the decidedly human individuals who are in charge of running it. Even if there’s a will, the show seems to say, there may not always be a way.
Like its predecessor, “Homeland’s” fictional treatment of the war on terrorism was nearly overtaken by real-life events. After 9/11, “24’s” producers quickly recut a segment from its pilot depicting a terrorist blowing up an airplane. “Homeland’s” creators were already well into crafting the show’s first season when news broke that Osama bin Laden had been killed, and had to update accordingly.
The producers have said that they worried bin Laden’s death would render the show meaningless. But if anything, it highlights the cloud of uncertainty that now hangs over America’s massive new permanent security infrastructure. It also underlines the show’s central questions: A decade after 9/11, what has the war on terrorism cost the United States? And, perhaps more important, what price is the country willing to continue to pay?
By Andrew P. Napolitano
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