Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Fox’s “24” is pulling off the unthinkable this season. No, it’s not that it’s one-upping previous seasons with an electric blend of nightmare terrorist scenarios and bold twists.

It’s that it’s dispensing with the politically correct evasions that pervade prime time episodic television.

“24” identifies the terrorist enemy without flinching and lets the good guys fight to win — without apologies. In the process, the show is earning a conservative cult following.

To a greater extent than almost any other fictional show currently on the air, “24” depends on verisimilitude for its impact. The series has always had a ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy, one boosted by its unique real-time clockwork. Any one-hour episode approximates an hour passing in real time.

Political honesty may be the inevitable extension of this trademark topicality and temporal realism.

The sacrifice of political honesty in deference to the brittle political sensitivities of an ethnic lobby “would feel like a groaner,” says Joel Surnow, show co-creator (with Robert Cochran) and executive producer. “It’s what the audience is expecting.”

He makes no bones about where the show can, and often does, head.

“For it to have any believability and resonance, we had to deal in the world we’re living with, and the terrorists are the jihadists,” Mr. Surnow says. “It wouldn’t feel realistic if you did anything else.”

The current season began on an emotional note, as we watched a sleeper cell based around an American Muslim family whir to life.

That didn’t sit well with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which asked Fox to run pro-Muslim public service announcements as a corrective.

When “24” star Kiefer Sutherland appeared on a subsequent episode break with just such a message, it seemed likely that “24” would start pulling its punches.

Instead, it came out swinging.

In recent weeks, the heroes in Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) have taken to torturing suspects to extract information about a looming nuclear attack.

CTU agents were about to wring clues out of a key suspect with ties to the villainous Marwan (Arnold Vosloo in a doozy of a turn) last week when a group dubbed Amnesty Global stepped in with lawyers in tow.

On a more typical show, the fictitious civil rights group would be depicted as brave, self-sacrificing humanitarians. On “24,” Amnesty Global is the villain, a fact hammered home with an almost malicious plot detail: The terrorists have the group on speed dial.

Imagine that plotline on “The West Wing.”

Nah, we can’t either.

Labeling the show as conservative-leaning is “a fair assessment,” says Mr. Surnow. “Doing something with any sense of reality to it seems conservative.”

That kind of defiance of Hollywood groupthink has right-wing talk show hosts like Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh paying notice. Both hosts have given generous airtime to the show’s story lines, with Mr. Limbaugh bragging about meeting the show’s creators and visiting the set in recent weeks.

Mr. Surnow wasn’t surprised when CAIR protested after the season began, nor would it shock him if the current torture subplot raises hackles.

He wouldn’t have it written any other way.

“If there’s a bomb about to hit a major U.S. city and you have a person with information…if you don’t torture that person, that would be one of the most immoral acts you could imagine,” he says.

Mr. Surnow says that while his writers come from both sides of the political spectrum, “we don’t have any far-left, Michael Moore followers.” He denies any intention to pander to ideological viewers.

“We don’t try to push an agenda,” he says. “But we’re committed to being non-PC.”

It’s hard to think of many precursors to “24,” but maybe a show like “JAG,” with its embrace of the military, helped pave the way.

“JAG” creator Donald P. Bellisario suggested as much to reporters during a press call last week. “Hollywood is a very liberal community,” said Mr. Bellisario, whose show ends a 10-year run at 9 tonight on CBS. “It doesn’t have a great affinity for the military. When this show started, the military was almost a pejorative term in Hollywood.”

When “24” wraps its current season later next month, we have a hunch the good guys will somehow thwart the terrorists’ murderous plans. And it’s a sure bet that Jack Bauer and company won’t be wringing their hands about how they did so.

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