"24" Season 4; 12:00pm-1:00pm. Two-dozen Muslim hostiles toting semi-automatics hold the U.S. Secretary of Defense hostage in a bunker outside Los Angeles. Within the hour they plan to execute him for war crimes. Why? “It’s Jihad,” explains the terrorist mastermind. Suddenly, U.S. agent Jack Bauer emerges through shadow and hurls a knife through the terrorist's neck. 24 and its hero Bauer, played by Keifer Sutherland, make for popular TV, with fifteen million U.S. viewers. But actor Maz Jobrani, who wouldn’t take the role of the terrorist mastermind, says the show is bad for him and for America.
Maz, a bald, mustached Iranian American, grew up playing Li'l Abner and Batman in high school. In college, his Iranian parents pushed him to political science, which he dabbled in before deciding he liked the camera more than the lectern. But in the real world of Hollywood, auditions started coming in “for terrorist role after terrorist role” -- and “generic” terrorists at that “with no emotional or psychological complexity.” For an actor, it was boring. For an Iranian, belittling. And for Americans, Maz says, it's dangerously oversimplifying.
According to Maz, the problem with TV like this is that when average American viewers see a white American villain on screen, they think “‘Wow, that American’s crazy,’” but when they see a Middle Eastern or Iranian villain on screen they say, “‘Man those Iranians are crazy.’ They don’t distinguish.”
Within America, minorities need image-rehabilitation, Maz says, but the case for reshaping the standard villain is a bit less clear when we step outside U.S. borders. “It’s strange,” says Maz, but Chuck Norris and Jack Bauer are “immensely popular in the countries where they’re kicking ass. My grandfather loves Chuck Norris,” even though Chuck wrecked Maz in the made-for-TV movie The President's Man.
This made me wonder: How is Jack Bauer perceived in Mexico when he dupes drug lords, or in Turkey when he cuts down Jihadis, or in Eastern Europe as he mangles mass murderers? The other day I informally emailed a dozen students, PostGlobal panelists, and readers around the world to see if Jack Bauer was popular where they lived, and if so why.
So the real focus becomes Jack himself, as a symbol of American masculinity (as the Bauerism goes, “Men are OK with their wives fantasizing about Jack Bauer during sex because they’re fantasizing about him, too”), as an action hero (“Superman’s weakness is Kryptonite; Jack Bauer laughs at Superman for having a weakness”), and as a merciless operator (“Jack Bauer lost his keys. He tortured himself until he divulged the location of the keys”).
Though he's outrageous, Bauer is inevitably intertwined with America. He fights for it, after all, and embodies some of its stereotypes: multiple love affairs, an affinity for pyrotechnics, fierce patriotism, and most of all these days, a go-it-alone attitude. After the unilateral invasion of Iraq, America's belief in the individual, once embodied by on-screen heroes like Rocky Balboa and The Terminator, increasingly reads as a political mantra.
As Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein writes, Bauer’s use of “torture and the whatever it takes mentality is precisely why the U.S. is so despised right now.” From India, student Akshay Bawa writes: “Jack Bauer is James Bond on coke.” The cool, cosmopolitan imperialism of Britain’s 007 is replaced with the brutish patriotism of Bauer.
On the other hand, friends from Senegal tell me the 24 theme song is among the most popular ring tones in the 95% Muslim country. In Venezuela, Ibsen Martinez says cable TV “has been increasingly affordable even to the very poor. Many people went into cable TV to escape Mr. Chavez's protracted speeches on regular TV. And 24, just as much as Prison Break, is one of the most popular shows among Mr. Chavez's constituency down here.” However, Chavez recently banned the channel that aired Bauer so things might change.
Political or not, the world isn't as infatuated with Bauer as I seem to be. In Kazakhstan, I’m told by a Peace Corps volunteer, “We get no Bauer. It might be out of the price range. But we get the crappiest 70s and 80s actions movies you can imagine.” I imagine their plots aren't too different from 24 after all. I never saw 24 in Pakistan, though I did catch some people hawking pirated DVDs of Season 2 downtown. A young writer named Ali Sethi confirms my suspicions. “24 isn’t really popular here but Sex and the City certainly is.”
Don't tell Bauer that.