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Buffy and 24

November 15, 2012

What do Buffy the Vampire Slayer and 24 have in common?

A few weeks ago I outlined the genre of the “magical humanist adventure,” of which Buffy is a perfect exemplar. I ended that post with a set of questions, among them, “for a particular X, is X a magical humanist?” Here, I want to suggest that 24 is not a magical humanist adventure, but is closely related to them, and so can still help us better understand the genre. Specifically, I want to say that 24 permutes the magical humanist adventure by replacing curiosity with paranoia–a single substitution with immense consequences. I will sketch out these consequences following roughly the outline of the magical humanist genre from my prior post.

Similarities of plot

The basic situation of the magical humanist adventure, you may remember, is the following: (1) A tortured but ultimately good super-human fights evil, assisted by his/her much more normal friends, each of whom still turns out to be somehow special, and necessary for the central figure’s success. (2) The evil claims to aim at humanity’s perfection, but cannot in fact perfect it without destroying it. (3) The evil is inhuman and cannot escape its humanity, the hero super-human and unable to fully claim his humanity, and they often do not seem particularly different. (4) A fantastical and illogical universe promises limitless discovery but threatens even more inhuman villains.

The basic situation of 24 is essentially this, with “America” and “humanity” conflated. (1) Jack Bauer and CTU are the hero and his friends. (2) The terrorists, often Islamic, are his enemies bent on America’s purification. (3) The American cabal behind the terrorists prove that the terrorists are in fact essentially American/human, and Jack Bauer’s fugitive status proves that much as he would like to be, he cannot be fully American/human. (4) The world of 24 is one of constant discoveries, inventions, marvels, and new threats, and it never makes much sense.

Differences of philosophy

But the magical humanist approaches the world with curiosity, a principle combining skepticism and naive eagerness, fighting authority, stability, and comfort with freedom, novelty, and adventure. 24 says to approach the world with paranoia, a principle that what is known can be trusted and what is not known is to be assumed evil. No longer do we value freedom, novelty, adventure for their own sake. Now we value freedom, but value safety more, and seek out the novel relentlessly only in order to make it familiar and so stop it from threatening us.

The other magical humanist virtues are transformed accordingly. We still hope that things will turn out well; Bauer will refuse just as Buffy refuses to choose between saving one life and saving many. But no longer do we hope that other people are able to change from bad to good. We still value love above all else, and by “love” mean “love of family and friends” (though on 24 it feels more like “love of allies”); Bauer, like Buffy, would rather save his friends than save the world. But no longer do we allow this group to expand, as how over the course of Buffy more and more villains are allowed to cross over to the “good” column; rather, we are gradually forced to contract the group, more and more supposed friends being proven untrustworthy, until at the end of the final season of 24 we trust only a handful of Bauer’s closest allies. Moreover, no longer do we see violence as a last resort. It is now our only resort, for until we know everything, we cannot be safe, and we verify our knowledge through torture.

The philosophical anthropology changes as well. While the primary instinct remains the generic sci-fi libertarianism/existentialism, and while there is still a strong anti-authoritarian streak, the emphasis on flexibility completely vanishes. No longer, for example, do we have the strong emphasis on varying family structures and gender diversity; the focus is on whether any family whatsoever is possible. Nor do we worry about whether there is any modification that can make us no longer human; we now know (through the principle of paranoia) that such modifications exist, and worry only about whether or not we can avoid them.

Antiparallels of presentation

Magical humanist adventures are extremely self-conscious and self-mocking, layered with many levels of irony. 24 is far from self-mocking; one might call it overly self-serious. But I do think it’s self-conscious, and I do not think it completely unironic, either–perhaps, I want to say, it is not ironic but cynical, in a non-pejorative sense. With Buffy the irony results in a constant question: does the show itself want me to be frightened or to laugh? With 24 we never ask that. Almost always the show wants us to be on the edge of our seats; the rest of the time, it wants us to be relaxed but constantly aware that very soon we may be on the edge of our seats. But while we know what 24 wants us to feel, we don’t know what it wants us to think, at least about the central question of the story: is Bauer a hero or a villain? Do we condemn his acts of torture or accept them as necessary evils? Is Bauer himself a necessary evil?

I don’t think asking these questions is over-reading into what is simply mindless entertainment; I think these are questions the show itself asks. Consider the last few episodes of the final season. The series generally shifts incessantly between Bauer, CTU, the President, the villains, and various minor characters, and so it takes a while to notice, but at a certain point in these episodes it stops presenting Bauer’s viewpoint, and becomes less about Bauer saving the world and more about Bauer’s friends saving him from himself. Stopping him, however, requires convincing him to trust someone–someone he has trusted all along, but whom his paranoia has led him to distrust at this most critical moment. The show knows that paranoia cannot be a way of life–and yet, the show tells us, without Bauer’s paranoia, America would have been destroyed many times over.

In magical humanist adventures the incessant irony empties out the coherence of the mythology and the story, leaving only, on the one hand, spectacle, and, on the other, character. 24 strives much more for coherence on the level of mythology and story, and while there are occasional implausibilities and inconsistencies, they are rarely flagrant enough to draw one’s attention away from the constant forward progress (and when they do they feel like errors, not conscious decisions). Except in certain exceptional cases, however, both mythology and story are pre-determined in essence by the principle of paranoia; all that remains to be filled in are the details. For this reason character is must less important, but of course it cannot be entirely neglected.

Character for magical humanist adventures means emotions and the difficulty of communicating them, with a focus on human relationships; of the more sublime emotions (intellectual, artistic, spiritual), the only one to receive significant exploration is guilt (though intelligence plays a key role, the focus is on utility, on being able to use magical knowledge to do things, not on sublimity). The portrayal of emotion in 24 is quite similar, but here  guilt and the difficulty of communicating love fuse together: Bauer cannot communicate with his daughter Kim because of his guilt (for her mother’s death, for his status as necessary-evil paranoid super-man). The scenes with Kim have an easily-mocked awkwardness related, I think, to the awkwardness of the teenage emotional drama on Buffy, and I believe that this awkwardness, like that one, is intentional, not accidental Finally, in 24 the more sublime emotions are almost entirely ignored, even while there is a strong emphasis on practical intelligence (here bomb-making and computer-hacking); they do make something of an appearance, however, most notably in President Palmer, who stands for humanity excellence in both ethics and aesthetics (consider his impressive oratory and powers of speech-writing). But for the other characters on 24, these are not things to be possessed, they are things to be defended, as the president himself is a symbol to be defended.

*

This transformation from magical humanist adventure to 24 is all-encompassing, to the point where it seems wrong to me to call 24 itself a magical humanist adventure. But the transformation nevertheless seems to me to indicate a deep similarity; 24 is, perhaps, a cursed Americanist adventure, though I do not know of any others (fictional ones, that is).

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