The "24" Quandary

There are two men my mother has loved passionately, as her ten children will attest. There is my father, of course, but he always had to compete (patiently) with her crush: John Wayne. Handsome, strong, brave, virtuous, charming and a red-blooded patriot, he was the complete Hollywood package in her eyes, the standard-bearer in the days when Tinseltown unashamedly, and unabashedly, championed America to the world.

All that changed with Vietnam. The lines of demarcation between good and evil were blurred - or reversed. Hollywood lurched to that extreme in the '70s and '80s with "Platoon," "Full Metal Jacket," "Coming Home," and a raft of other releases sharply critical of American foreign policy and harsher still in their assessment of the American military. A bi-product of the Reagan Revolution of 1980 was a renewed sense of national pride, and in some (though by no means all) entertainment circles that theme re-emerged. On the silver screen we saw the "Rambo" and "Missing in Action" films; on television it emerged in series like "JAG."

After America was attacked on September 11, it was clear that America again had been singled out by villains, and with it the call for our popular culture to deliver the new heroes required to defend the nation. Yes, the champions of moral confusion in Hollywood want to disregard those antiquated notions of good and evil, and embrace the cause of "humanity" without having to make moral judgments. But the world is more complicated than that, and there exists the public appetite for the action-hero culture, where men aspire to defend the nation's cause with bravery and panache.

On television, the Fox show "24" stands out and has gained a passionate fan base in the post-9/11 era. Its hero, Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland, is the ultimate action hero, a one-man army fighting terrorists. In each season, Bauer saves the world in 24 hours or less, and under those extreme circumstances, all kinds of action and violence are needed for success and survival.

But there's a difference between action movies, often rated PG-13 or R, in which the viewers drive to the theater and choose the film, and national television, which can often encountered almost involuntarily by a casual press of the remote. The sixth season of "24" premiered on January 14, but this time even otherwise supportive critics are worried that Fox has gone over the top, with plot twists so extreme and brutal that one concludes the network is irresponsibly falling back on the old formula: shock for the sake of shock.

In the season premiere - which began in the family hour at 8 PM Eastern, not its usual 9 PM start - a terrorist spreads his tools out on a table and selects a specific knife to stab into Jack Bauer's shoulder. The hero tries to stay calm, but screams in agony when the terrorist pours alcohol over the stab wound. Moments later, Bauer is able to escape when he pulls out the heart monitor with his teeth. He takes out his captor by biting his neck so viciously that he rips a chunk of the neck off. Bauer then spits out the flesh and frees himself. Some of the show's fans might have been thrilled - but did it need to be so vividly gruesome, especially when youngsters are in the audience?

In the February 12 episode, there was another over the top scene, this time with a drill. When a terrorist learns that the Americans are hot on his trail and that his time is running out, he holds a hostage held against a wall, then plunges a power drill into his back. The whirling drill bit is shown digging into the man's skin and then the camera hones in on the screaming face of the victim, who then falls to the floor in a pool of blood.

These kinds of intensely graphic scenes are growing more common. The Parents Television Council found that Fox's "24" showed 67 scenes of torture in the first five seasons. To put that in its proper perspective, there were 110 torture scenes in all of prime time television between 1995 and 2001. From 2002 to 2005, the number soared to 624 torture scenes.

The controversy over the show's graphic scenes pits the hardcore action fans against the child protectors. There is a happy medium. Take the really grisly stuff out, and put it in the theaters. If it's a quality show - like "24" - it is unnecessary, as witnessed by its spectacular success before this year. Who knows? Maybe my mother will fall in love with Kiefer Sutherland, too.