From our book clubs to our biopics to our justifications for battle, the ever fuzzy American line between fact and fiction has blurred to the point of near nonexistence. In future decades, if there is a definitive accepted narrative of the war in Iraq, it will be because Spielberg directed it. Nowhere, though, has this constant thrust toward fictionalization of current events been more obvious than on television. With ripped-from-the-headlines content in shows like “Sleeper Cell,” “Over There,” “The End of the World” and, of course, the granddaddy of all paranoia television, Fox’s “24,” which seized us by the throat right after Sept. 11 and gave us the best thrill our collective horror hangover could ask for.

Four seasons, and four very long days later, our hero is back from the dead. But much has changed since he first showed up to soothe our real-life terror from real-life terrorism. In 2001 we faced Sept. 11 and an anthrax scare, but by 2005 we were more worried about bird flu and hurricanes. Now, in 2006, terror anxiety is no longer our biggest driver — so do we still need Jack Bauer?

In situations like this, it behooves the concerned social critic to bore beneath the surface and wax philosophical and grave — about entertainment as propaganda, as opiate, as possible justification for an ongoing abstract war on an enemy who looks nothing like the photogenic villains of “24,” a war waged by counter-terrorist experts of nowhere near the sang-froid and desperate competence of Jack Bauer. These are important inquiries, significant inquiries, inquiries with dire consequences for our freedoms. But first….

Jack’s Back! Jack’s Back! Jack’s Back!

Jack’s back, and better than ever. Still sexy, still struggling, and in the first four hours of the series he’s already faced down more bad juju than James Bond saw in a lifetime: the murder of his best friend and hero, President David Palmer (the greatest fictional black president, ever, gunned down just in time for MLK weekend), a frame-up for that murder, a fight with the suspicious son of his new girlfriend, a car bomb that kills one of his friends and puts another in critical condition, a near calamity, and finally an arrest.

While this is going on, he also manages to win over his new surrogate son, hacks into the Counter Terrorism Unit mainframe, accidentally lands himself in the middle of a hostage crisis, blows up a terrorist cell by reprogramming his own cellphone, saves his surrogate son from assassination not once but twice, and convinces Palmer’s brother to stop waving that gun in his face and search for evidence, goddamnit!

I’m leaving out the mysterious canisters, the father-son talk in the stolen van, the “Flank 2” red herring, the hobbit takeover of CTU, the gun to Jack’s own head, The Man in the Yellow Tie and one fabulous cameo by the first lady’s brassiere, perhaps the best example of titty-as-weapon since Austin Powers… but these knots will all be tied, untied and retied in the weeks to come, now that Fox has guaranteed that the Tivo-less among us won’t be leaving our houses on Monday evenings for the next few months.

Which should give us time to go back to all those questions about entertainment as opiate of the masses, as we continue to worship at our television sets. The bottom line is that the producers and directors may tell a riveting story and make a lot of money for their sponsors (who, judging from the show’s product placement, is Sony, Sony and Sony), but they do so by playing on our deepest fears and giving us heroes who can then pacify those fears.

So which panic button do the writers reach for in 2006? They do away with David Palmer and abandon us to something much scarier than a bomb or a virus: a rudderless America. Last season’s President Charles Logan is back, all creped neck, blinking eyes and puckish obsession with his own legacy. He condescends to his wife, spits at his men and throws tantrums in counsel, and we wouldn’t trust him to sign for a pizza delivery, much less a national treaty. As my friend Chloe and I watched him fret his way across the hostage crisis and the signing of the ballyhooed Anti-Terrorism Agreement with Russia (look for an anti-hurricane bill to follow), she turned from the screen in disgust and grunted, “Oh please. That guy’s not presidential. No way he’d ever get elected.”

Then she paused and said “Oh, wait.”

And in that “Oh wait” lies the new specter at the heart of this new longest day. There is no President Palmer, no hero, no moral center for Jack to protect. Instead we must turn to a small-minded puppet, a man who doesn’t have the brains to heed warnings, who relies on his entourage for information and whose staffers busily hide all distressing news from him as they micromanage the country to serve their own agendas. As for Jack, he’s a knight-errant without a King, protecting an America without a Captain. Fox has once more struck the vein of our current nightmare. And once more, it has our attention.

This may be the most realistic “24” so far.

Reuters: “24” Racks Up Record Numbers

Salon: How real is “24”?

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