In the new season premiere of the real-time terrorist thriller 24, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is a former federal agent trying to leave behind his run-and-gun past to spend more time with his family. Just as he's preparing to board a plane out of New York, a hot lead falls into his lap—there's a terrorist plot afoot, lives are at stake, and every second counts. If this sounds all too familiar, it's because it's the same just-when-I-thought-I-was-out narrative device 24 has used season after season to do what it does best: imperil the American way of life and task Bauer and his by-any-means-necessary techniques with neutralizing the threat. By 24's sixth season, television critics (present company included) wondered publicly if the show's rigid conceit and post-9/11 histrionics had constrained it to the point of diminishment. Yet here we are at season eight, and suddenly 24 feels as absorbing, vital, and relevant as ever. What a difference Christmas Day makes.
Had the 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab not allegedly attempted to bring down a Detroit-bound commercial jet with a hidden explosive device, viewers might have bemoaned this season of 24 as more of the same. But now, more of the same is exactly what viewers will want to see—an agent like Bauer, who knows a thing or two about tricks with explosives, using his instincts and wherewithal to thwart terrorists even as his superiors bungle. What's more, we spent several episodes in season two thinking an Iranian character was a terrorist, but (surprise!) it was actually his perky white fiancée, which suggested that the threat of terrorism defies the stereotypical Middle Eastern profile, as Abdulmutallab bears out. The show now has an advantage not seen since the first season debuted just two months after 9/11: a real-world reminder that an exaggeration of risk doesn't mean there is no risk at all.
But the truth is, topical dramas have an advantage across the board: they are succeeding everywhere (unlike, say, talk shows on NBC, which will almost certainly be in the market for this kind of programming in its post-Leno world). The roots go deeper than the ripped-from-the-headlines plots of crime procedurals such as Law & Order. In Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston plays Walter White, a mild-mannered high-school chemistry teacher who uses his science savvy to become a crystal-meth kingpin. Why? He's contracted lung cancer and wants to provide for his family in the event of his death, rather than leave them saddled with astronomical medical expenses. A month before the series premiere, while the show was still in production, a Bakersfield, Calif., chemistry teacher was arrested for—guess what?—producing crystal meth on school grounds. Now the shows are not only ripped from the headlines, the headlines also seem to be ripped from the shows.
No matter which tributary of the zeitgeist you find relevant, there's most likely a scripted drama trading on your anxiety. In Leverage, Timothy Hutton plays Nathan Ford, a former insurance investigator whose life unraveled when his company refused to cover an experimental procedure that would have saved his child's life. Now he leads a team of thieves who even the score when John Q. gets shafted by the bureaucracy. Patty Hewes (Glenn Close), the rapacious class-action lawyer of Damages, is taking on a Madoffesque Ponzi schemer in the show's third season, which premieres this month. (The tagline: "Main Street has taken enough bull.") Even the most far-flung shows are taking their cues from the news. The remake of the '80s alien-invasion drama V depicts an attractive alien race who arrive on Earth peddling hope and change (not to mention free universal health care), but they have a sinister, ulterior motive. The parallels with the current administration were so overt that Sean Hannity mentioned V on his talk show: "You know, I think this is one television show I can actually get behind."
Daily Show host Jon Stewart has always been adamant that, despite studies showing that young people are more likely to get their news from him than any other outlet, his role is to entertain, not to operate as a news source. As scripted shows become more topical, their producers will have to grapple with the questions Stewart has faced: though the first objective is to entertain, will television writers face the same scrutiny as, say, political pundits when their stories don't merely reflect the national dialogue but in fact shape it? That's what happened in the heyday of The West Wing, both in terms of the contentious issues it raised and in the way real politicians, especially President Clinton, were compared (often unfavorably) with the show's staunchly moral President Bartlett (Martin Sheen).
24 has shifted to and fro over the show's run, depending on public sentiment about its alarmist themes. By the 2007 season, its sixth and the nadir by far, its tone reflected a threat level that its audience wasn't feeling anymore. It featured a nuclear-weapon detonation on American soil and Bauer scrambling to retrieve four others before they could be detonated. Something rang false about the horror of the scenario—it might have made sense in the context of the show, but in the context of the country's mood at the time it felt like a contrivance, a way to keep the audience on the hero's side as his actions became indefensible. By the beginning of season seven, Bauer was called to testify before a Senate subcommittee to answer for his actions, a tacit admission that perhaps 24 had gone too far. Meanwhile, V aired only four episodes before a lengthy hiatus, amid whispering that the network brass was uneasy about the show's political overtones. When a television drama feels real enough to inspire its own conspiracy theories, you know that fiction has become as strange as truth.