A few weeks ago, Howard Gordon, longtime producer of Fox’s real-time thriller 24, said that audiences shouldn’t expect a happy ending for its central antihero, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland). I can’t imagine why anyone would have expected anything but a dour denouement for a character who was always steeped in tragedy—constantly watching colleagues and loved ones die around him, torturing leads out of suspects at the cost of his own peace, perpetually on the verge of suicide. I saw a sad conclusion for Bauer coming miles away, but I hoped for a more optimistic ending for President Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones), who by the final seconds of 24 is disgraced for participating in a cover-up and on the verge of submitting her resignation. Over the course of eight seasons of 24, buildings and cars and entire city blocks were destroyed by all manner of weapon. But it can be argued that nothing sustained more damage in 24 than the image of the presidency.
It didn’t start out this way. The show got its first president in season two, when David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), the candidate Bauer was protecting in season one, ascended to leader of the free world. Palmer was cut from the same idealistic cloth as Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (Martin Sheen), the too-good-to-be-true head of state in The West Wing. Palmer was steady in times of crisis, firm but not a pugilist, with natural leadership skills and charisma. In season two, members of his administration tried to persuade him to mount a military response to a terrorist threat, but Palmer would not be swayed. When they attempted to overthrow him and usurp his authority—which they did, temporarily—he returned to power and forgave everyone rather than hold a grudge. In a recent interview, Haysbert talked about how fans of the show would come up to him on the street and tell him they wished he could be the real president. Then things changed.
By season three, Palmer was still as principled, but got involved in so many shady dealings that by the end of the season, he had withdrawn from his reelection campaign. His opponent, John Keeler (Geoff Pierson) was in office for the majority of season four, but the audience didn’t get much of a chance to know him—he was killed when a rogue fighter pilot shot Air Force One out of the sky. That left his sniveling vice president, Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin), to graduate to the Oval Office. Logan was so antsy and possessed judgment so unsound that Palmer had to be called in to consult him. Then the state of the presidency really went downhill. Palmer was killed by an assassin, part of a grand conspiracy that could be traced back to President Logan himself. When Logan’s complicity was exposed, he was forced to resign, and was replaced by Palmer’s younger brother Wayne (D. B. Woodside). Following a lengthy hiatus imposed by the Hollywood writers’ strike, 24 returned with Taylor as president, marking the show’s first female presidency. This would have been a nice stroke, a what-if dramatization for Hillary Clinton supporters, if Taylor weren’t such a flighty nitwit. The actions that led to her decision to resign in the finale stemmed from a troubling tendency to blindly follow the most recent suggestion from one of her male advisers.
The descent from superhero president to a leader who is inept at best and villainous at worst is mostly rooted in 24’s tendency to raise the stakes with every season. Bauer is the ultimate rogue agent, constantly squaring off against his superiors when they lack the stomach for his brand of instinct-driven, red-tape-cutting heroics. In order to make up the ante, the writers had to give Bauer’s oppressor higher ranks and more authority, so it was only a matter of time before the one of the terrorist plots unleashed each season trickled down from the very top. Much has been made of what 24 has to say about jingoism, torture, the war on terror, and what, if anything, it has to do with Islam as a religion. But more often than not, the writers weren’t espousing a world view, they were trying to do whatever would make for the most compelling, suspenseful series. Because the show sprang from the mind of co-creator Joel Surnow, a vocal conservative and the subject of a less-than-flattering New Yorker profile, 24 has been viewed, often unfairly, as a dramatic delivery system for a warmongering, neoconservative message. Just as the audience assumed the show was trying to “say something” about terrorism, many viewers assumed the show was trying to make a damning statement about the presidency and the corrupting influence of power.
In several interviews, a proud Haysbert has taken partial credit for getting America comfortable with the idea of black president through his portrayal of David Palmer. But given the current political climate, the rise of the Tea Party, and the simmering displeasure some have with Barack Obama, 24’s disgraced-president signoff could just as easily be read another way: presidents, no matter how charming and qualified they seem, will disappoint you. And when the giddiness of electing an African-American or a woman wears off, you’ll be stuck with yet another corrupt politician who will screw the country just the same as any other. Whether Jack Bauer lives, dies, or falls off the grid is ultimately of little consequence, but how people view their president has a colossal effect on how we feel about our country and our place in it. If viewers found themselves relating to 24’s final notes for its portrayal of a government bent on destruction, it’s a disappointing, sullying end for one of television’s most innovative shows.