BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sometimes art, if you could call a Fox primetime TV show art, can resemble life in unsettling ways. The show in question here is called "24" which portrays the life and trials of counterterrorist agent Jack Bauer in real time, hour by hour. Twenty four episodes of "24" make up one very long, very dangerous day. The first 12 episodes of Jack's day have had him foiling the attempts of evildoers to explode a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles. Through splendid detective work and a little bit of torture, the bomb was found and flown to the Mojave Desert where it did explode, mushroom cloud and all. And even though it was fiction, in a Code Orange world it was chilling. Then the show went dark for a couple of weeks as was the production plan, and the U.S. went to war in Iraq. This week "24" came back with a new episode in which the president must decide how to retaliate for the bomb. It seems that it may have been the work of one terrorist group or three unnamed Middle Eastern countries. Fox tells us that the episode was in the can before the real war started, but wow, did it resonate. James Poniewozic is a television critic for Time magazine and a viewer of "24." He agrees that the series manages to mirror geopolitics in startling ways, particularly this week.
JAMES PONIEWOZIC: A couple things struck me as really sort of jarringly real. One was a scene where we see one of the agents interrogating a terrorist, and makes reference to other people eventually getting the truth out of him, quote/unquote "at Guantanamo." [MUSIC]
WOMAN: Whatever you don't tell me you'll tell the interrogators in Guantanamo under much less comfortable circumstances. So I'll ask you one more time.
JAMES PONIEWOZIC: "24" up to now has always taken place in this kind of make believe parallel world. There's an intelligence agency, but it's not called the CIA. There's no reference to September 11th or something like that. So very, very jarring to hear a specifically 9/11-related proper noun coming out at us all of a sudden. The other thing I think that is very startling is suddenly to see the central debate of the show is there's been this terrorist act by a terrorist group on American soil. The question is do we pursue that terrorist group or do we instead fight a sort of more conventional war in which we're invading Arab countries -- and does that help the war on terrorism or sidetrack us from the war on terrorism? I mean it doesn't get much more real than that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And then even within that on the program they go after such things as the nature of certain kinds of evidence - can you trust it - can you not trust it - can you go to war on the basis of it - and of course we've been watching that debate in the UN for months and months!
JAMES PONIEWOZIC: Exactly!
MAN: The president is going to make some very, very serious decisions based on the information that he got from that recording.
"PRESIDENT": I don't want to make a mistake that our children and their children will have to pay for.
MAN: Sir, we have evidence that's been confirmed by every military and intelligence expert on the payroll.
"PRESIDENT": Everyone except Jack Bauer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So there you have it. I think what's interesting here is it points out that the military, though perhaps well-intended, is riddled with seeming spies and are also in a big rush to war. The only person that seems to be holding back in this case is the president, and the independent operator Jack Bauer. This is an awfully subversive view of our government and our own, what many have criticized, as a rush to war.
JAMES PONIEWOZIC: And the really interesting thing about that is that what is going on right now on "24" and of course this could change on a dime in a couple of episodes, but this is potentially an extremely subversive statement unlike really just about anything that we've seen go on, on American TV while there are troops on the ground fighting a war in another country. It, it's almost analogous to the kind of real time war coverage that we're seeing that we're now also giving real time dramatic responses to the world events.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And in this episode once again we have a reference to the fact that the enemy may "go chemical" and of course we've been hearing that in the last week or so on the news channels!
JAMES PONIEWOZIC: There was also a lot of discussion for instance of how the rest of the world is going to react and can this lead to a world war, can it lead to anti-Americanism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Between the reality entertainment programs and the 24 news channels and the embedded reporters and the shows that cleave so closely to reality like "24," we have a, a sort of alternate universe that's almost indistinguishable from the real one!
JAMES PONIEWOZIC: And in a sense an alternate universe and this may be both the usefulness and, and the danger of a program like that -- this alternate universe really gives us a more broad, synthetic image of the big picture than we're getting right now from TV news coverage of the war. In other words on "24," we get to see what's going on behind the scenes; we get to see the different players and their motivations and agendas. It provides a big picture that, you know, we understandably can't necessarily get right now from war in Iraq.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: James Poniewozic, thank you very much.
JAMES PONIEWOZIC: Thanks a lot, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: James Poniewozic is Time magazine's TV critic and a regular viewer of "24."
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, why Richard Perle wants to go to England and why England sent us Ali G.