The 6th November, 2001 is not a day in which history is especially interested. But those who watched Fox in the US that evening might remember it. The first episode of 24 had been put back so as not to air too soon after 9/11; by 11/6, America was ready to meet Jack Bauer.
Kiefer Sutherland’s flawed hero will be back on US TV screens soon, after a first run of nine years and eight series (one was lost to a writers’ strike). Sometimes he worked for the US government’s fictional Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU), sometimes alongside it, and sometimes against it check it out. Though conceived and part-written at the beginning of George W Bush’s presidency, before 9/11, the show was explicit in its attitudes towards the wider world from the start, and quickly found that the changed climate into which it had been born could be assimilated with gusto. 24 was a series about America, about men and heroes, about threats from within and without, and about the effectiveness of guts and force in fixing what soft power and negotiation could not. As the bombs rained on Afghanistan and then Iraq, and as round-the-clock, real-time news watched, 24 seemed like a reassertion of individualistic American might, reflecting a belief in the power of people (or one particular person) to take matters into their own hands and, in so doing, solve the world’s problems.
The first four seasons were the best, and of those, the second season stands out (though the third sees Jack operating throughout while suffering severe heroin withdrawal, and at various other times he survives heart attacks and death). This was must-see television, ambiguous in its threats and relentless in its individualism. The US government cannot be trusted, though the President is a good man. The terrorists look as if they will turn out to be Muslim extremists sponsored by the governments of ‘three Middle-Eastern countries’, but Jack’s faith in his own instincts sees him persevere and bring down the government itself in order to expose the truth: that the whole nuclear-bomb-in-LA shebang has been orchestrated by businessmen in the oil industry, at least one of whom has a fabulously evil English accent. Oh, and George Mason, head of CTU, flies a nuclear bomb into the middle of the Mojave Desert in order to save LA and avoid a slow, agonising death from radiation poisoning.
It’s not so much that Jack doesn’t play by the rules; rather, that the rules are irrelevant. Jack is, at various moments in 24: a drug addict, a terrorist, a hard-working officer of the law, a prisoner, a prisoner in China, a wanted criminal, a potential presidential assassin, a philanderer, a (really bad) father of an incredibly unfortunate daughter, a torturer, a bodyguard, an exiled, officially dead outlaw and a presidential consigliere. Only two things remain constant: Jack is always right; and Jack is always the man who can take the necessary action. The Bush administration allegedly thought 24 helped to legitimise some of its more unpopular actions, including torture, but if it did, it was because people had missed the point. Jack Bauer may have been a government employee some of the time, but in his actions, he was always himself. His methods were explicitly his methods, neither condoned nor often even acknowledged by the State. As an individual American citizen, the means could justify the end, and while the US establishment was struggling to catch up with events that seemed to have overtaken it, such a hero could provide a fictional blueprint for a hopeful future.
More than a decade later, Homeland, whose third season started in October, looks quite a lot like 24 from a distance. That’s no surprise: the writing and production teams overlap, and both deal with the threat of terror on US shores, employing a coincidence-led approach to plotting that often verges on the ludicrous, while relying on complicated father/daughter relationships for human interest. But where 24 was unambiguous in its ambiguousness (we may not have known what the hell was going on, but we always knew who would get to the bottom of it and that we could trust him), Homeland is a far more complicated beast. Its unknowns are Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘unknown unknowns’. The title carries a heavy burden; Homeland is the homeland of Homeland Security (created in response to 9/11), most simply, but also of a homeland reclaimed in Israel. There are overtones of fatherlands and nationalism, but more spiritual connotations too: the show often seems to be asking what defines someone’s home, whether it’s a matter of geography, of values, of faith, of family? Need it even be a place?
Jack Bauer had impeccable instincts, and it seems as if Homeland’s Carrie Matheson (a bi-polar, fantastically unprofessional CIA agent with issues and a sledgehammer-subtle first name) has the same gifts. But there is a crucial difference. Unlike Jack, Carrie can’t have the courage of her convictions. She’s sure she’s right, but she (and we) can’t be sure that she can be sure, because her mental state is so unreliable. Even when she has been proven right about something, she’s normally had to pass through various states of destructive wrongness on the way.
Carrie is no hero. No one in Homeland is a hero, especially not the war hero-cum-terrorist-cum-fugitive-cum-patriot Nick Brody, who drinks Yorkshire Gold tea, and converted to Islam while imprisoned in Iraq by Al-Qaeda. The only likely candidate is the brooding and peripheral Peter Quinn, who seems to have been introduced in season two mainly to compensate for Homeland’s Bauer-vacuum. More than 12 years after 9/11, it seems that America doesn’t do heroes in quite the same way as it used to. Homeland is a show about deflated power and stagnation, about failed overseas campaigns and a jaded domestic security apparatus. Jack Bauer could ignore the pesky FBI if he chose, secure in the knowledge that he was on the right course; Carrie does not have that luxury. The security infrastructure that was set up and enhanced to protect the country has become its own impediment, while the only individuals that can effect significant change are the bad guys, whoever they are.
Homeland’s extraordinary title sequence, which takes in Reagan, Bush mark 1, Clinton, Lockerbie, Louis Armstrong and an upside-down Obama, screams continuity, but not in a good way. The threats this version of America faces are always the same, and they are primarily psychological in nature. The jazz that Carrie loves stands for narrative progression, but also for something like insanity; different tunes punctuated with moments of wild inspiration before returning to a predictable standard line. Improvisation, in this context, is only possible within pre-dictated parameters. If Jack Bauer really does return, he could do worse than to lend the Homeland CIA a hand.