The compact "suitcase nuke" that detonated right on schedule last night at the end of 24
's fourth hour would make a swell gift product to hawk on QVC or the Home Shopping Network. Think of it as the Garden Weasel
for the budding terror hobbyist on your Easter list: "The Amazing New Ronco Pocket Apocalypse." Clean, fast-acting, and there's no undue psychic fallout to tidy up afterwards. A couple stunned minutes of all-purpose grieving for humanity and before you can say, "Jack, there are four more suitcases," we've moved on to scenes from next week's suspenseful episode and are back to the business of perpetual crisis as usual.
Since pop apocalyptics are a main topic of my book Born in Flames, I take a certain proprietary relish in the show's single-minded drumbeat of impending doom ? it only goes to illustrate (with schematics, flow charts, satellite photographs, the works) how pervasive that strain of end-of-the-worldliness has become. With 24, we're at the point where the Doomsday Scenario is treated as another harried day at the office, a launching pad for a Sisyphean Dragnet. The problem with Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer is that despite regular attempts to "humanize" him (implanting faux vulnerabilities and such), he remains a total National Security Eagle Scout (with merit badges in torture and being tortured). Unlike such varied horsemen (and -women) of the Apoc-archetypal as Col Kurtz, Buffy, and Travis Bickle, he isn't implicated in the chaos breaking out around him, and neither are we. Jack's a specialist in Chaos Management; ruthlessly multi-tasked compartmentalization is his corporate forte.
The logic of 24 dictates that Jack will have to shoot a dear friend and colleague in order to protect "the greater good." The momentary breakdown that followed provided a discrete, sealed-off interlude of despair, interrupted by that obliging mushroom cloud. A small city is vaporized, but on the positive side, it snaps Jack out of his hand-ringing depression. Dr. Strangelove would approve (and prescribe) ? the bomb as hydrogen-powered Prozac.
Still, while the latest cross-pollinated Islamist threat (with Western co-conspirators to doubtless be named and indicted later ? what about American fundamentalists, some nutty, corrupt Apocalypse Lobby?) is well underway, I fret about future seasons. Where will the fresh, young, exciting terrorists of tomorrow come from? Maybe Africa, maybe Asia, sure, fine, but there may be a limit to how many ripped-from-the-headline-crawl-of-CNN villains you can have before eye-glazing entropy finally sets in.
I'm thinking maybe Jack and the crew need to eventually look "outside the box" for more challenging evildoers to tackle. Why not go up against a Fight Club-type cell of cultural terrorists? Suicide bombers going boom at the Golden Globes, the whole American Idol troupe held hostage, with a semi-finalist beheaded every two hours until the shadowy group's demands are met.
Or make Borat the next nemesis ? that malaprop-comic exterior naturally concealing a terrorist in sheep-molester's clothing, smuggling a super contagious form of bird flu into the country ("Jack, there are four more chickens!"). The big plot twist: we learn in the thirteenth hour that Borat is mere puppet whose strings are pulled by real mastermind… Andy Kaufman, who like Jack of course faked his own death. That could explain a lot.
Two footnotes: a shout-out to the makers of the original suitcase nuke in the fantastic 1955 film Kiss Me Deadly, a Samsonite masterpiece of paranoid nihilism. That kind of durable, portable destruction just never goes out of style. Meanwhile, I predict the first of the wave of Borat-inspired reality docu-comedies will be Richard Linklater's full-length rotoscope feature adaptation of The Tonight Show's "Battle of the Jaywalk All-Stars." Unless Harmony Korine's long-delayed version of "Stupid Pet Tricks" beats him to the donkey-punch.