Jack Bauer and Lady Gaga: When Culture Parodies Itself

For the first time in six years, I missed an episode of 24 this week. I didn't just miss it. I actually, incredibly, forgot that it was on.

I used to write about the show after every episode but had to give it up last year due to time constraints. But I still looked forward every week to vegging in front of the TV for the 8-9 hour and getting lost in Jack Bauer's world.

Longtime fans of the show would probably agree that this year's incarnation of the series is ludicrous -- a pale, insipid caricature of a program that once inspired serious debates among intellectuals about its meaning to American politics and culture. Indeed, as I have written on several occasions, 24 through the years reflected America's increasing doubts about the war in Iraq and the war on terror. It brought torture front and center in a way no political or legal debate among experts ever could, making the issues accessible for ordinary people to contribute to the fray.

24 was a cultural phenomenon and Jack Bauer was an icon both admired and despised depending on which side of the culture kampf you stood. It was the favorite show of the political class, both right and left. In its heyday, it generated big ratings and even bigger controversy for its unabashed point of view that showed America as the good guys and the terrorists as evil. It was one of the only shows on TV with a recognizable conservative slant -- a perspective that was maintained until the conservative creator of the series, Joel Surnow, handed off day-to-day responsibilities for the show to others.

Surnow is gone now and the character of Jack Bauer has been radically altered. This is a kinder, gentler Jack who doesn't torture suspects anymore, has a much lower body count, seems to work much better with the national security bureaucrats who used to stand in his way of saving America, and is even -- in the ultimate smack down to the "old" Jack Bauer" --  more tolerant of authority. In short, Bauer is now about as edgy as a snowball, and half as interesting to watch.

Jack Bauer has become a parody of a cultural icon. He is proof that, when in the proper hands, what was once a vital, complex, morally conflicted, and multi-motivated character can become a scoop of vanilla ice cream -- a milquetoast ghost of the old Jack. Now Bauer has become the "anti-Jack" -- a deliberately crafted near-opposite of the symbol who was adopted by conservatives as a totem for the kind of war we were fighting against enemies as pitiless and ruthless as their real-life counterparts.

The sense of duty is still there, but to what? All Bauer seems to have left is a personal code of honor to which he is loyal. Gone is the clear notion that Jack was fighting for America, replaced by a much more individualistic sense of "me vs. them." Bauer fights a private war now, for his own goals and his own reasons. It diminishes him in ways that reduces his impact on the culture. It's like Bauer has gone from Captain America to Captain Crunch.

It isn't so much that Bauer has become a liberal, or now reflects liberal sensibilities about the war on terror. That's not entirely accurate. Instead, the character is now a  parody of the old Jack, a notion reinforced by the writers deliberately eschewing the tactics used by the old Bauer, while steering the new Jack away from almost all controversy. The old Jack not only tortured suspects; he routinely thumbed his nose at the bureaucrats and his superiors. He seemed to have adopted the old Davy Crockett motto: "Be sure you're right -- then go ahead."

Now, Jack Bauer defers to authority in ways he never would have in the first years of the show. He has been defanged in an effort perhaps to widen his appeal. Instead, the effect is to parody what made Bauer such a powerful image of American strength and determination to take the fight directly to the terrorists. The old Jack Bauer probably belonged in a cage. The new Bauer only needs a leash. And the difference is a reflection of how pop culture has changed the last decade. Cynicism and a general malaise have overtaken the explosive and often over-the-top exuberance that was once the hallmark of the American pop scene.

The embodiment of this change is another pop icon, Lady Gaga. It's almost as if the purveyors of pop all of a sudden noticed that there was a lack of absolute outrageousness and limit-busting characters on the scene. They "discovered" Gaga, who filled the tastelessness gap that had been vacated by Madonna some years earlier

In truth, the woman has some talent, as well as brains. In that respect, she has it all over Madonna. But any evocation of the former Material Girl is done in a playful, irreverent manner. This holds true for her other big pop influence, the glam rocker Freddie Mercury of Queen. She also has a nose for publicity, an eye for over-the-top haute couture, and an ear for what sells in today's market.