FOX's breakneck drama 24 has always thrived on the friction between the real and the implausible -- and never more so than in the program's second season, which ended this week. Split into the 24 hours that make up a really bad day in the life of former counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), the show has replaced last year's Serbian villains with U.S. and Middle Eastern terrorists planning to detonate a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles. The first season's plot to assassinate a presidential candidate has given way to talk of a retaliatory war in the Middle East and the erosion of domestic civil liberties. In much the same way that dreams, with their combination of mundane and fantastic details, help us sift through the detritus of our daily lives, so does 24 offer a lens for reflection on the shocks and ethical dilemmas of our post-September 11, post-Iraq War world.

Or it would, if the show weren't quite so ridiculous.

We 24 viewers should be used to it by now; the show's first season, after all, was an orgy of impossible plot twists predicated on character stupidity, loose ends and the like. This year has upped the ante with a nuclear bomb, murder, kidnapping, multiple torture sessions and impending war. If I were to spell out the story arcs in this year's 24, you would surely call me crazy for watching such a ludicrous show.

I would agree with you.

And yet, and yet . . . there's something compelling, fascinating, perhaps even therapeutic about the way the show mines the horrors of recent events for inspiration. 24's sense of floating fear feels familiar in our time of color-coded terrorism threats; the chest-beating rush to war is not so far off, either. But perhaps most valuable of all is the way the show depicts an ethical system that has become clouded and murky with difficult choices -- choices that make a mockery of the black-and-white rhetoric that has become so pervasive in our real lives today.

As in last year's episodes, Bauer and now-President David Palmer (played with grave dignity by Dennis Haysbert) form the dramatic and moral centers of the show. Both are faced with appalling situations: Bauer captured a Middle Eastern terrorist and staged the shooting of the man's oldest son; Palmer detained a journalist and ordered the torture of a U.S. government official. The show offers justification and moral assuagement for the decisions: Bauer and Palmer were both forced into their dark actions by extreme circumstances, and only after all other avenues were exhausted. But the show also depicts how Bauer and Palmer are shaken -- as we should be -- at the way the struggle to protect America's ideals may end up violating them.

No one has clean hands in this show, not even Kim (Elisha Cuthbert), Jack's continually at-peril (Wife beater! Bear trap! Mountain lion! Mountain man! Panicky Latino stereotype with a gun! Lather, rinse, repeat!), perkily coiffed, buxom daughter. Kim's that girl in the horror movie -- the one who gets chased, mauled, eaten -- and she's also "us," the manifestation of our "Britney Nation," as The Washington Post's Hank Stuever put it. Kim's a naive daddy's girl who just learned that not everyone likes her, that threat and danger lie just beyond the comfort zone. She picked up a gun with her French-manicured hands and shot someone this season; I guess everyone has to grow up sometime.

Perhaps the best illustration of how 24 perversely upends simplistic categories is seen in the character of Marie Walker (Laura Harris), a cute blonde bridezilla who raises hell when she finds out her Middle Eastern fiancé is being hauled off for questioning on her (!) wedding (!) day (!). Poor Reza is innocent, of course, but we only find this out after Marie pops a cap in him and stalks off. She's the terrorist, you see, this handful of fluff and blue eyes, this toxic kewpie doll. Why does she do it? She doesn't answer, and her California-girl looks suddenly seem alien and threatening -- far more so than the face of Yusuf Auda (Donnie Keshawarz), a Middle Eastern agent aiding Bauer who is brutally killed by Muslim-bashing men.

It's terribly ugly, this all-pervasive treachery, fear and moral corrosion. Thankfully 24 rarely dehumanizes even its most malignant characters: The terrorist whose son faces execution at Bauer's command, for example, weeps uncontrollably, and we feel his horror and desperation even as we fear his hatred. 24 instead saves its sketchiest portrayal for the character that embodies corporate evil: Peter Kingsley, one of the masterminds behind the whole nuclear terrorist threat. With his creepy turkey-wattled neck and his businessman's avarice, Kingsley is the perfect target for all those "no blood for oil" signs -- a bit of a two-dimensional baddie for a series that has shown us the terrified family of a terrorist.

The show does reassure us that even when goodness has been tainted, perhaps even lessened by circumstance, many characters will nevertheless act courageously and with conviction. President Palmer holds out for definitive proof that Middle Eastern countries are behind the nuclear threat while his impatient vice president and chief of staff conspire to remove him from his position by invoking the 25th Amendment. Hearing this, one can't help but think of the alleged al-Qaeda-Iraq links, the ongoing scavenger hunt to find chemical and biological weapons in Saddam Hussein's land. Palmer's removal is the very impeachment of patience, of cool levelheadedness, and casts a question upon the process by which we decided to wage our own war.

And so when all is righted in the end, when bloodshed is averted, romances suggested, families reunited and presidents reinstated, it is particularly brutal that this leader -- noble, forceful and well-considered as he is -- falls prey to yet more peril. After a stirring speech in which he soothes a frightened nation and assumes again the mantle of calm leadership, he is felled by a handshake transmitting some frightful poisonous substance. The horror of nuclear detonation has been miniaturized, made horrifically personal. Bauer lies on a gurney, barely alive after his long day; Palmer gasps on the ground, even closer to death. It's too much. Is there no safe haven? Are there no sheltering leaders or father figures left standing? Perhaps not -- in the real world or in 24. But even so, the season ends on a disquietingly false note: That set-up for next season skewed the balance, sent the show spinning from its careful perch between cynical paranoia and idealistic hope.

I hope that 24's producers re-establish the balance next season; they've done so much to disrupt easy binaries of good and evil that they should be able to walk the thriller tightrope between fear and hope, between the extraordinary and the everyday. Without that balance, 24 would lose its potency as a nightmare vision of our times, and find itself confined again to its box, a TV show too ridiculous to shed any light on our current dilemmas. And it would be a pity if that happened. Because for all its darkness, its ridiculous plot machinations, the demands it makes on us to suspend disbelief, 24 can give us hope on at least one count: that all of us, morally compromised, fearful as we are, can still fumble our way into doing the right thing.

Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect contributing editor.

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