Jeff Zittrain

Leave the Bone Alone

Jack Bauer – looking almost as badass as the picture next to him

A few months back I wrote a column which garnered much reader response, about my new iPod, and what it indicates about the fast-paced and impatient nature of today’s world. Part orgasmatron and part Frankenstein, I am addicted to my iPod, and think its benefits are great and worthy, but I can’t deny something unsettling about the way it encourages me to not absorb anything – with thousands of options I can breezily skip past songs that don’t instantly please me and in shuffle mode never hear anything in its full album context. As a friend of mine remarked, you can stay on top of everything but never get to the bottom of anything.

This all comes to mind again because I’ve spent the past few weeks getting on top of the first 4 seasons of the DVD collection of cultural phenomenon “24.” Similar to the iPod, I’ve got to admit “24” is also highly addictive (I spent one night driving all over town to three different video stores on a semi-panicked quest for the next episode). It’s also got tight acting, blazing action sequences, stylized camera work and very cool (although sometimes not quite logical) cliff-hanging plot twists.

If you haven’t heard, the show’s overall premise is that each episode is one hour in real time and the 24 episodes in a season therefore make up one full day. It’s a cool structure which infuses much urgency and excitement – but it also spawns another more nefarious reaction, perhaps even worse than the gentle iPod.

To those who cry “it’s just a TV show, no one takes it seriously” check out Mikhal Gilmore’s analysis in the current Rolling Stone as well as Frank Rich’s landmark Jan. ‘05 column in the NY Times, “We’ll Win This War, On 24”, in which he concludes that Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer is “more engaged in the war on terror than those in Washington who actually have his job.”

Remember, part of 24’s appeal is the show’s cinema verite elements (camera movements pan and zoom to follow the action like a documentary, and the exact time down to the second flashes regularly at the bottom of the screen, even adding up during commercials as if the show is still going on even when we’re not watching it) – blending with its fantasy James Bond/comic book elements (Jack Bauer pretty much single-handedly saves the world and survives impossible situations every hour of the day – without ever having to eat or use the bathroom or even, after season one, get tired).

The show is real and fantastical at the same time, centered on the cheery subject of terrorism, perhaps the defining issue of our age, with downright apocalyptic implications. Yet it’s a regular rollercoaster of fun, with lots of dips into death and darkness. So what’s the effect of this wild ride? It’s certainly action-packed, but is it…Right Action?

I’ll leave behind some of its questionable political points (like the assumed efficiency of torture and the thinly-veiled implication that Amnesty International is in league with terrorists), and focus on the show’s breakneck structure, with its iPod-like consequences.

As they cram so many events into each day, life is not richer, but shorter. Life is in fact dirt-cheap – characters drop like flies, and even major ones are barely mourned or even mentioned much, because the show races so quickly onto the next crisis. Extreme events like deaths and bombings may have an immediate emotional impact, but they are never really absorbed or processed. There’s just no damn time. And when characters are not killed, they can be knocked out, shot, tortured, involved in plane crashes, undergo major surgery, fight heroin addiction and then move on in the next hour or two with no real repercussions or consequences, other than perhaps a perfunctory bandage somewhere.

The visceral thrill without accompanying repercussions hit its apex in season two when the show detonated a FRIGGIN’ NUCLEAR BOMB on American soil. This shocking episode ended with shots of various characters looking at the infamous mushroom cloud. I was blown away that they went so far. I couldn’t wait for the next episode. What new territory would we be in now? Where would the show go? How would people respond to the sheer mindfuck, not to mention the fallout? To paraphrase Elton John: Where to now, St. Kiefer?

Where to now, St. Keifer?

Amazingly, nothing much changed after that – they moved on to the next crisis. I kept waiting for someone to say, “hey, remember that intense nuclear bomb thing from, like, an hour ago?”

And why is this important? It brings to my mind the problem a critic raised back in 1983 when “The Day After” spawned a host of films dealing with nuclear holocaust – The unthinkable was becoming thinkable, simply another plot device.

Whether mass destruction or individual destruction, “24” simply has a fascination/obsession/fetish for death without really seeming to grieve or truly feel its significance – scores of people, both innocent and guilty, are shot, stabbed, tortured and blown up each hour, sometimes by the bad guys and sometimes by the good guys – with an effect that is ultimately more shock than emotion. Or even, as the 12 year old son of FLW’s bass player enthused “I love how that guy died in a cool way!”

Joss Whedon, creator of “Buffy” and “Angel”, once said that he writes for “moment over movement.” The “movement” he says, is the “cool shit” – the plot twists and dramatic action. But he’ll happily get rid of any cool shit that’s distracting from the “moment.” The “moment” is the meaning. And the key to meaning is finding the underlying emotion.

“24”, on the other hand, is lots and lots of cool shit. In fact, the DVD commentary on its deleted scenes usually explains that they were cut precisely because they were moment over movement – they stopped the action with too much character development.

It seems that any character caught developing on the show is expressly told to repress their emotional responses. A computer programmer who just stopped 100 nuclear plant meltdowns and raises his voice in frustration when his mother dies because he can’t get anyone to redeploy 5 miles to her house is told “put your emotions on hold – we’re in a crisis.” A character that fears his wife may be infected with a virus is told to forget about her and “move on” before she even dies.

In the world of “24”, you’ve got to repress to survive. It’s Hobbesian to the extreme – Life is nasty, brutish and short (with the added bonus of lots of technologically-advanced ways to kill each other). It seems that everyone – not just government agents and terrorists, but business executives, homeless, suburban parents, diplomats – knows how to fight, fire all kinds of weapons, and even employ torture techniques. These are the people in your neighborhood, the people that you meet when you’re walking down the street, as the song goes – but, as that song doesn’t go, they’re generally ruthless, killing quite casually, with no remorse. Killing is so commonplace that there’s even a scene of a major character killing his own brother that takes place in the background while you’re still reading the opening credits. Granted, life may not be like Sesame Street but is there a middle ground before it gets to “24”?

The (less violent than in 24) people in your neighborhood

Jack Bauer is told near the end of season 4, “that’s your gift – you’re able to block things out”. Indeed, as the centerpiece of the show, he’s almost more machine than human – able to withstand torture and possessing a computer-like mind as well as perfect marksmanship under all conditions (he just never misses). But, also like a computer, he’s extremely intelligent but not a deep thinker. (By contrast, the vice president who takes over in that season is portrayed as so self-reflexive that he’s weak and scared, unable to just charge ahead into difficult decisions).

Bauer meanwhile lives a sort of narcissistic fantasy – he is always dealing with things that take precedence over everything else – and he spends much of the series yelling at people to do what he wants – NOW! – he’s in a state of perpetual crisis and doesn’t have time to explain, and when people don’t immediately follow his orders he’ll pull a gun on them no matter who they are, including his own colleagues, doctors, innocent bystanders, etc.

Nodding to the show’s “realistic” half, Bauer does break down emotionally (quite unlike James Bond). But as not to disturb the movement, he breaks down between seasons, not during them. We don’t explore the emotion – rather we’re told about it and can tell because he grows facial hair.

A rare moment of emotion
Bauer undergoing character/beard development against his will

And why, aside from Elton John, Sesame Street and the iPod, am I writing about this in a music column?

It’s the same principle I’ve been talking about in most of my columns – why does the jam matter? It may be a fun ride but it’s not simply ear candy – it can tell us more about ourselves, help us think differently about the world, take us to places of transcendence, help us develop and grow. “24” bombards us with all kinds of intense actions, but doesn’t stop to think about them and get inside them. Consider Gerry Mulligan’s comment on the 10 other sax players at Bill Clinton’s inauguration:

“Man, you know, these young guys, they know all the modes, they know all the chords, they can play high and low and fast, and they can do amazing things, but the one thing they don’t know how to do is leave the bone alone.”

And when all we ever do is hurtle from one riff to another, just trying to keep a lid on terror both inside and out, we relinquish our ability to process, understand, and maybe make a change to AVOID the cool shit that involves lots of blood and death and pain and the end of civilization as we know it. We lose perspective and value. We can stay precariously on top, but we don’t get to the bottom.

And mama, as the song goes, that’s where the fun is.

Gerry Mulligan, circa 1958


  • # 1 Jon C. Says: April 25th, 2006 at 9:08 am
  • Hi Jeff, been enjoying your columns for a while. How the hell do you turn so much shit back around to music and jamming? Though I wish you have talked more about the emptyness of pop culture and music.
  • Anyhow, this one gave me a new favorite saying; “leave the bone alone.” Hahaha. ‘C’mon son, put it down now, just leave the bone alone…’
  • # 2 Jeff Says: April 25th, 2006 at 2:34 pm
  • Hi Jon – thanks for the props – always good to hear!
  • Maybe we should have titled this column “Leave the Bone Alone” It would give a nice resonance to the last line…
  • # 3 Dave TerpenySays: April 25th, 2006 at 4:53 pm
  • I tell ya guys, I’m convinced. Column Title change going into effect…
  • # 4 Fazzini Says: April 26th, 2006 at 2:10 am
  • I don’t know what the old column title was but I dig Leave the Bone Alone.
  • Digging the columns…this one scares me. Bush and Co. want life to be just like you describe. Keep us on edge, keep us afraid, make us immune to their own horror at the same time. It’s chilling because it’s working.
  • Music is the refuge from that, for me.
  • # 5 Jay N. Says: April 26th, 2006 at 1:23 pm
  • I’ve been absorbing this one for a bit and here’s what hit me.
  • “…without really seeming to grieve or truly feel its significance.”
  • That sentence sums up the whole thing, doesn’t it? Popular culture, our politicians and must music is just smoke and mirrors. There’s no substance to anything really.
  • So Aristotle Zittrain, how do you find the “underlying emotion?”
  • # 6 Jeff Says: May 5th, 2006 at 1:49 am
  • I agree that that line does sum it all up – (why did I have to write all the other ones then? – d’oh!) – but anyway, as far as I understand your question, the answer would seem to me to be “slowing down” and letting yourself focus – it’s what the Joss Whedon shows can do.
  • Which if really pursued can even be healing – Reminds me of Gary Snyder’s description of meditation: “Wisdom is intuitive knowledge of the mind of love and clarity that lies beneath one’s ego-driven anxieties and aggressions”
  • thanks to both of the last 2 comments…
  • # 7 Sal Says: May 8th, 2006 at 11:39 pm
  • Ok man, this column is too much. I love it. I’m going to have read back issues but first, I’m Catholic Italian and all of this brings to mind the prayers drilled into me in CCD. One by St. Francis of Assisi especially:
  • O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; for it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
  • Isn’t that what its all about, to strip away the “world” and live in compassion?
  • # 8 Jay N Says: May 8th, 2006 at 11:42 pm
  • This is getting deep. Thanks for your answer Jeff and very interesting Sal. So then, to get to the true depth, we have to suffer through the misery? No peaks without the valleys?
  • Or I guess, using Sal’s examples, without the “world” we wouldn’t know where to cross over to compassion?
  • # 9 Dave TerpenySays: May 9th, 2006 at 10:24 pm
  • Hey all, yeah this is deep. You guys should read the column above called Substance of Shadows. Jeff really hits a lot of this stuff in that one too.
  • And it is only through dying to the self and the ego that we’re able to transcend the world. In essence, what you really need to do is leave the bone alone; cast aside the illusion of desire, emotion and physicality.
  • Jeff?
  • # 10 Jeff Says: May 11th, 2006 at 11:30 pm
  • If you want to get to heaven you gotta raise a little hell…
  • (I think I should probably get to my next column…)
  • # 11 Lloyd B. Says: May 13th, 2006 at 12:04 am
  • Oh now that’s a cop out, even if it neatly sums up the entire debate in one sentence. 
    And Dave, isn’t casting aside the emotion part of the problem? Embrace the lizard brain, go primitive, howl at the moon, you know?