On Sunday, May 21, Hollywood fans of FOX's thriller "24" packed the historic Wadsworth Theatre, on the grounds of the Veteran's Administration campus in West Los Angeles, for an event limited to selected press and members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and the Screen Actors Guild.
The evening began with an enthusiastically received screening of hour 23 -- which aired on FOX the following night, along with the concluding 24th hour of the show's fifth season -- followed by a panel discussion on the topic: "'24' and the War on Terror: Can Truth Learn From Fiction?"
Moderated by Mat Miller, host of the KCRW radio show "Left, Right and Center," the panel featured "24" stars Kiefer Sutherland, who plays steely Agent Jack Bauer of the Los Angeles-based Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU); Gregory Itzin, who plays the treasonous President Logan; and Jean Smart, who plays the ultimately heroic first lady Martha Logan.
Also representing the show were executive producers Joel Surnow, Howard Gordon and Evan Katz.
On the real-world side were foreign-policy expert Morton Halperin; Brian Jenkins, former Green Beret and a terrorism expert for the RAND Corporation think tank; former war-crimes prosecutor and Syracuse University law professor David Crane; and Los Angeles City Council member Jack Weiss (D), who works on terrorist-threat planning.
After confessing his addiction to "24" and commenting on its appeal to people on both sides of the political spectrum, Miller questioned the panel about the show's politics.
"I think the only politics on the show is that terrorism is bad," said Surnow, who added, "We're not trying to push one agenda or another."
"Our only politics," Gordon said, "is the politics of a good story. The best story wins, basically."
Weiss went on to point out that Los Angeles has no real-world equivalent of the nimble and nearly omnipotent CTU. He commented on a plotline in the finale in which terrorists hijacked a nuclear submarine docked at the port of Los Angeles.
"If there was an incident at the port," Weiss said, "it could be a good 45 minutes on a lazy Sunday afternoon before LAPD S.W.A.T. could get there. It could be a lot longer before the FBI S.W.A.T. team got there."
Miller asked the actors how their personal politics had been affected, and Sutherland -- born in London and raised mainly in Canada -- said, "My politics are mine. I believe in due process. I believe in civil rights, both of which Jack Bauer runs rampant over."
Sutherland related a story of sitting next to a woman on a plane, who was struck with fear at the sight of him. "I leaned over and said, 'It's a TV show.'"
When a questioner from the audience was concerned about terrorists getting ideas from "24," Jenkins replied, "We talk about the vulnerabilities -- suppose terrorists did this, suppose terrorists did that. The terrorists ... they watch what we watch, they read what we read. And they start talking about the same thing, 'Can we really do that?'
"We spend a lot of time listening to what they're talking about, and we pick up the chatter, saying, 'Oh, my God, they're actually talking about that. Our worst fears are confirmed.' What we have there is really a loop."
Jenkins then pointed out that he hadn't seen anything in a show that terrorists hadn't likely already thought of, and hadn't done because they either couldn't, or decided not to for reasons of their own.
In answer to an audience question about the actors and their characters, Smart pointed out that her teenage son had noticed Bauer becoming "harder" each season as he experiences and doles out violence and torture.
Regarding the torture, Sutherland said, "This is a dramatic device, and it is not to be confused with how we handle things in the real world."
And, as Gordon pointed out, "As emotional and dramatic as these scenes are for Jack Bauer, he derives no sadistic pleasure from torturing. If anything, it takes a piece of him every time he does this. Jack is paying a terrible price."
At the end, a questioner suggested that Mrs. Logan deserved a medal for her actions in the finale, in which she, fully aware of her husband's treachery, seduced him in order to delay him and further Bauer's plans.
At this, Smart gave a royal wave to the audience and said, "Taking one for the team. Taking one for the team."