The Current

How TV shows like 24 helped set the stage for 'extreme' politics

Culture critic Peter Biskind argues extremes have now become mainstream in movies and TV — and they've helped lay the ground for extremes in politics, too.

Culture critic Peter Biskind argues heroes that resort to extreme measures are justified on screen

Culture critic Peter Biskind says the TV program 24, starring Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, is an example of an extreme-right show. (Matt Sayles/Associated Press)

Read story transcript

With its rogue agents, use of torture and constant threats of terrorist violence or nuclear annihilation, the TV series 24 and its hero Jack Bauer (played by Kiefer Sutherland) packed a lot of shock into each episode when it first hit the screens in 2001.

But cultural critic Peter Biskind argues since then, television and movies have headed further to the extremes — and the move away from the centre that we've seen on screen has helped pave the way for extreme politics in real life.

"If you watch enough shows that heroize vigilantes and vigilante violence and breaking the law, when a [Donald] Trump comes along, it's not a surprise and it's not that unusual," Biskind told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

He explores how the proliferation of apocalyptic scenarios — whether the threat is from zombies, vampires, supervillains or other humans — allows heroes to behave in ways that blur the lines between good and evil in his book The Sky is Falling: How Vampires, Zombies, Androids and Superheroes Made America Great for Extremism.

Peter Biskind says the trend of rogue cops and zombies going to the extremes on screen has laid the groundwork for extreme politics, including politicians who go rogue and don't much care about the mainstream. (Maggie Hardie/REX/Shutterstock)

According to Biskind, what has pushed screen culture more to the extreme involves the collapse of the centre politically but it doesn't end there.

"I think it's a kind of a chicken and egg problem — screen culture changed, the politics changed and which one influenced the other is sort of hard to untangle," he said.

"I like to use the phrase culture insights enhances what's going on in the political or social realm."

24 as an extreme-right show

While mainstream shows portray the protagonist as aiming to make the world a better place — even if they are flawed characters themselves — in so-called "extreme shows," they are either corrupt or missing in action, Biskind said.

Extreme shows can land on either the right or left side of the spectrum, Biskind said, and called 24 an example of an extreme-right show.

"The politics are really on its sleeve," said Biskind. "[Jack Bauer] is working for a government agency but he's willing to break the law whenever he needs to."

Biskind said former U.S. president George W. Bush's administration loved the show, even holding seminars with its producers early on in the War on Terror.

On the left side of the political spectrum, Biskind points to James Cameron's Avatar, where a corporation mining "unobtanium" on a distant moon called Pandora tries to get rid of the Na'vi, the Indigenous population standing in its way.

According to Peter Biskind, James Cameron's 2009 film Avatar is a great example of what he refers to as the 'luddite left,' where technology causes nothing but harm. (Jo Yong-Hak/Reuters)

The hero, marine Jake Sully (played by Sam Worhtington), starts on the side of the humans, but ends up fighting with the Na'vi, and eventually transforming into one.

"He not only betrays, in some sense, his country — he betrays the human race," said Biskind.

According to Biskind, extreme movies on both the right and the left have a dim view of human behaviour.

"If you look at sort of where the crux of the evil comes from, they seem to be saying that humans are innately bad news," he said.

The upside to the extreme

Biskind doesn't necessarily see this move to the extremes as all bad — at least when it comes to North American popular media.

"It was, in certain ways, a phony centrism," he said.

"In terms of the kinds of culture it produced, it was just boring and bland because it excluded so much of the reality of living in America."

In the third season of AMC's The Walking Dead, some 300 bodies were on display in the first eight episodes. (AMC)

But some of the shows that seem most extreme on the surface end up falling into centrism, said Biskind.

The Walking Dead is full of gore, with some 300 bodies on view in the first eight episodes of the third season. And yet, said Biskind, it comes down on the side of authority and order.

Biskind points to the show as mainstream because even in extreme situations, protagonist Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) questions if any kind of extreme behaviour is justified during a zombie apocalypse.

"Invariably, he comes to the conclusion that no, extreme behaviour is not viable," he said.

"There's still standards of behaviour that you have to abide by."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this post.

Written and produced by The Current's Karin Marley.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?