If Only Real Life Were Like ’24’

February 04, 2007

“Chloe, do you think you can locate Jack on the grid?” Bill Buchanan asked tensely and doubtfully. The terrorists were about to nuke Los Angeles, and as every fan of the hit show “24” knows, only Jack Bauer could save the city.

Of course Chloe can find Jack, I thought. Though I have complete confidence in Chloe, my eyes were still superglued to the TV screen, my fingernails deep in the arms of my comfy chair.

Because the world of “24” and Hollywood action films is covered by “the grid”–a magical network of legal and extra-legal electronic eyes and ears–CIA agents on TV can, by tapping their office keyboards, find anybody who places a toe in view of a satellite. In less than an instant, they know where our hero is, who he’s talking to and what color socks he’s wearing.

When my pulse had slowed a bit during a commercial, and before the next snowballing catastrophe started rolling, another thought hit me: A grid. That’s it! That’s what I need in my house.

Take my keys, for example. If I had a grid, no more family-alienating Dad terror as I rip through the garage, the bathroom, the bedrooms, the overfilled Tall Kitchen Garbage Bag. I would just tap a key on my user-friendly Household Grid ($350 with mail-in rebate) and presto! Yes! They’re in my pocket. Family emergency over.

After the show ended and I had relaxed my hold on my chair, I realized something else.

The scenario of “24” is supposed to be our worst nightmare: fanatical terrorists threatening to rain horror on us anytime and anywhere, while our government is trying, but very nearly failing, to stay one step ahead of them.

But the opposite is true: The show is soothing, in a post-9/11, weirdly cozy way. We like to think our government has a Jack Bauer or two on the job and that our technology will trump terrorism. Even if the cosmos is spinning out of control, the solutions to our problems are all within Googling distance.

The action film myth reassures us that our superior technology can protect us, can head off the bad guys. We believe this deeply. After all, our gadgets are so cool. We carry as many as we can. We show off what they can do. We conduct loud business on crowded buses.

We take pictures with cell phones, make movies with palm-sized cameras, record messages to ourselves on flash drive MP3 players as big as a thumb. With every trip to a computer store, we re-enact a James Bond instructional meeting with Q: “Now James, be very careful with this. It’s a laser-equipped nose-hair trimmer.”

Of course, the myth evaporates when we think of all the victims: the kidnapped children and the missing persons, the uncaught killers and sociopaths–not to mention the most notorious killer of them all lurking somewhere in Pakistan.

These contradictory versions of reality–the grid of Hollywood myth and the grid of real life–coexist rather too easily in my head. One moment, I’m sure heroic geeks and square-jawed heroes can protect me; the next, I’m certain my wi-fi will let me down.

I know which version I favor, though. As soon as the show ended, I headed out to the video store to rent the first season of “24.” A half-hour later I was in the action-packed world I knew so well: the search for the remote control for the DVD player.

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