By Claire Walla
The first five seasons of the hit television show “24” depicted roughly 67 torture scenes, and each year since 9/11, more than 100 scenes of torture have aired nationally on prime-time television, a significant increase from the years before.
Last November, U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan visited the executive offices of the prime-time drama to criticize the way torture is freely used on the show, usually as a device to persuade captives—most often terrorists—to divulge information. In an article published last month in The New Yorker magazine, Finnegan said, “The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.”
More disturbing still may be the fact that American combat troops are beginning to do the same.
But where do you draw the line between fiction and reality?
Monica Macer, former writer’s assistant on “24,” staff writer on “Lost,” and current story editor on hour-long FOX drama “Prison Break,” spoke to City on a Hill Press, and gave a glimpse into the [closed-door space of the] writer’s room.
City on a Hill Press: As a television writer working on a hit show, you have the ability to make choices that can potentially affect a lot of people. Do you feel like this gives you a lot of power?
Monica Macer: As writers we do have a lot of power that we’re not aware of. We’re so excited just to tell our stories and to entertain people. And the fact that we come into people’s homes for an hour once a week for 22 episodes, we get to say a lot.
CHP: Have you specifically been involved with writing scenes that depict torture?
Macer: In an episode of “Prison Break” that I co-wrote, I wrote the torture scene. And it didn’t work: the federal agent didn’t get the information he needed from Sarah in the end. She would rather die than give up the information. So it was an instance where torture didn’t work and it actually backfired on him and she got away.
CHP: When you’re writing a scene like that, how much of the news, current events and reality do you take into account?
Macer: I think it depends on if [current events] actually affect the scene that you’re writing. In the case of that scene, it had nothing to do with current events, it had to do with that character’s personal arch: her father had been killed by the conspiracy and he had passed on some information to her, which he unwittingly held and she wasn’t aware of until she was being tortured. It had nothing to do with the current state of affairs, it was more about the circumstances that we had created on the show.”
CHP: Can you remember an instance from any one of the hour-long dramas you have worked on in which the writing began to parallel current events?
Macer: I was an assistant on “24” when we first invaded Iraq. [The opening sequence of the show, which aired Nov. 6, 2001, portrayed a plane crashed by terrorists.] That was very interesting because the scripts were written two or three months in advance. I remember being in the office [with] everyone listening to the radio, and being really kind of weirded-out by the fact that it was almost like my bosses predicted that this stuff was going to happen. But we knew that it was just part of the story of ’24,’ that we were going to war with a Middle Eastern country, and that in ’24’ it was a fictionalized Middle Eastern country responsible for the terrorist attacks on the United States.
CHP: The opening sequence of the show was changed after the September 11th attacks, but did the writers remain sensitive to the war for the rest of the season?
Macer: I think for the most part those guys [“24” creators Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran] stay true to their vision. They’re very respectful of what’s going on in the rest of the country, but because they’ve thought so far in advance, it’s hard to borrow from current events because by the time we write and episode and shoot an episode and by the time the show airs, [current events] aren’t timely. That’s why it was so eerie that the show sort of predicted the war and that the episode was actually going to air around the time that we were going to war. In the chronology of the show they were trying to avert going to war on “24,” and we were actually going to war in the United States.
CHP: “24” has come under scrutiny from the armed forces—it is criticized for promoting torture as an effective way to obtain withheld information. If in fact soldiers are copying interrogation methods used on the show, where does responsibility lie?
Macer: I think it lies within the armed forces and the chain of command that they’ve created. While writers do have a responsibility to monitor the violence that they put out there on television, and monitor some of the big ideas in the way we represent the government, and I think “24” has been very fair and balanced.
But I think at the end of the day, we work in entertainment and our job is to entertain. And I think that the people who are in the armed forces, their job is to keep a handle on their troops and what they do.
CHP: Do you think that sensitivity to the war has decreased in the media since the onset of the war?
Macer: I don’t think we’ve been desensitized to it; it feels like it really has been a very long occupation, and we all read the headlines and we unfortunately see the loss of lives everyday in the newspaper, the helicopter crashes, the surge of bombingsâ€¦ I don’t know that I would say we’ve been desensitized to it; I would hope not, you know, just because so many people are over there fighting the good fight and giving their lives for our safety. But I definitely would say that it’s not as hot on the radar. When you see things like Anna Nicole Smith completely dominating the news, it’s like, ‘Wait, what’s going on in Iraq, and what’s going on with Iran?’ I think we’re a very pop culture obsessed society at times. And I don’t even think it’s us, I think maybe the news sources think we’re interested in that; but she got more coverage than Gerald Ford when he passed away.
CHP: It seems hard to draw a distinct line between television fiction and reality.
Macer: It is, but I think that at the end of the day, prime-time TV is entertainment and if you want reality then watch the news. And I think it would be unfair to ask Television writers to do more than consider or take to heart what other people say when it comes to depicting of violence.
As far as how [violence] is depicted, I think we definitely, as writers, take responsibility for that and try to do it in a way that’s not over the top and would make the audience cringe. But you have to stay true to the world that’s been created and to the audience and to the fan base. And there is a line, but I don’t think Jack Bauer crosses it. He saves the day, and that’s what I want my hero to do.”