Hang Up and Drive (TV-Style)

Jack Bauer taught me how to hang up my phone. In the same way, Inspector Lewis Erskine taught my mother to drive.

Jack Bauer and Lewis Erskine are fictional characters, portrayed respectively today by Kiefer Sutherland and in the 1960s by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. But their effect on real people is not fictional. Not all of those effects are inconsequential.

Kiefer Sutherland plays the role of the cartoonishly determined Agent Jack Bauer, in Fox-TV’s “24.” The show’s writers and producers anticipated the zeitgeist of a nation, debuting eight weeks after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Or — like the show’s hero — they got lucky. Or, worse yet, the show contributed to the fear-mongering and small-mindedness that gripped the country after a national tragedy. You decide.

The show begins its seventh season this Sunday evening. It has been vilified for its portrayal of torture’s usefulness when combatting terrorists. Jack Bauer’s ruthless techniques have served as inspiration for real-live interrogators. Outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has publicly admired Jack Bauer, who (please be reminded) is a fictional character. Others who work for Chertoff have done the same. Is there a single more damning factoid about the current administration than that they have received guidance from fictional characters?

Jack Bauer, unlike the rest of us, has already lived under an African-American president. He also has served under a feckless pawn of a president. He’s been a fugitive, a war prisoner, a drug addict, a lost soul, and a national hero. All in a day’s work — reminding the rest of us that a day is still 24 hours long.

The violence of the show has been well chronicled, but I’ve seen no evidence that it has produced an increase in suburban rocket-launcher sales. Could it be that the show is really extolling something more mundane?

Jack Bauer is without a gun more often than he is without his cell phone. After escaping from Chinese torturers in the third season, his first move is to hotwire a vehicle to escape. But before he spins the tires to flee his captors, he uses the driver’s cell phone to call Chloe back at CTU. “Jack! We thought you were dead!” and so on.

You may not have guessed that I watch such an unrealistic and violent soap opera, but I wasn’t always a Mennonite. Not that I can use this as an excuse, but I was raised Methodist. My mother loved Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. Sunday evenings were spent sitting cross-legged on the living room floor watching “The F.B.I.”

Each episode was sponsored exclusively by Ford Motor Company. Fords won every car chase, and there were plenty of them. But the innovation being used so expertly on that show was more than guns and badges. The show also showcased the power of the automatic transmission. While we were captivated by the intrigue of the plot and the glamor of the hero, we were subtly being told that driving was easier now. “Just turn the key and go, as quickly as you need.”

Before that show, my mother seldom drove, even though she had three children and a fourth on the way. She gained her confidence from a fictional character.

On “24,” Jack Bauer gets real-time maps with heat-sensor indicators sent to his phone to flush out the villains. He masks his number to hack into top-secret government files. He never gets a dropped call. He never has to ask anyone to speak up over road noise. And he never, ever hits the button that says “End Call.” He just flips the phone closed when he’s done and that’s that.

I didn’t know that would work until Jack Bauer showed me. The only problem now is that I’ve gotten a new phone since the show’s last episode aired almost 20 months ago, and it doesn’t flip open or closed. I’m hoping Jack Bauer also has upgraded since we saw him last and that he’ll spend Sunday evenings this spring showing me new tricks I can do with my iphone.

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Don’t try to reach Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) Sunday or Monday evening this week, when the new season of “24” is beginning, unless it’s really important. He blogs.