I blame Jack Bauer. He made torture acceptable on TV. The counterterrorism agent played by Kiefer Sutherland in 24 would routinely torture suspects – including, in one case, his own brother. There were more than 60 scenes (someone counted) involving torture in that drama’s many, overheated series.
But that was the noughties – surely we’ve moved on? Well, apparently not. Judging by recent thrillers, it remains artistically kosher for a TV protagonist to torture people further down the cast list when they want information.
And bear in mind, I’m not talking about the baddies here, I’m talking about the good guys, the heroes of series such as Deep State (Thursday 9pm Fox) and Strike Back (Sky 1). These are the characters we’re meant to be rooting for. I don’t know about you, but I find it hard identifying with heroes when they burn people with cigarettes, waterboard them, pretend to execute their children and so forth. You see them in a different light.
To me, the whole issue feels like an odd anomaly, a time warp. Television has grown up. Writers have realised rape shouldn’t be used lightly as a plot device. TV cops no longer leer at schoolgirls, as they did in the 70s. You wouldn’t expect a lead character now to spout casual racism or homophobia. If they did, you’d know they were a villain.
But torture, oh that’s fine. Take a recent example: in Deep State, our hero Max Easton, suavely played by Mark Strong, is looking for two missing British agents in Beirut. His friend there finds a fixer called Hassan whom the agents might have contacted. Note: might have.
So Max and his mate kidnap Hassan, take him to a workshop and tie him to a chair. Max brandishes some rusty pliers: “I don’t know if I’ve got this in me any more, but we’re going to find out!” he jokes. And then, to cut a long story short, Max pulls one of Hassan’s fingernails out, threatens to pull out the rest then smash his teeth with a hammer, and Hassan, in agony, spills some information.
All of which is presented, within the story, as very much a step in the right direction. Bear in mind, Hassan has done nothing wrong to Max or anyone else. It’s a painful scene to watch but it’s of a piece with the kind of thing we’ve seen elsewhere.
I know it’s only TV entertainment and maybe I shouldn’t take it too seriously but… isn’t that the point? Why are we being offered torture scenes for entertainment, as primetime TV fodder?
The makers of Deep State claim the series has important political themes. They don’t seem to have noticed that by writing in torture they’re sending out a message that it’s kind of OK. But it isn’t. And it’s time TV made tacitly approved torture scenes a thing of the past.