From Heaven to Hell. Aspects of American Self-Perception in 21st Century Broadcast Television

On the basis of the series 24, 7th Heaven, and The O.C.

Seminar Paper, 2013

19 Pages, Grade: A


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 24: Racing Against the Clock
2.1 Plot Synopsis
2.2 Aspects of American Self-Perception Conveyed by 24
2.2.1 Exceptionalism as a Means to Justify Patriotism
2.2.2 Portrayal of the “Two Americas“ (Fulbright)
2.3 Critical Reception

3 7th Heaven: Punishment Is Not Always Bad (“Who Nose”)
3.1 Plot Synopsis
3.2 Aspects of American Self-Perception Conveyed by 7th Heaven
3.2.1 Strict Morality as a Key Element for Happiness
3.2.2 Responsibility of Wealth
3.2.3 The Importance of Education and Hard Work
3.3 Critical Reception

4 The O.C.: “What I Like About Rich Kids? Nothing!” (“Premiere”)
4.1 Plot Synopsis
4.2 Aspects of American Self-Perception Conveyed by The O.C.
4.2.1 The Importance of Class and Class Markers
4.2.2 Equality as a Prerequisite for the American Dream
4.3 Critical Reception

5 Conclusion

6 Works Cited

1 Introduction

21st century American broadcast television series are, of course, works of fiction and thus not subject to an accurate depiction of American reality. However, regardless of its fictional elements, every series conveys values and ideals which reflect real-life value propositions that are essential to American identity in the 21st century. Furthermore, the key elements of American self-perception can be inferred by examining the self-portrayal of Americans in American television series.

Therefore, this paper seeks to inquire how central aspects of American self-perception are addressed in various successful television series and whether traditional American values have been preserved. It will focus on the following three series, 24, 7th Heaven, and The O.C., as each of them is exemplary for a different facet of American self-perception. Crime drama series 24 provides a detailed discourse on exceptionalism and the role it plays with regard to patriotism as well as an elaborate account of the discrepancy between the two different faces of America. Family drama series 7th Heaven draws on Puritan values and emphasizes their applicability in the United States of the 21st century. Teenage drama series The O.C. addresses the preservation of a class system and class divisions in modern-day American society as opposed to the notion of classlessness.

2 24: Racing Against the Clock

The Fox Network television drama series 24, created by Robert Cochran and Joel Surnow, was produced and broadcast between 2001 and 2010. It was mainly filmed on locations in and around Los Angeles (Adams) and is best known for its innovative real-time concept. Each one-hour episode covers one hour of fictional time (minus commercial breaks), often using split screens so as to be able to depict multiple scenes at the same time. In order to emphasize the viewer’s sense of real-time story progression further, an on-screen digital clock is recurrently displayed. The show consists of eight 24-episode seasons, each of which follows one day in the life of its protagonist Jack Bauer, and was awarded two Golden Globes and 20 Emmy Awards, including the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series in 2006 (“24”). Furthermore, a television film called 24: Redemption, which covers two hours of fictional time and is set between seasons six and seven, was produced during the 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America strike.

2.1 Plot Synopsis

24 is centered around a fictional government agency called Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU) and one of its main operatives, special agent Jack Bauer, who is played by Canadian actor Kiefer Sutherland. Each season, there is a different terrorist threat against the United States which Bauer attempts to prevent from happening. In the first season, for example, terrorists conspire to assassinate a presidential candidate, in the second season a nuclear bomb is smuggled into the country, and in the third season a former partner agent of Bauer’s threatens to release a deadly virus in Los Angeles. In addition to the main plot, each season features several subplots involving main characters and their relatives, which allows the viewer to delve into the different aspects of a character’s personality to a larger extent than it is the case with many other crime drama series.

At multiple times throughout the series, Bauer has to work against the CTU or violate the law in order to catch the culprits or protect his loved ones. For instance, he repeatedly uses torture to obtain information from suspects, which the series was criticized for (Cusac). At the end of the fourth season, Bauer even fakes his own death in order to escape prosecution by the Chinese government after having provoked the death of a Chinese citizen on consulate grounds. Seasons five to eight focus on terrorist threats from both outside and inside the United States, addressing matters such as government corruption and political conspiracy. By the end of the eighth season, Bauer is wanted by both Russian and American governments for the numerous crimes he has committed, wherefore he is forced to go into hiding once and for all.

2.2 Aspects of American Self-Perception Conveyed by 24

24 conveys many values and ideals that are essential to American self-perception. First and foremost, it provides a detailed depiction of American patriotism, which is closely linked to the notion of American exceptionalism and fundamental American values such as freedom and justice. Furthermore, this paper seeks to inquire whether 24 displays any discrepancies in terms of value propositions which would reflect the concept of the two different Americas, as mentioned by Senator J. William Fulbright in his conclusion to The Arrogance of Power.

2.2.1 Exceptionalism as a Means to Justify Patriotism

“If things are this bad, why, I guess we can torture anybody we want! In fact, we have an obligation to torture in order to protect the country! Hooray!“ (King)

This seemingly exaggerated statement does, in fact, summarize one of 24’s main premises, namely that if the United States or its people are in imminent danger, the “certain unalienable rights” that every individual is appointed with according to the Declaration of Independence (US 1776) no longer apply. On the contrary, whenever there is an acute threat to national security, the plot development in 24 indicates that it is morally justifiable, if not necessary, to torture uncooperative suspects, break the laws, sacrifice the lives of a few for the “greater good” and even hurt or kill innocent observers who are related to a criminal or simply happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. For example, in order to get a major conspirator of the fifth season, Christopher Henderson, to talk, Bauer shoots Henderson’s wife Miriam in the leg (“Day 5: 5:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.”).

On the one hand, in most of these situations Bauer makes the decision to adopt questionable measures without his superiors’ consent, thus his actions are not directly presented as justifiable. The fact that without these measures, on the other hand, the impending danger could not have been averted, suggests otherwise. After all, Jack Bauer remains, despite his readiness to use torture without batting an eyelash, the multiple savior of the country and therefore hero of the series. As Audrey Raines, daughter of the Secretary of Defense, puts it at the end of the fourth season: “Thank God there are people like you who can deal with that world“ (“Day 4: 6:00 a.m. – 7:00 a.m.”).

The notion of patriotism depicted in 24 is, therefore, of a considerably extreme nature, considering the readiness of Bauer to act against moral standards in all matters except when the service to his country is concerned. His duty as a government agent to serve and protect the United States is the one principle he never compromises. In the sixth season, Bauer even agrees to surrender himself to terrorist Abu Fayed in order to save the United States with the words: “Do you understand the difference between dying for something and dying for nothing? […] I didn’t want to die for nothing. Today, I can die for something” (“Day 6: 6:00 a.m. – 7:00 a.m.”). But how is this patriotism at all cost and without compromise validated?

Without doubt, such an extreme form of patriotism is only practicable if the “target country” is of special importance and quality, in other words, exceptional. While the notion of American exceptionalism has many facets and can be interpreted in different ways, at its core it is constituted by three key components: “the belief that the United States is a special nation with a special role to play in human history” (McCrisken), the belief that the United States is essentially different in its integrity from any country of the Old World, and that it is “unlike other great nations […] not destined to rise and fall” (McCrisken).

All of these elements can be observed in 24’s portrayal of American self-understanding. In the eighth season, for instance, President Taylor emphasizes that the American government and its people will never be defeated, no matter how many setbacks they may have to endure. On the contrary, “we will pick ourselves up off the floor and deal with it. Why? Because that’s what we do. Americans don’t stay down. We rise up together in times of crisis. We carry on!” (“Day 8: 5:00 a.m. – 6:00 a.m.).

The notion of America playing a unique role in human history as a result of their devotion to their principles is represented as well. In 24: Redemption President Taylor points out that “the founders of our country […] knew that they derived their power to govern from three basic human rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. […] We all share the responsibility history has placed in our hands. The future – our future – depends on it.”

2.2.2 Portrayal of the “Two Americas“ (Fulbright)

In The Arrogance of Power Senator Fulbright states that the Unites States has two different faces – that of the self-righteous missionary and that of the humane idealist –, especially with regard to foreign policy. 24 reflects this concept by its depiction of different political figures and the disagreement and the conflicts their contradictory positions result in. The idea of America as an advocate of humanity and decency is exemplified by the character of President David Palmer, member of the Democratic Party, who executes the office of President of the United States during the second and third seasons. Palmer is an idealist, wherefore he is often regarded as starry-eyed by his opponents. Nevertheless, Palmer is unwavering in his attempts to advocate peace, justice and equality. In the second season, for example, he refuses to approve a hasty military strike against a Middle Eastern country that is strongly believed – however not yet definitely proven – to have attacked the United States although the majority of his advisors urge him to do otherwise. Palmer points out that “if we [the United States] unleash our military power on nations that later prove innocent, it will rank as one of the most despicable sneak attacks in history” (“Day 2: 4:00 a.m. – 5:00 a.m.”). This statement is especially interesting in consideration of the fact that the Bush administration, whose members were without doubt an embodiment of America’s arrogant face, did exactly that by invading Iraq just a few years later.

24’s depiction of Republican President Charles Logan, on the other hand, is an example of the self-righteous and arrogant face of the United States. Logan repeatedly refuses to assume responsibility for the mistakes that he has made, such as obstructing the apprehension of terrorist Habib Marwan in the fourth season. Instead, he blames his own failures on different members of his cabinet. Logan’s primary concern is to make himself and the United States look good in public and there is hardly any measure he considers to be too drastic in order to assure his integrity, or as he puts it: “This scandal would destroy the American people’s faith in their government” (“Day 5: 1:00 a.m. – 2:00 a.m.”).

2.3 Critical Reception

The first season of 24 received generally favorable reviews. Contrary to previous scepsis as to whether the real-time concept would be well received among the American audience, the show was a success from the first episode on. Time Magazine’s television critic James Poniewozik described it as “the most distinctive, addictive new TV series this season. […] It’s drama for the age of information overload. 24 […] is 21st century TV.” As the first episode of 24 premiered less than two months after the September 11 attacks, it has often been seen as “the Official Cultural Product of the War on Terrorism” (Poniewozik, “The Evolution of Jack Bauer”) and Jack Bauer as an “avatar of the post-9/11 age” (Parrish 2).

However, 24 was also confronted with a lot of criticism. Firstly, it was criticized for its brutal and frequent depictions of torture as a means to acquire information. Both human rights activists and military officials expressed concern throughout all seasons of the series that these depictions may aid in the downplaying of the seriousness of torture practice and demoralize the audience by presenting torture as an acceptable solution that does not call for moral scruples (Parrish 2-6). Moreover, military officials repeatedly urged Fox Television to stop depicting torture as justifiable as it sent the wrong message to US troops and complained that 24 affected the opinion the rest of the world had of the United States in a negative way. Nevertheless, many military officers as well as the Bush administration and other Republican politicians professed that they enjoyed watching the series (Buncombe). US Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain, for instance, declared after his cameo appearance on 24: “I watch it all the time. I’m sort of a Jack Bauer kind of guy” (Patterson).

Secondly, 24 was criticized for its depiction of Muslim terrorists, which was not well received among the Muslim world. Fictional Muslim terrorist groups served as the villain in the fourth and sixth seasons of 24, whereupon there were many complaints that such an exclusively negative portrayal of Muslims on screen would fuel hatred against Muslims in the real world. Rabiah Ahmed, previous spokesperson for the Council on American-Muslim Relations, expressed that “after watching that show, I was afraid to go to the grocery store because I wasn’t sure the person next to me would be able to differentiate between fiction and reality” (Parry). Furthermore, Sireen Sawaf, member of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, stated that she was “concerned about the image it [24’s depiction of Muslims] ingrains in the minds of the American public and the American government” (Parry).


Excerpt out of 19 pages


From Heaven to Hell. Aspects of American Self-Perception in 21st Century Broadcast Television
On the basis of the series 24, 7th Heaven, and The O.C.
University of Innsbruck  (Translation Studies)
Looking at America: Inside and Outside Perceptions
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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from, heaven, hell, aspects, american, self-perception, century, broadcast, television
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Olivia Benkovic (Author), 2013, From Heaven to Hell. Aspects of American Self-Perception in 21st Century Broadcast Television, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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