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IMAGE: "24 Redemption"
Kiefer Sutherland, who plays government agent Jack Bauer on Fox's "24," says his character has been deeply and permanently affected by the moral lines he's had to cross.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/11/2008 6:01:40 PM ET 2008-12-11T23:01:40

Questions swirled during this year's presidential election about whether an African-American or a woman could be elected president of the United States.

Americans had already accepted the notion, pundits declared, because they had embraced television characters such as David Palmer in “24” and MacKenzie Allen in “Commander-in-Chief.” Television had made the scenario familiar and acceptable.

Yet when a Canadian killer recently opted to use some of the techniques he learned on an episode of “Dexter,” a Showtime drama about a charming serial killer, the TV community was quick to point out that a television series had little or no impact when it came to psychopaths playing out their tendencies.

Clearly, when it comes to ethics, morals and perceptions depicted on television and played out in real life, the waters can be quite murky.

“There's no question that we take massive cues for our lives from media,” says Stephen Vaisey, a University of California, Berkeley, sociology professor who studies morals in American culture. “People watch so much TV, it would be astounding if that didn't affect them,” Vaisey says. “Although I think it's subtler than a one-on-one correlation.”

If you put together a lot of similar themes, he says, then people begin to think that this is what life is supposed to look like. In the wake of Sept. 11 and a collapsing economy, people are evaluating what constitutes ethical and moral behavior. And they are turning to TV as a common cultural guide.

“We live in a morally complex world, with an increasing realization that answers aren't simple,” Vaisey says. “Can we play by the rules and still win against villains who don't? We conjure up these heroes who can take on this world without letting traditional morals and ethics stand in their way,” Vaisey says. “In TV shows, we can play around with these ideas.”

Dexter, House and Jack Bauer: Moral or not?
The power of the dark hero is the ability to break rules. What might seem reprehensible in real life is somehow softened in the world of fiction. While viewers happily cheer on Dexter the serial killer as he tortures and kills bad guys, we probably would not like to have him on our local police force. What if he grabbed the wrong guy?

Or would we stick with a doctor like the cold but brilliant Gregory House, who inflicted pain and suffering with little more than a shoulder shrug as he tried by any means necessary to diagnose us? Superman doesn't sacrifice his values for the greater good, but characters from House to “24's” Jack Bauer do it on a weekly basis.

What would you do?“When government infringes on our rights, we don't like it. When Jack Bauer taps into our phones, we don't mind. The interesting thing about the narrative form is that we trust these people, that the outcome will be good,” Vaisey says. “We allow (fictional characters) to do things in this framework that would never be acceptable in real life.”

Kiefer Sutherland, producer and star of Fox's “24,” says crossing ethical and moral lines, even in the pursuit of the greater good, has taken a huge toll on government agent Jack Bauer. Season after season, he has acted in ways that keeps the greater good to the forefront while making questionable moral decisions.

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“Every season has impacted how that next season's Jack Bauer has progressed, and this season you will see a Jack Bauer who is carrying the weight of the last six seasons,” Sutherland says. “He was disillusioned by the fact that he had been manipulated into doing things he didn't like doing, and he wanted to leave this world behind. He now has to deal with what he has done in the past.”

That's a concept  Bob Waliszewski, media specialist with Focus on the Family, an evangelical group that serves as a media watchdog, can get behind.

"I'm not asking for perfection, but just someone with a moral core,"  Waliszewski says. "I'm fine with shows  showing weaknesses as long as they battle with it. I go back to the 1950s, when Beaver may have lied at the beginning, but at the end he was apologizing for what he had done. When was the last time you saw someone apologize for the consequences of their actions?"

Using characters to explore ideas of right and wrong have been a tradition of storytelling since man took to scratching out thoughts on cave walls, but now we are faced with heroes who do bad things for all the right reasons.

Waliszewski believes there's nothing heroic or ethical about characters like Dexter or Dr. Gregory House.

"If he can heal, then it's OK for him to have a hooker over or be addicted to Vicodin? That's the message that is sent out," Waliszewski says. "Shows like this say that being honest and moral doesn't matter, as long as you get the job done."

“House” creator David Shore couldn't disagree more with the notion that his character is ethically bankrupt.

“(House is) painfully conscious of what he does, but he believes in truth and rationality above all else,” Shore says. “The goal is not to humiliate others, but it might be a step towards his ultimate goal.”

If forced to debate his way of doing things, Shore says House would challenge the idea that he needs to recognize the humanity of his patients or get involved emotionally in their lives.

“He simply does the math, and does what he has to in order to arrive at a solution,” Shore says. “He ignores the rules, which can be dangerous in society, yet heroic at the same time. Probably that's the way more of us should act. Except sociopaths.”

Or psychopaths like Dexter Morgan, the Miami police department forensic specialist whose hobby involves sadistically eliminating evildoers. Producer Clyde Phillips believes Dexter lives by a stricter code of conduct than most people.

“We all have those shadow selves, the difference is that normal people don't act upon those darker impulses, but it makes for great drama,” Phillips says. “These are very complex and volatile heroes, and I think the audience is looking for these complex characters. The simple good guys from ‘Magnum P.I.’ or ‘Rockford Files’ just aren't enough for audiences now.”

While Dexter is at one extreme of the moral spectrum of “good guys,” at the other might be the ubiquitous voice of “Gossip Girl,” the prep-school texter who snoops and squeals on her classmates, who in turn often engage in questionable conduct.

“Gossip is a form of social power that doesn't require physical strength,” Vaisey says. “‘Gossip Girl’ controls the environment and has the power to ruin people's lives. That's very appealing, especially to young people.”

Although these characters stretch the bounds of what we believe to be morally and ethically correct behavior, in most cases Vaisey says it does no harm because in general, people have a strong sense of right and wrong behavior.

“In a world where people don't feel in control of their lives, television allows us to experience people who take control without experiencing the actual negative consequences of those acts,” Vaisey says. “You can enjoy the thrill of doing something bad without really doing it. There's a reason why we call these shows guilty pleasures.”

Susan C. Young is a writer in Northern California.

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