Fly in the Hot Tub

I think I have a better understanding of why Walter White wanted so desperately to kill the fly that invaded his super lab.

I was talking to a friend earlier, explaining that the happiest day of my life was when I left Lincoln, NE in 2007 and moved to Denver. I remember packing my stuff, leaving the apartment on Lincoln Mall, driving through Runza on the way out of town and heading Westward with my parents, my nephew Hunter and a trailer full of my stuff. The next day, we drove to Littleton, moved into my new apartment, said hi to my best buddy Joe, then they checked into a hotel in Highlands Ranch. There, in the warm, dry September air, we all sat in the hot tub and drank in Colorado. I sat amidst the bubbles, broken dreams and failures behind me, limitless vistas like the Rockies in the distance ahead of me. Not one buzzing insect anywhere nearby in the twilight. Nothing but warm water, cold beer and possibilities. “Mom,” I said, “I’ve never been this happy.”

I could have stroked out right there in the tub and slipped beneath the surface of the water and died in a state of perfect bliss.

I’ve lived too long.

Radio Man

I went to school at Kearney High, graduating in 1993. I hated school. I viewed it as a prison. But it wasn’t without its charms. Most of those charms were wholly unavailable to me because, frankly, I was completely clueless about girls. Aside from that, Kearney High was one of two high schools in the state of Nebraska blessed with an open campus during the lunch period. An open campus simply meant that students were allowed to leave the school and stuff themselves with wonderfully unhealthy fast food before returning to the drudgery of the classroom. If you were under 16 and confined to walking, you might have been able to make it to 7/11 or Dairy Queen for a quick bite before the clock ran out.

My dad availed himself of this policy by taking me to lunch once a week. One day, in the autumn of 1990 when I was a sophomore, I jumped in the truck and heard a rich, robust voice coming out of the radio. He was going on and on about the Democrats. The only line I remember from his monologue was something to the effect of, “If Bush wins this war, the Democrats won’t have a prayer in two years.” This was about three months after the U.S. had invaded Kuwait.

“Ryan,” Dad said, “You would do well to listen to Rush. He is a very analytical thinker.”

To solidify his point, Dad drove us through Runza and I ate my cheese runza and crinkly fries sitting in the passenger seat of his Blue Ford pick-up somewhere in a park with the windows down as Rush H. Limbaugh III went on and on about the war, President Bush and evil Democrats.

At the time, I assumed that Dad urged me to listen to Rush because he wanted me to be informed about current events from a conservative perspective. Many years later, I came to suspect that Dad had an ulterior motive. I think he wanted me to be inspired by Rush so that I would pursue my dream of one day being a radio personality, just as Rush had done back in the 1970’s.

I was not a popular kid in high school. Like Rush, I was the overweight kid with few friends and no social life. Unlike Rush, I was the sole blind kid at my school. Aside from my dad and a kid named Mike, I seldom went out to lunch with friends, nor was I invited to sit at anyone’s table in the cafeteria. I began to use the school’s Resource Room to eat alone. One day, I found a dusty old clock radio sitting in a corner behind a box of paper. I plugged it in, clicked it to A.M. and spun the tuning dial until I heard Rush Limbaugh’s unmistakable voice issuing from the tinny speaker.

For the next two years, it was not uncommon for me to be sitting alone in the Resource Room during the lunch period with a cheeseburger and fries, orange juice, a chocolate sundae and Rush on the radio. Michelle Obama would’ve been proud.

I won’t revise history and tell you that I preferred this daily scenario. I would much rather have been copping a hurried feel in the back seat of a car with Amy, Jennifer, Heather or a dozen other girls. I had fantasies of steaming up their windows as they panted, “Ryan! Ring my bell before KHS rings theirs!”

With fictional dialogue like that, gentle readers, you can probably understand why I didn’t come to know a woman carnally until I was 18. At first, Rush was a coping mechanism. If I was going to be alone anyway, I may as well be entertained and informed.

One day, Mrs. Redman walked through, stopped, poked my shoulder and said, “Ryan. What. Is. That?”

“Wuhhsss ermmmbawww,” I said around a mouth full of cheap pizza.

“Bummer. I thought you were smarter than that,” she said, and stormed off.

Mrs. Black, one of my Special Ed teachers, also wasn’t a fan of Rush.

“I hate the way he talks about teachers. Paid summer vacations? BS! I’ll bet I put in more hours on nights and weekends grading papers than he ever did on the radio.”

Not all of my teachers were anti-Rush. Mrs. Wolfe, my other Special Ed instructor, liked his style and flair. She even routinely read to me from Rush’s Limbaugh Letter. In fact, her husband worked at KGFW, the local radio station that carried Rush’s daily program.

Like Rush, I started doing gigs on local radio while I was still a teenager. Rush was a D.J., while I merely did little news spots. My official title was, KGFW’s Kearney High Correspondent. It wasn’t sexy work like being a D.J., but it was my official entrance into the radio field.

I wasn’t as lonely in college as I was in high school. I still wasn’t popular. I wasn’t a frat boy. I was more of a dorm rat, though I did serve in student government for a time. I did form a few friendships and got laid here and there. I skipped a lot of classes, hid my lousy grades from my folks and eventually, became active in the NFB. Despite my decided lack of enthusiasm for academics, I attended enough classes to hear the siren song of liberalism from the mouths of professors of all stripes; English lit, Sociology, History, more English Lit, Criminal Justice, political science, Broadcast Journalism and yet more English Lit when I needed to fill a credit here or there. I was almost seduced. My fellow students didn’t pull me back from the brink. Rush was responsible for talking me down from the ledge.

Like Rush, I ultimately dropped out of college in 1998, much to the disappointment of my parents. Dad wanted me to emulate Rush, but this wasn’t what he had in mind. Unlike Rush, I never went back home to live with Mom and Dad. Eventually, I did return to college and repaired my decrepit GPA in 2002.

In retrospect, Rush was in his prime during the ‘90’s. Like every great drama, fiction or nonfiction, a hero is only as good as the villain whom he faces. Rush had the perfect foil in President Bill Clinton. Not only did the 42nd POTUS champion every liberal cause that Rush decried, but he typified the lack of character that Rush claimed exemplified the entirety of the political left. Rush didn’t have to embellish a thing. President Clinton made himself a susceptible target. From Hillary to White Water to Monica Lewinsky, Slick Willie proved to be Rush’s most prominent foe again and again for eight glorious years. Many credited Rush for the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994, which lead to the so-called, “Gingrich Revolution.”

It wasn’t just that Rush spoke plainly to the masses about conservatism. He was in the Republican culture, but not of it. He shattered the esoteric crystal ceiling, carefully forged by high-brow types like William F. Buckley, George Will and Charles Krauthammer, filtering politics and culture down to the lowly pond dwellers in The South, Fly-Over Country, the rugged West and all of those lonely souls in big, blue cities where leftism holds sway. As he put it, he was the man who, “Made the complex understandable.” And it wasn’t merely a facade. He was a man who was truly erudite in politics, but who was able to translate beltway snobbery into decipherable colloquialism.

It was not uncommon to hear Rush spout off self-referential phrases such as, “Talent on loan from God,” “… With half my brain tied behind my back, just to make it fair,” and “Having more fun than any human being should be allowed to have.” His numerous critics would accuse him of having an ego surpassed only by his ample frame, but I call BS. His apparent outsized bravado was pure radio shtick; part of his carefully-crafted public persona meant to endear himself to his fans and rankle his detractors. Every celebrity does it to one degree or another. I always suspected that he was a man of humility bordering on diffidence off-mic.

I loved Rush not only because of what he believed, but because of how he delivered his message. Radio had been in my blood since I was eight years old. It brought me voices as wide-ranging as Michael Jackson, Madonna, Jim Bohannon, William Conrad, George Strait, Jack Webb, Rick Dees and Casey Kasem.

Sidebar: Does anyone remember Talknet? Gawd!!! How did I ever get so bored that I listened to the likes of Bruce Williams and Sally Jessy Raphael? That further explains my unwanted teenaged celibacy. I was really a loser radio nerd.

From the moment that I heard his first utterance, I knew that Rush Limbaugh was a master of the medium. Everything from his massively controversial “Caller Abortion,” to his deliberately noisy rending of a newspaper in front of the mic after reading a repulsive story, to the parodies delivered by white comedian Paul Shanklin, proved that Rush was born to be on the air. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Rush wasn’t merely a former politician, political pundit or hack journalist slinging hash on the side. He was the real radio deal. How can you not idolize a guy like that?

It’s worth pointing out that Rush almost single-handedly saved A.M. radio in the 1990’s. He owed a large debt to President Reagan, who repealed the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. This antiquated, inflexible legislation forced radio stations to air both sides of any controversial issue, subjecting said stations to hefty penalties from the Federal Communications Commission if they failed to comply. It had the intended consequence of stifling political speech. Many stations, particularly in smaller markets, found it easier to avoid controversy altogether, rather than paying punitive fines. This is why the ‘70’s and ‘80’s airwaves were cluttered with innocuous fluff such as the afore-mentioned Talknet, Larry King, music, hard news and of course, sports.

In the ‘90’s, Rush spiced up the A.M. band with his distinctive style and viewpoint. It didn’t take long for an army of Rush imitators to rise up in his wake. They were an entire cadre of talk show hosts who all sounded different from Rush, but yet, very similar. Sean Hannity, Michael Medved, Hugh Hewitt, Laura Ingraham, Dennis Prager, Mark Levin, Michael Savage and Bill O’Reilly all owed their success to the big man seated behind the golden EIB microphone. He created a format that still dominates the medium to this day.

The proliferation of cable TV in the ‘90’s also heralded the rise of Fox News, which gave half the country a small-screen voice. Rush rightly needled Roger Ailes, claiming that Fox News merely mimicked his style with camera-friendly blonds rather than fat guys with faces for radio.

My interest in Rush ebbed a bit after I left college in 1998. I worked at Gallup for a time and was often in my cubical when Rush’s show aired on KLIN from 11 to two. Then, in November of 2000, our one-way love affair was rekindled when the great Bush V. Gore fiasco went down. Luckily, I had transferred to early evenings at Gallup, so I could hear Rush’s show during the day. Thus, I sat transfixed as the whole drama unfolded, until Al Gore finally conceded on December 13.

After W won, Rush’s critics predicted doom. They were certain that his popularity would wane now that his arch nemesis was out of office. But, like Jack Bauer, Rush’s popularity only grew, with no small thanks to Osama bin Laden, along with the Iraqi and Afghani conflicts and No Child Left Behind.

Rush seemed all but invincible when he bounced back from acute hearing loss in 2001. A deaf guy working in an audio medium!? Ain’t life ironic? His bulletproof status was further crystallized when he took a hiatus and underwent rehab for addiction to pain killers in 2003 and came back to an audience who readily forgave his apparent legal transgressions. I didn’t know it then, but our haste in overlooking his evident hypocrisy regarding his hardcore views on the selling and using of narcotics would serve as a bit of dark foreshadowing of things to come.

I stuck with Rush through it all; W’s second election, Hurricane Katrina, TARP, my move to Denver, Obama’s two elections, the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, the GOP victories in the House and Senate and the Gang of Eight.

Contrary to what you might think, Donald Trump was not responsible for my conversion away from Dittohead status. My passion for Rush had already cooled before Trump’s grand descent on his escalator in June of 2015. This was due to a local conservative host on Denver’s A.M. blowtorch, KOA, named Mike Rosen.

When I first heard Mike, I instantly compared him to Rush. This guy is as dry as a popcorn fart, I thought. I can’t believe he’s lasted this long.

That was in September, 2007. Two years later, Rosen was my go-to guy. I couldn’t help but notice that, while Rush seldom had callers who disagreed with him on the air, Mike Rosen welcomed them. Rush would usually hang up on a caller before delving into the guts of a debate. By contrast, Mike would revel in substantive disagreement. Sometimes, he would keep after a caller, often holding him/her over for two or three segments until the topic of choice was exhausted. While Rush was the radio guy adept at translating the nebulous world of politics to its lowest common denominator, Rosen was the irascible professor who performed deep, nuanced dives on issues. It wasn’t Rush, but Mike Rosen who kept me sane through most of the Obama years, especially when I went to work in The Peoples’ Republic of Boulder in 2014.

Sidebar: Years before I moved to Denver, Mike Rosen was a guest host for Rush while he was in rehab. He only filled in once or twice. He was always very tight-lipped about why he had never been asked back more frequently. Possibly, it was because of Rosen’s dryer, more intellectual style, or maybe it was because Rosen was less concerned with social issues like abortion or gay marriage than was Rush.

I was shaving in the shower at my folks’ place on Labor Day weekend, 2015. I had Rush on my waterproof blue tooth speaker and I was putting lather on my face when he said, “I know a lot of people are wary of Trump, or don’t like Trump, but I gotta tell ya, folks… I know him and I think he really means what he says.” I nearly slipped and cut my lip.

If Rush had been my man crush, this was where it officially ended. Still, though I seldom listened to Rush after that, I kept a place of affection for him in my radio-loving heart.

This all changed in August of 2016, when a call between Rush and a listener named Rick made a splash on social media. It was after Trump had conquered the GOP primaries, but before the general election. Rick was beseeching Rush to explain how he could support Trump when he knew Trump was lying about his stance on immigration, specifically his intention to deport entire families, including native-born children.

Rush retorted, “I guess the thing is, this is gonna enrage you. You know, I could choose a path here to try to mollify you, but I never took him seriously on this!”

Rick responded, “10 million people did!”

Rush’s response was very illuminating:

“Yeah, and they still don’t care. My point is they still don’t care. They’re gonna stick with him no matter what.”

More dark foreshadowing. Forget the man crush. The genie was out of the bottle and could never be returned. If Rush never took Trump’s rhetoric seriously, what else didn’t he take seriously over the years? What other disingenuousness did he impart under the banner of rock-ribbed conservatism? Did he really reconcile the lascivious behavior of Donald Trump to that of Bill Clinton, or did he just, “Evolve,” as Barack Obama did on the issue of gay marriage?

In fairness, I don’t think Trump was Rush’s first choice for the Oval Office. I think Ted Cruz was his guy, but Rush was too smart to openly endorse him. Rush often admitted that his first order of business as a radio personality was to part people from their money. This is consistent with capitalism. However, the product which he was selling to his advertisers and his audience was truth, refracted through the clear lens of conservatism. “America’s truth detector,” he would often call himself. Yet, the truth detector seemed to undergo a massive recalibration once Donald Trump stormed the beaches of the GOP establishment.

Rush was careful not to alienate Trump and his fanatical base in the early stages. Once Ted Cruz was out, Rush read the tealeaves and realized that, if he wanted to stay relevant, his best bet was to go all in for The Donald. He simply capitulated much earlier than did many of his D.C. beltway counterparts. As a businessman, I understand him. As a principled conservative, I felt betrayed. In the wake of his admission, and with the retirement of Mike Rosen at the end of 2015, I began to ignore Rush altogether in favor of podcasts by Ben Shapiro, Jonah Goldberg and John Podhoretz.

Sidebar: My only exposure to conservative publications such as National Review, The Weekly Standard and Commentary Magazine came when Rush would read an excerpt and analyze it. Those were niche offerings that were not available in braille or audio format. Now, with the internet and my accessible phone and computer, I can read it all. How times change.

Six days ago, I was sitting in the control room fighting off the mid-morning black hole when The Chief came in and informed me that Rush had announced that he has been diagnosed with advanced stage four lung cancer. He was taking a few days off for immediate and aggressive treatment. My emotional response was muted. There was a time when I would have cried on the spot. There was a time when I might have taken the day off work. As it was, I just stopped for a few seconds and absorbed the sorrow, not for Rush so much, but for the respect for him that I once carried. I had already grieved for the passing of Rush Limbaugh three years ago.

The responses to the bombshell were predictable. His fans prayed for him. His enemies rejoiced. The media pounced, feigning empathy mixed with barely-suppressed glee at the likely demise of one of their fiercest critics. Even President Trump was predictable in his unpredictability, awarding Rush the American Medal of Freedom at the State of the Union address.

I rightly anticipated the mirthful reaction to Rush’s announcement by many on the left. It was the same response I saw on social media when Andrew Breitbart died seven years ago. It was the same reaction I felt when I learned that Ted Kennedy had died. To a point, I get it. Rush was an agent provocateur of the left for decades. From Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, Rush showed no mercy to those who carried the banner for the other side. I’m sure they feel justified in their vitriolic response to his predicament.

But I wonder how many keyboard warriors have stood at a loved one’s bed side and watched them gasp out their final breaths as the cancer finally claimed them. I wonder how many of them have sat and wept with a cancer victim as they try to decide whether or not to endure the interminable agony of chemotherapy for a result that may ultimately be rendered moot. Some things transcend the bitter divide of politics, and one of them is cancer.

I don’t think there’s a single person who hasn’t been touched by cancer, either directly or indirectly. In 1995, my mother had a brush with it. It was a very scary time for all of us. She had surgery and lost part of her shoulder and a small spot was removed from her lung. Aside from the surgical scars, she’s been healthy for the last 25 years. I’ve also had several friends who have lost parents, spouses, siblings and friends to cancer. I wouldn’t wish that experience on my worst enemy.

As for Rush, I wonder if he has any sense of the irony of the timing. Cancer has now invaded Rush’s body, but it has been all around him for five years, infecting the Republican Party and the ideology he once claimed to champion. How fitting that his announcement should kick off a week that included a political debacle at the Iowa caucuses, truly toxic behavior from political and spiritual leaders at the State of the Union and the National Prayer Breakfast, an acquittal of the President on impeachment charges based on partisanship over fact, and the castigation of the loan Republican who voted his conscience over party loyalty. Does Rush even remember that he gave his full-throated support to Mitt Romney in 2012? Hell, Romney was his early favorite in 2008!

And yet, I sit at the microphone in the control room at Radio Talking Book every day and feel right at home. I count myself lucky each morning when I come into work, knowing that I love what I do. Even though I work in a niche industry, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if not for Rush Limbaugh. I reflect upon him often as I turn the mic on and hear my own voice filtering back to me over the headphones. I have lost so much of my identity over the past five years, but I am still a proud radio man.

And tonight, as I ponder Rush’s legacy and my own, I contemplate the half-filled humidor behind me on the bookcase. I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to Rush than to have a cigar. I say this with the full knowledge that the cancer may very well kill him. “Don’t be afraid to live,” he would always tell his listeners when the topic of liberal health Nazis came up. I’m sure he would approve of my tribute, as would my dad.

Thank you, Rush. Thank you for filling all of the lonely hours in high school. Thank you for my alternative education in college. Thank you for being a beacon of hope in the dark days after 9/11. I will pray for your recovery. If it is your time to leave us, I will pray that your soul finds peace.

The Clock and the Cougar

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Monday nights were special. At least, they were special in the lives of yours truly and his merry band of cronies in Lincoln, NE. Every Monday evening in the winter and spring months of 2006 and 2007, we would all gather at the home of our friends, Shane and Amy. We would order a delightfully unhealthy dinner (usually pizza), and sit around and shoot the bull for an hour or so. Then we would all retire to their basement. Shane would fire up his Bose home theater system and we would sit, barely speaking, as another perilous hour in the danger-saturated life of Jack Bauer, Counter Terrorist Agent, unfolded; ostensibly in real time. For over a year, during the show’s 5th and 6th seasons, we would repeat this ritual with few if any exceptions. All of my “friends” were there; Jamie, Audra, Wes and later on, even Mike.

I had strived mightily to get them all hooked on the show, 24. Anyone who knows me will tell you that, when I get hooked on a TV show, I try very hard to get others addicted as well. It’s always more fun to enjoy a story when you have others with whom to digest and discuss it. It took a while, but I caught them all! I even captured the interest of Strunky, the Curious Monkey. He would routinely nitpick each episode (not a monumental task), but he kept coming back for more. One night over penny pitchers at The Watering Hole, he tried to repay me by encouraging me to read George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. I told him, “I don’t really do fantasy.”

Two years later, my buddies Joe, Steve and I lay on the floor of apartment #10 at the Chateau Lynnewood complex in Littleton, CO, and watched as the delayed seventh season in the adventures of Jack Bauer unfolded. We had all been diehard fans since the early days, but now, our reactions to the latest shocking plot twists were muted at best. We all seemed to agree that, while the show was still fun to watch, it was wearing thin. By the time the eighth and final full-length season of 24 commenced in winter of 2010, Joe and I were watching more out of obligation than compulsion. We took in the series finale sitting on the couch in the infamous Chateau social room. We would have rather watched it at Joe’s place, but his girlfriend at the time made even mild enjoyment of the show impossible. When it ended, Joe and I just said, “Hmmm. Ok.”

Sidebar: Too bad Marwan, Saunders or Christopher Henderson didn’t know Joe’s girlfriend. She would have made an excellent weapon of mass destruction.

Last night, over a steaming hot bowl of lamb stew with my pal Ross, 24 came up again. “I used to watch the first season of that show religiously,” he said. Then he said, “Bring me some more bread, wench!”

Sidebar: Any of you who know Bridgit will understand when I say that, when Ross called her a wench, I expected his severed head to bounce into my partially empty bowl of stew in a scene that would have made Jack Bauer proud. But, she just laughed and retorted, “Fuck off.” . God love married people.

Ross mentioning 24 got me to thinking about television and what makes it endure. What makes a particular series rewatchable, even after it concludes? Many series that have been off the air for decades still capture my interest every now and then. Since I moved back to Omaha, I’ve reabsorbed The Sopranos, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Justified, The Shield and high-lights from The Rockford Files, Columbo and several of the Star Trek incarnations. I enjoy all of them; some more than I did upon my initial watch. Yet, I can never seem to muster up the interest in taking 24 out of the mothballs for a comprehensive view. I like the first two seasons, but then I get bored.

To understand why, we have to examine the genesis and ultimate trajectory of 24.

The premise was quite simple. Kiefer Sutherland played Federal Agent Jack Bauer, a counter terrorist operative who would stumble upon a plot to destroy America. The reaction of Bauer and his elite counter terrorist squad would be mirrored by a parallel plot involving the President of the United States and his/her staff. Both plots would be driven by an ominous digital clock, ever present in the background, often appearing in the foreground at the center of split screens, constantly counting down the seconds to the next disaster.

The concept of American agents saving the country and the world was far from new; it was the gimmick of the ticking clock that made the show so compelling for 21st century audiences. The idea was that each episode represented one hour in a day, the real time element a device designed to heighten suspense.

It was preposterous, of course, and we all knew it, but we didn’t care. Even hardcore fans would grudgingly admit that, “All of that stuff just couldn’t happen in one day.” Kiefer and company were just too good to ignore.

24 was conceived and partially filmed before the shattering events of 9/11, but it premiered after the tragedy. Even so, the entire series was informed by the larger, real world events of the terrorist attacks and the resulting conflicts in the Middle East. IN looking back, Jack Bauer owes his continuous (if not unlikely) survival on television to three real world counterparts; Osama bin Laden, George W. Bush and Simon Cowell.

The first two figures are obvious, but the third takes a bit of explanation. 24 was always on the bubble during its first season, meaning that it was one click away from cancelation. After the shocking finale of the first season, fans and network executives alike did not know whether Jack would be back for another harrowing day. Critical buzz was positive, but the all-important ratings were tepid. DVD sales of the first season helped seal the deal for a new day for Jack.

Despite the costly production budget and ad campaign surrounding the show, ratings continued to flounder… Until they used American Idol as the lead-in for the latter half of the show’s second season. That, plus the U.S. invasion of Iraq, helped spike the ratings. By the show’s fourth season, 24 was being widely praised, not only by most TV critics, but by many conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham. This, plus the public outing of series creator/producer Joel Surnow as an unashamed conservative (a rarity in Hollywood), did nothing to harm the show’s already mushrooming viewership.

In reading this, one might think that the series was merely a right-winger’s wet dream, especially given the fact that Muslim extremists were often featured as the villains in the show. But one would be wrong. No race or ethnic group was immune from villainy in the universe of 24. The first villains we meet are white Americans working for a paramilitary unit. The second group of baddies are Serbian warlords. In the show’s second season, the chief villains are Muslim terrorists, but they are backed by a bunch of white executive oil types trying to start a war for financial gain. The villains in the third season are Mexican drug lords, followed by a couple of British renegades. Other villains in the series include Russians, Chinese, South Africans and even Jon Voight.

The most popular villain on the show was President Charles Logan, a pasty white dude who emerged as the antagonist during the show’s 5th and arguably best season. The critics lapped it up, seeing evident parallels between evil President Logan and doubly evil President Bush. It was no coincidence that the fifth season scored a double Emmy win for ‘Best Dramatic Series’ and ‘Best Actor’ for Kiefer Sutherland.

The biggest reason that 24 doesn’t particularly date well is not because of its themes. The show really had one theme, which was that Jack Bauer would always triumph over terrorism, no matter the personal cost. It wasn’t pro-Republican or pro-Democrat, but it was certainly pro-U.S. This was a welcome change for many fans who found plenty of anti-U.S. commentary from other critical darlings such as The Sopranos, The Wire and the reimagined Battlestar Galactica.

The impact of 24 is weakened because its central premise is built upon the simple question of, what happens next? The show’s serialized nature and real time structure meant that each episode would end on a cliffhanger. Every popular drama poses this same question, but 24 was a plot-driven show that relied on a continual raising of the stakes to keep up its momentum. Often, cliffhangers would reveal an even bigger threat, wielded by an even bigger baddy just around the corner. When Jack thwarts a presidential assassin in season one, he then must contend with a nuclear bomb on U.S. soil in season two. In season three, he tries to stop a flesh-eating virus from being released in L.A. In the fourth season, it’s a group of hackers who want to cause every nuclear power plant in the country to melt down simultaneously. Season five brings us a deadly nerve gas, then we move on to suitcase nukes, child soldiers in South Africa, an attack on the White House, nuclear missiles over New York City, and finally, deadly drones in London. It’s exhausting just writing about all of these WMD’s, let alone defeating them.

In the midst of dealing with the next looming threat, the viewer comes to understand that no character, save Jack himself, is safe. Any character could die at any time. Thus, we learn that it is not emotionally healthy to become attached to David Palmer, Tony Almeda, Michelle Dessler or Curtis Manning, because they might be killed off in the very next episode. Even Sherry Palmer, the first First Lady of 24 and one of the better villains, wasn’t immune from being whacked. The only other character who seemed safe was Jack’s able sidekick, the acid-tongued computer nerd, Chloe O’Brian.

But sometimes, death is rendered meaningless. Tony Almeda is killed during the events of the fifth longest day of Jack’s life, but on the seventh day, he returns from the dead as a villain, who’s really a hero, who’s really a villain. I know… It’s confusing, but 24 was never known for its logical consistency. In fact, you could build a wall in front of many of those plot holes and make Ramon Salazar pay for it.

In the show’s inaugural season, Jack’s main challenge is two-fold. He must save his family from danger, whilst simultaneously protecting presidential candidate David Palmer from harm. Inevitably, these two missions come into conflict and ultimately, Jack is forced to choose. He chooses David Palmer and pays the price when he loses his wife to a bullet fired by his one-time lover, revealed to be an evil mole, Nina Myers. The betrayal doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the image of Jack holding his dead, pregnant wife in his arms as he sobs is pure Kiefer gold.

But wait! The heartbreak of Jack’s sacrifice is nullified three seasons later, when former President David Palmer is struck down by another assassin’s bullet. When you rewatch the first season, you catch yourself asking, what the hell was the point? Unlike Han Solo, Jack Bauer has the right to ask that question, but the show never seems to carry the self-awareness to allow him to engage in any sort of philosophical introspection. The forward momentum of relentless action and multiplying threats , propelled ever forward by the “beep-thud” of the clock of doom, never permits any time for self-reflection, even during the commercial breaks.

And then, there’s the cougar effect. Any fan of 24 will recognize this well-known jibe.

In the show’s second season, Jack’s daughter Kim serves no useful dramatic purpose. She is adrift in the wake of her mother’s death. Yet, the writers wanted to keep her around so as to give Jack’s mission to locate and stop the nuclear bomb more urgency. She wasn’t directly involved in the main story, but they kept her in-focus by giving her a series of farcical adventures while she was trying to escape from L.A. ahead of the impending mushroom cloud. Said adventures involved an abusive husband, an injured girl, a one-legged boyfriend, a crazy survivalist and… A cougar. I’m not kidding! YouTube it! At one point, Kim gets stuck in an animal trap and is stalked by a cougar. Many of us watching at the time collectively groaned, for the cougar proved to be nothing more than an innocuous distraction. It was far less dangerous than Joe’s girlfriend proved to be

Other filler plots designed to stretch the show out to its mandatory 24-hour seasonal limit included Terri’s amnesia in season one, Chloe’s mysterious baby in season three, David Palmer’s love life in season three, the presidential family plot in season seven and Dana’s parole officer in season eight.

Despite these obvious fillers, the true jump-the-shark moment on 24 came early. It happened in the second season, after the bomb went off, around the time that Kimberly Caldwell was being sent home on American Idol. Throughout the first 40 episodes of the show, Jack Bauer was depicted as a tragic hero with human flaws. Then, in hour number 19 of the second season, Jack is captured and tortured by thugs who are seeking a valuable data chip. I mean, they brutally torture him by network TV standards; nothing compared to The Sopranos or Game of Thrones, but enough to send the Parents’ Television Council into a shit-fit. The thugs cut him, burn him and shock him to the point where his heart stops and he flat lines.

20 minutes later, he jumps up, grabs a gun and takes out his tormentors before going on his merry way. No one can bounce back quite like Jack Bauer.

… Except Patrick Mahomes, of course.

In subsequent seasons, Jack kicks a heroin addiction within a matter of hours, returns from the dead and survives exposure to a deadly chemical nerve agent. But his greatest display of human endurance occurs when he returns from China after two years in captivity, then gets stabbed in the back with a medical scalpel, then rips out a guy’s throat with his bear teeth and chops off another terrorist’s fingers, all in two hours real time.

In the space of nine seasons and one TV movie, Jack quickly transformed from damaged, flawed hero to invincible action hero. It was a transformation that often swerved into the lane of self-parody.

Along with his physical transformation comes an emotional carapace. In the first two seasons, it is clear that Jack has many regrets about his life. His attempt to put his family back together fails, his wife is killed and his daughter is estranged from him for many years. In the premier episode of season two, Jack even sits alone in his condo and contemplates suicide before a call from President David Palmer pulls him back from the brink. By season seven, Jack sits defiantly in front of a Congressional subcommittee in Washington D.C. and growls, “Please do not sit there with that smug look on your face and expect me to regret the decisions I have made. Because Senator, the truth is, I don’t.”

This defiance represented a very polarized attitude in the country at the time surrounding the issue of the torture of terrorist suspects. It was an issue sparked by the exposure of the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003. While the politics of 24 were non-partisan, it did take an unambiguous stance on the issue of enhanced interrogation. Simply put, in Jack Bauer’s universe, torture works and therefore is always justified. Of course, the constant ticking clock scenario on 24 meant that torture was always necessary. This position did not go over well with everyone in the writers’ room. Behind-the-scenes interviews reflected a divisive atmosphere, with Joel Surnow on one side of the issue and future Homeland show-runner Howard Gordon on the other.

Setting aside the moral and legal implications, the plot device of torture quickly wore out its welcome on 24. In the fourth season alone when the issue took center stage, Jack seemed to torture a suspect nearly every other episode in order to gain information on the next attack. In every case, he broke his victim within seconds and gained the information he needed. Even Secretary of Defense Heller allowed his own son to be tortured with nary a word.

I don’t condemn this tactic so much as a matter of principle as I do as a matter of lazy writing. Like the numerous WMD devices, the device of torture was over-used and predictable. Predictability is the hobgoblin of any thriller.

Other repetitious 24 tropes include the mean boss who’s only purpose was to get in Jack’s way, but who ultimately proved to be a good person only when he sacrificed himself for the greater good. Such examples included George Mason, Ryan Chappelle, Lem McGill and Bill Buchanan. Also, the mole who seems to be a good guy, but who proves to be evil. Nina Myers was the most effective use of this common espionage trope.

And Let us not forget the obligatory terrorist attack on CTU headquarters trope, the presidential coup trope, First Family drama interfering with the main crisis of the day trope, Jack on the run trope, Jack captured by a foreign power trope, and the innocent family member who isn’t so innocent trope. By the time James Cromwell appears as Jack’s cold-blooded father in season six, you know that his motives are nefarious even before he utters a word.

In hindsight, 24 was a good show for its first 39 episodes. After that, it quickly de-evolved into a solid action show, but one in which its primary star was working with material beneath his capabilities. As evidence, I present a scene from the finale of season one. Jack gets a call from Nina, who we know is a traitor. She tells him that his daughter Kim was found dead, floating in the bay. Jack collapses and weeps uncontrollably. It is a heartbreaking scene that shows Jack’s humanity on full display. After that, he adopts his cold, vengeful exterior as he wages a murderous assault on Dennis Hopper and his Serbian henchmen. This was 24 at its best.

I also want to point out another devastating scene from the first season; a scene that did not involve Jack. One of the major plots of the season involves the kidnapping of Jack’s wife Terri, as well as his daughter. The terrorists want to use Jack’s family as leverage over him in their assassination plot. At one point, one of their captors threatens to rape Kim. In a display of maternal protectiveness, Terri offers herself to the rapist instead of Kim. He accepts. You don’t actually see the assault occur, but you hear evidence of it. The scene makes me mist over every time I watch it, especially given Terri’s fate in the season finale. You would never see a scene like this in later seasons.

The first two seasons hold up very well, with less emphasis on hyperbolic action and more grounded nuance. Season five also holds up very well. Despite the high body count of main characters, the performance of Kiefer Sutherland is bolstered by those of Gregory Itzin as President Charles Logan, with Jean Smart as his emotionally troubled wife, Martha. The villains of the day also include RoboCop and Dr. Romano from E.R.

Four years after Jack Bauer ran out of time, he was resurrected in a truncated 12-hour season called, 24: Live Another Day. Joe, Steve and I gathered in Steve’s cracker box apartment to watch the first few episodes. We did it more out of tradition than anything. The two things I remember most about that evening were that Steve stopped at Burger King and poured a jigger of whisky in his large coke, and Jack Bauer somehow wound up in London. After that, life got in the way and we never finished the season together. I can’t even remember how it ended. I think Audrey Raines died. That would total four of Jack’s love interests who got dead. Another trope.

Three years after that, 24: Legacy premiered after Super Bowl 51. Corey Hawkins replaced Kiefer Sutherland in the lead. Tony Almeda returned yet again. I didn’t even bother to watch. 24 without Jack Bauer would be like Breaking Bad without Walter White (hello, El Camino.) I think Joe watched it, but you can’t blame the guy. He was lonely in Phoenix. We all do desperate things when we’re lonely. That’s why I pay a woman once a week to come over and imitate Sarah Clarke’s voice as she gets naked. I get more turned on when she does evil Nina, rather than good Nina.

As for the merry band of 24 cronies in Lincoln… Well… All I can say is, we’re all victims of time. We might escape the cougar, but the clock always gets us in the end.