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24 Faces of Eve

Have you caught that hot Fox series where a hunky guy has to navigate a snake pit of two-faced golddiggers and stupid bimbos to gain an ultimate prize? No, not Joe Millionaire -- I'm talking about 24.

There's no denying that, even without the nightmarish intensity of its first year, 24 is outstanding television. But after a season and a half, I'm starting to notice a disturbing trend among 24's sprawling cast of characters. All the women are duplicitous schemers, victims, or absolute morons -- or some combination of the three. A lot of the paranoia that drives 24 stems not from external threats, but from the tension between power-wielding male characters and the women who are either screwing up their efforts or trying to grab power for themselves.

The main men of 24 occupy a sliding scale of morality, none of them entirely good or evil. "Soul Patch" Tony Almeda is the closest 24 gets to an honest-to-goodness hero, but his compassion and sensitivity are also preyed upon by the women around him. Jack Bauer is a fundamentally decent guy, but also dangerous -- we breathe a sigh of relief when we realize he hasn't, in fact, ordered the murder of a terrorist's child, because we believed he really would have. President David Palmer's moral code gives him surprising strength of character, but also leaves him hamstrung to act at crucial junctures. And even though tragedy turns George Mason's weasely selfishness to sacrifice, he's still willing to deny an employee life-saving medical aid to get what he wants from her.

So far, so good. What about the characters without a Y chromosome? Kim Bauer is number one in the "stupid" category. Every 24 viewer I've met or spoken with seems to agree: Jack's daughter is dumb as a post, hurtling from one self-induced peril to another. She was recently trapped and menaced by a cougar. Elisha Cuthbert is easy on the eyes, but be honest: how many of you were rooting for the cougar?

Kim actually grew as a character during the show's first season, becoming a resourceful survivor. She wound up outwitting and outrunning the people holding her hostage. But the beginning of this season, had she taken any self-defense classes? Had she decided to carry mace, or a taser? Is she a more cool and logical thinker? Nope -- she's too busy lighting fires in the back seat of moving vehicles. She could have been rescued by CTU several times over by now, but for her own bungling. That faint "D'oh!" you hear is coming from Charles Darwin's grave.

In the "victim" category, look no further than the late Terri Bauer. When she wasn't wandering around all panicky and amnesiac, her few heroic acts had horrible costs. First she saved Kim from being raped -- by offering herself up instead. Then, she discovered the season's central traitor at work (completely by accident), and, sheeplike, allowed herself to get killed.

This season's biggest victim to date is Paula, the nervous computer geek who couldn't handle the pressure of possible nuclear annihilation. She had to be extensively coddled by Tony to get anything done, and then a bombing mortally wounded her. Mason had her dragged from the jaws of death just long enough to cough up some vital access codes. Her usefulness gone, the producers snuffed her.

The best-represented women on 24, though, are the schemers. The show can barely contain them all, each cozying up to unwitting male authority figures while hungering for influence.

Sherry Palmer, the president's serpentine ex-wife, has been clawing frantically for power from the show's very first episode. Last year, she contented herself with merely plotting to illegally cover up a murder investigation and driving her husband to infidelity. But this year, apparently having realized she was thinking too small, she's now exploiting insider knowledge of impending nuclear doom to worm her way back into her husband's inner circle.

Her only credible opponent to date has been Lynn Kresge, the president's aide. And Lynn mainly seems to be blocking Sherry's efforts because she feels that Sherry poses a threat to her own connection to the President's power. (Note that, while Lynn and Sherry mostly cat-fight, only Palmer is competent enough to finally kick Sherry to the curb -- without ever listening to Lynn.)

At CTU, Tony's aide-de-camp and love interest Michelle seems generally sympathetic and competent. But she's the first to notice George Mason's vulnerability as he succumbs to radiation poisoning. She beelines for Tony and urges him, Lady Macbeth-style, to rat out Mason and get himself installed as bureau chief. You can practically see the wheels turning in her head as she angles for a little of Tony's reflected glory. Now she's having some kind of spitting match with the woman replacing Paula, who used to be her boss and seems to resent the imbalance of power.

And it's hard to overlook 24's patron saint of manipulative witches: Nina Myers. Jack's trusted ally for nearly all of Season One, Nina turned traitor and murdered his wife. This year, she used her knowledge of the nuclear plot to win herself a pardon and, very nearly, a "get out of jail" card for murdering Jack. She's an admittedly fascinating character, mostly because she's willing to break more rules than the other female characters to get what she wants. The split-second of remorse on her face as she recalled killing Jack's wife almost made her Jack's equal for depth. But rather than explore her crackling new Tom-and-Jerry chemistry with Jack, the producers waited just long enough for her to fulfill her part, then hastily shuffled her offstage.

The one female character who might just get a square deal on 24 this year is the heroine, Kate Warner. She started out as an idiot, clumsily investigating her sister's harmless fiancee, then morphed into a blubbering victim when kidnapped by terrorists. (Have you noticed that there's an awful lot of kidnapping going on?) And Kate's still not too bright: Hey, there's my fugitive sister, who just killed two highly trained agents! I'll go after her, unarmed, without telling anyone! But her helplessness seems to be slowly waning -- she bravely defied her sister at gunpoint, and infiltrated a mosque to ID her erstwhile torturer. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that she won't go all stupid again.

So for positive, empowered women, there's Kate and... um... no one. Even the supporting characters can't escape the stigma. There's the infamous Naked Mandy, who shags a journalist in an airplane lavatory to steal his press pass, blows up the plane, then lets her stupid, greedy lesbian lover get murdered to save her own skin. Kim's bimbo friend, hit by a car and murdered in her hospital bed. The courageous rent-a-cop who helps Jack chase a suspect and gets shot to death for her trouble. The CTU computer tech betraying her comrades for cold cash. The frumpy waitress who sells fugitive Jack out to the cops. The speechwriter who lets Sherry push her into seducing Palmer. Palmer's daughter, a passive and fragile rape victim. The ball-busting harridan who takes over CTU when Jack appears to have gone rogue. The duped lover of a terrorist, who botches a CTU intelligence-gathering plan by wigging out and stabbing her beau half to death. The abused wife who employs Kim, found beaten to death in the trunk of her husband's car. Kate's brainwashed sister, who goes from idiot to schemer to victim at the drop of a hat.

None of the previous efforts of 24's phalanx of producers would suggest this deep-seated vein of misogyny. And with ten hours to go and a third season just confirmed, we viewers can only hope they get over their dim view of women at some point.

But for now, God help you if you're in Los Angeles, a clock is ticking, and you have ovaries.


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