IS 24 LIBERAL OR CONSERVATIVE?….Last week 24 reverted to form: after learning early in the episode that CTU had been infiltrated by a mole, the (suspected) mole was located and immediately hauled off to an “interrogation room.” Within a few minutes, this season’s bad cop, Mike Doyle, had her tied up in a chair and was just about to start cuffing her around when he was suddenly called away to avert a drone headed for San Francisco with a nuclear cargo.

So this is yet more fodder for the fire: is 24 an inherently conservative show because of its message that torture is necessary, torture works, and only weak-kneed liberals object to it? Jane Mayer reignited the debate last month with a piece in the New Yorker that investigated 24’s conservative roots.

At a broad level it’s hard to argue with this, though not, I think, specifically because of 24’s routine dramatization of torture — which has become more a crutch for weary writers than anything else in recent seasons. It’s more general: 24 is a tough-guy cop show, and tough-guy cop shows have appealed to conservatives for decades. Jack Bauer is basically an updated version of Dirty Harry, the poster boy for conservative backlash against urban crime in the early 70s.

So sure: 24 is a conservative Disneyland. But there’s another side to the 24 story that’s surprisingly liberal: its politics. There are, after all, really two stars in 24: Jack Bauer (when the action is on the ground) and the president of the United States (when the action shifts to politics). In Jack’s world, being a tough guy works. In the president’s world, it’s exactly the opposite.

In fact, plot developments in the Oval Office (or Air Force One or an underground bunker or whatever vacation home is being used that season) are enough to warm the cockles of any lefty’s heart. Why? Because the almost universal theme is that hawks are always wrong. Let’s roll the tape.

In Season 2, a hawkish cabinet uses its 25th Amendment power to relieve the (Democratic) president of power because they consider him weak and indecisive for refusing to retaliate against a Middle Eastern country that has detonated a nuclear bomb on U.S. soil. But the hawks are dead wrong: it turns out that a group of shadowy businessmen fabricated the entire plot in order to push the U.S. into war and drive up oil prices. The liberal president is vindicated.

Season 4 starts out with a new (Republican) president who’s killed midway through the season. The conservative, hawkish vice president who takes over turns out to be hesitant and incompetent. He’s saved from disaster only by the advice and counsel of the liberal president from Season 2.

In Season 5, the hawkish president gins up a terrorist attack in order to give him an excuse to invoke the military terms of an anti-terrorism treaty and secure U.S. oil interests in central Asia. The plot is discovered and the president hauled off to jail.

Season 6 (the current season) stars a cautious, liberal (Democratic) president determined to protect civil liberties in the face of terrorist threats. His reward? An assassination attempt by a cabal of hawkish White House aides that leaves him in a coma and allows the vice president to order an unjustified attack on an unnamed (as usual) Middle Eastern country. You can guess how this is going to turn out.

So what’s up? The hyperkinetic world of 24, where good and evil clash, torture is a necessary tool, and terrorist threats are everywhere, is indeed a paean to modern Bushian conservatism. But when the action switches to the Oval Office, hawks are almost universally portrayed as either ideologues who panic at the first sign of trouble or else scheming superpatriots who are desperate to push the United States into unjustified wars as a way of advancing their own mercenary agendas. If Joel Surnow’s name weren’t attached to the series, you might guess that it had been produced by Michael Moore.

So is 24 liberal or conservative? Schizophrenic, I’d say.