Until recently, it was a given in episodic television that a show’s central protagonist couldn’t do something really dreadful (like commit murder) because it would kind of undercut the concept of being the ”hero” of a show, don’tcha know. Yet during the season that recently ended:
? Kiefer Sutherland’s CIA agent on ”24,” Jack Bauer, takes a good, long look at the guy he thinks has killed his daughter (Dennis Hopper’s Victor Drazen) and empties his gun into him.
? Alyson Hannigan’s Willow on ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer” captures doofus-villain Warren (Adam Busch), whom she holds responsible for the death of her lover, and flays him alive (or as Anya put it, ”She killed him, ripped him apart, and bloodied up the forest doing it”).
? Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet on ”The West Wing” signs off on the assassination of a foreign terrorist, whose demise we see in the season ender’s final moments, intercut with shots of Bartlet seemingly resigned to his decision.
So, do we — should we — have any qualms about these protagonists, each in his or her own way the object of intense viewer loyalty? As I said, this isn’t a question we’d have tussled with a decade ago. There’s no way anyone on, for instance, ”L.A. Law” would’ve knowingly committed murder — with, as they say, malice aforethought — and be permitted (by the show’s producers, by the network, by the audience) to continue being an admirable/likable/identifiable-with character the next season. Yet it looks like that’s just what the folks behind ”24,” ”Buffy,” and ”West Wing” intend to do.