Wednesday, March 12, 2008

38. 24

I really do like this show a lot, but there are two reasons why this show is not higher on this list: a) I find repeated viewings of this program virtually unwatchable and b) last season was so bad, that the only reason why I continued watching it was out of consolation and to make fun of it.

Let me explain the second reason first: it probably wasn't totally the writers' fault why the fifth season was just so poor. For starters “24” is a hit show because of one reason, each week and each season the show has to be more exciting and more action-packed than the last. The American people always want more, they want their heroes to be bigger, stronger, faster and after a while a tipping point is reached where action-packed turns into sheer idiocy. Unfortunately, that tipping point was reached last year.

I would guess that each season's first writer's meeting begins with the following question “How do we top the previous season?” For the sixth season, the writers thought that a nuclear bomb exploding in a town just outside of Los Angeles would be the best thing to do to grab their audiences' attention. And that worked, however they had the bomb explode a little too early in the day thus rendering the rest of the day's action completely implausible.

Yes, I understand that when viewing “24” and thrilling to the heroics of Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) believability is usually suspended. It has to be so that the “real time” formula of the show can work correctly—Bauer is never in traffic (unless as a plot point), he never eats, sleeps or goes to the bathroom during this entire day, people eventually bend to his every whim and for the most part people do what he says. Fine. I can deal with all of that, this isn't a documentary.

But, here's what happens during Season Six' day: Bauer is released from 20 months in a Chinese torture prison, immediately he is put to work to help find five suitcase bombs, he finds four and the fifth one explodes in Valencia, CA, the President and the leader of a anti-American group (who is now working with the Americans) both are caught in a bombing that was set up by a secret cabal that includes the Vice President, he wants to turn the Middle East into a parking lot and hopes that the American people will buy that an Arab faction were the ones that wounded the President, also the Chinese and a renegade group of Russians come back into the picture with war on their mind and it's about to happen until Jack Bauer stops it.


What would be on the front page of the following day's newspaper: War with China and Russia Averted? President in Coma? Coup D'etat Squashed? Nuclear Bomb Explodes Near LA? For example, when the bomb explodes, every one is in a panic for about 10 minutes. The rest of the day happens like there was no bomb. The President is in a coma and everyone is ok with that too and he comes out of it for a few minutes to stop the Vice President's “retaliatory” strike on an innocent Middle Eastern country. Oh yeah, the US government was rounding up Middle Easterners and throwing them in internment camps. Aside from a few people, no one really seemed to care.

See, there is just way too much going on and after awhile it was just silly. The best part of “24” was that there was a little bit of realism that went along with the show. In Season Six, the writers took all of that and threw it out the window. Jack Bauer could've been in outer space fighting dragons with a Wookie sidekick and I'd probably have taken it more seriously.

As far as the first reason, that's more on me than anything. “24” is syndicated on a couple of channels and I've tried to watch it, but when I know what's coming, the show just isn't as good. I know that a cougar is going to attack Kim Bauer in the first season. I know that President Palmer—who, BTW is the best fictional President ever, though his brother sort of sucked—is going to get some sort of virus from an unsavory character. Nina is going to turn on Jack and shoot his wife. Audrey is going to get amnesia. The kid from “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” is really a terrorist. Edgar may be a creep at first, but he's really a nice guy and is going to die from poison gas that wipes out most of CTU. These things just don't pack the same punch when seen a second time as they do when they are first viewed.

BTW, there were spoilers in that last paragraph.

And that's what I love most about this show: it's unpredictability. It's awesome that main characters get killed all the time, it's cool that Jack Bauer is as close to a super hero as we have on television, it's great that there are bad guys who are just evil. I love it, the whole black and white of all the situations are great. You don't have to think or feel conflicted, like you do in the real world. Bad guys are bad. Good guys are good. It's almost like I'm eight-years-old again.

And I think that the whole serialization of the show is brilliant. From January through mid-May you get a new episode or two every single week. No reruns, no waiting three weeks for a new episode. It's gratifying to know that next week, Jack is going to wiggle his way out his next dangerous encounter and kick some bad guy ass. I imagine this is what older generations loved about the “Superman” or “Tarzan” serials that were run before the main feature of a movie every Saturday. Watching a show unfold, as if it was a chapter in a book is terrific fun.

I know that I usually go on and on and on about characters, but this show is much more different than any show that I watch—as the plot is what I like most. The plots are involved, though not the most difficult thing to understand (“The Wire” is far more complicated as was “Rome”) and there are a few red herrings here and there, but for the most part they keep the viewer interested and engaged. The writers do cop out every now and again—how many moles could CTU hire in five years? It seems like 90% of the people that work there have other, more sinister obligations—but I can understand that and I give them a pass. I would bet that writing “24” is not a typical gig for a writer.

The characters are usually right out of central casting, but that allows the viewer to concentrate on the plot. Yes, nerdy computer girl (Chloe, played by “Mr. Show” alum Mary Lynn Rajskub) may look like she won't help Jack, but in the end she will. And the hard ass CTU boss (there are a million of them) may not like the way Bauer does business, but damn it, he gets results!

The one character that is a bit different is Jack Bauer, of course. Yes, he is a machine who will stop at nothing to get the job done, but he also has a conscious which sets him apart from the drug lords, mercenaries, war lords and terrorists that he faces every day. And while that can be a little hacky, the writers at least allow him to lose something tangible (his wife in the first season, his partner and daughter in the third, his girlfriend and all of his friends in the fifth) so that it's not just lip service. This makes him a hero with flaws, which is something that we don't see too much—even in this age of anti-heroes.

My hope is that with the writers' strike cancelling this season of “24” it will allow the writers to look back and study what made older seasons of the show so great. Then they will go forward with better ideas and realize that bigger is not always better. The one thing that I am nervous about is that one of the series creator, Joel Surnow, has left the show. In my view “24” seems to have a liberal bent (most of the “evil” politicians are conservative) but what I find interesting is that Surnow is about as right wing as one can get. He ultra conservative and favors isolationism, but his writing doesn't seem to follow his ideas. I think that this is really cool for some reason.

Are there better written dramas out there? Of course. But is there a more fun drama? I doubt it. Another thing that I really like is that each episode is like a mini movie, with explosions and fire fights that rival big screen action movies. The producers and the tech guys spend a lot of time and money on this show and the viewers can tell.

Having said that, will this be a show that goes down in the annals of television history? Probably not. I suspect that in 10 or 15 years, people will look at “24” the way that we look at “The A-Team” or “Knight Rider” now; innocent fun that seemed far more serious at the time. Especially since there is going to be a whole group of people that will parody the way that the show is shot, will have the digital clock countdown and other aspects from the show. The same thing happened to "The Matrix" when everyone copied the slow motion fighting. It took away from the original project and made it a cliche. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I guess that will be just fine.

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