TV's Best of the Decade: No. 24 -- '24'
The clock never stops ticking for Kiefer Sutherland on FOX's real-time favorite
It's a day of coincidences on The Fien Print's list of TV's Best of the Decade.
First, who would ever have guessed that "24" would come in at position No. 24 on my Best of the Decade list? I mean, what were the odds of that? A total coincidence! [Somewhat.]
And then what should show up in my mailbox this morning? That's right. The first four episodes for Day Eight of "24." I mean, what were the odds of that? A total coincidence! [Totally. Though I didn't check my mail yesterday, so who knows?]
What do you think Kiefer Sutherland and series creators Robert Cochran and Joel Surnow would have said if you'd approached them in 2001 and suggested the possibility that this gimmicky formula of theirs -- It's an action drama told in real time, over a single day, with each episode representing an hour -- would be good for even two seasons. Or three seasons. Or four. Or five. Or six. Or seven. Or eight, plus a TV movie? I'm assuming the response would have been somewhere between incredulity and outright dismissal.
"24" was supposed to be a cute parlor trick. Surnow and Cochran probably weren't even certain they could make it work for a full day. But FOX called their bluff.
You'd be hard-pressed to make an argument that "24" has changed network television in any major way, unless you happened to have been a big fan of ABC's "Big Day." I guess you could say that it, along with "Lost," helped pioneer the model of TV dramas so serialized that they could never be aired in repeats, which in turn prompted changes in the network scheduling model.
Even if it didn't change the way the game was played, "24" played the game in a different way. I've always compared "24" to the little girl with the little right in the middle of her forehead. When it's good, it's very, very good and when it's bad, it's horrid.
Fortunately, it's been very, very good enough to justify placement at No. 24 on my list.
[More thoughts after the break...]
It's amazing that "24" is about to make it to its eighth season, but it's nearly as hard to fathom that it made it through a network development process and was picked for air in the first place. And then, premiering in the fall of 2001, it wasn't a sure thing it's was going to make it on the air at all.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (well, after the *immediate* aftermath, but when entertainment companies were still trying to figure out if we'd ever laugh again, if we'd ever watch thrillers again, if we'd ever turn away from Fox News again), the tragedy must have looked like a crushing blow to "24." On the most superficial of levels, the pilot had a plane explosion. When it was written and produced, it was just another exciting action trope to prove that "24" was going to be like a mini-movie every week. On September 12, it became a disconcerting echo.
This observation either is or isn't callous and it either is or isn't obvious, but in the balance, 9/11 ended up being integral to the success of "24." I stopped short of saying "the best thing to happen to '24,'" because heaven knows that *would* be callous, but it would also probably be true.
Rather than restricting what they were able to do, the events of 9/11 gave the show's writers and its main character a license, an all-access pass.
In short, 9/11 made the unforeseeable foreseeable and it took the stakes from the realm of the imaginary and the paranoid-fantastical into the real. Suddenly, the plot of the first season -- somebody wants to kill a candidate for the presidency -- was almost quaint by comparison to what was happening on the news channels. As horrifying as it is to say, 9/11 gave the "24" producers a measuring stick for cataclysm and they took those new rules and ran with them. Suddenly mass casualty events weren't a big deal. Unleash a plague here, impose martial law there? No biggie. Detonate a nuclear weapon in Valencia? All in the name of fiction! The challenge for the writers ceased to be "What can we get away with doing?" because the answer to that question was "Anything we want." The challenge just because how to top the previous averted apocalypse.
For Jack Bauer, the carte blanche was even more liberating. Before 9/11, Jack Bauer was an intrepid public servant with a limitless skill set and a clear mission. He was a small screen John McLane, just trying to simultaneously save the day and reunite his family. It was a reasonable goal, but a quaint goal. After 9/11, Jack Bauer ceased to be a luxury item for America. He became a necessity. In a real world in which our gatekeepers had seemingly failed us, we turned to a pint-sized Canadian playing an operative for a fictional intelligence agency and decided that he was our only hope.
The first season of "24" is roughly half-and-half Jack Bauer trying to save his family and Jack Bauer trying to prevent an assassination (with helpful dovetailing between the plotlines). But in the finale, not knowing if they were going to be back for a second season anyway, the producers made the crazy/audacious/cruel/shocking decision to kill off Jack's estranged wife Teri. The message could not have been clearer: Anything can happen at any time on "24" and, more importantly, a good day for Jack Bauer is defined by goals beyond the personal. From there, Jack Bauer spent every day prioritizing America's well-being over his own life, over the irrelevant well-being of daughter Kim and over whichever woman was under the mistaken impression she held a piece of his heart. This wasn't a choice Jack Bauer made or even a choice that the show's producers actively made. America, it turned out, needed Jack Bauer.
If 9/11 gave "24" its ethos, the events that came afterwards shaped its vernacular and also aided its longevity. Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib put words like "waterboarding" and "enemy combatants" into popular conversation, forced all of us to ponder what steps could be justified to prevent another 9/11. But if regular civilians and the military dealt with these issues in shades of gray, Jack Bauer lacked that luxury. In his world, the rights you trampled over were always secondary to the lives you saved. Jack was forced to confront those assumptions in the show's most recent season, but despite a little soul searching and some pseudo-spiritual self-examination, I'm sure Jack Bauer would tell you he wouldn't do a thing differently.
So have "24" and its intrepid main character been merchants of conservative propaganda? Well sure. In their own way. Jack Bauer's ends-justify-the-means methodology has been shockingly effective. He's never for an instant gotten sentimental about a victim's rights or feelings and he's almost always learned what he needed to know. He's beaten, tortured and killed to get information and the results speak for themselves. Yeah, there have been nuclear attacks and meltdowns on American soil, but those were all precursor attacks and, in every case, whatever the worst case scenario happened to be, he prevented it. Regrets? Jack Bauer's had a few. But then again? Too few to dwell on.
In its seven season, "24" has rarely missed the opportunity to mock and marginalize liberal politicians and the liberal media and anybody who thinks that the show is a show without politics is foolish.
Who really cares? If "Boston Legal" could have James Spader reading Daily Kos talking points as five-minute monologues, why shouldn't Jack Bauer be allowed to spit on the Geneva Convention and defecate on due process? Jack Bauer is dying for all of our sins and no soap opera villain has died and been resurrected more times than Jack.
Also, Jack Bauer gave the Left talking points and a way to make millions of people see the face of torture and extremism. That that face happens to be saving the world, 24 hours at a time? Well, that's just the fictitious part of "24."
Pull aside a group of "24" fans and ask them for their favorite seasons and you'll get seven different answers.
That, by the way, was a lie. No "24" fan is going to tell you that Day Six was their favorite season. And very few "24" fans are going to ignore the strange Mexican interlude and tell you that Day Three is their favorite. Days Two and Four might have a couple supporters, but they'd still probably be in the minority. For me, Day Two gets some bonus points for Laura Harris' excellent and surprising performance.
But most fans come down in favorite of either Day One or Day Five.
I'll acknowledge that the first two hours of Day Five are astoundingly shocking and that the middle of the season is better than average, thanks to the gas attack on CTU and the season finds a terrific villain if you happened to buy President Logan's transition from hapless boob into criminal mastermind. Day Five was the one that earned the show its biggest Emmy haul and then was made to look even better in comparison with the Day Six letdown. Don't get me wrong here. Day Five is a great season of "24."
I'll always throw my full support behind that first season. We were just so innocent as "24" viewers at the time. We hadn't seen the tricks of the trade and the all-star roster of directors who oversaw most of the season -- Stephen Hopkins, Davis Guggenheim and Jon Cassar, primarily -- created the rules as they went along. We weren't accustomed to the inevitable moles in CTU. We didn't know, at least initially, to get sick of Kim Bauer constantly in danger. We weren't bracing ourselves for the middle-episode letdown where the writers had to pause, reboot the premise and move on. We weren't trained to gripe at Jack Bauer's absence of bathroom or snack breaks or at the fact that he managed to negotiate his way around Los Angeles at all hours without hitting traffic or that he always had cell reception and his battery died only at the most dramatically inconvenient times. We didn't know how far the producers were willing to push in terms of violence, in terms of character reversals and in terms of unexpected deaths. Everything that happened that season, even in the repetitious middle episodes, felt like a shock and when the finale built to its moment of triumph and relief, we thought we were safe and then BAM! An ending so murky and cynical you couldn't believe they'd convinced the network to get behind it.
I was finishing grad school when the first season began and fell behind almost immediately, but then did a two-day marathon on DVD, plowing through the entire season almost in one gulp. Even when things got TRULY lame -- there's no way to explain Teri's amnesia arc that doesn't make it sound like stupid stalling for time, which was exactly what it was -- the pacing was so amazing and unique that you got distracted immediately. The first season was the pinnacle of the show's use of informative split screens, which was later deprioritized, and the last time it seemed like the writers and producers cared enough about the real-time format to dodge clear elision of time.
I'm eagerly awaiting tearing into the first four hours of Day Eight because no show does season-openers like "24." Even in the seasons that became dramatically slack or absurd, that lacked clear stakes and a compelling villain, those seasons have launched well. And by this point, we know what to expect. We know that after episode eight or nine, the writers will have inevitably run out of ideas. We know there will be a false climax around episode 12 or 13, followed by a creatively fruitful renaissance, followed by four or four or six more slack episodes, wheel-spinning amnesia episodes, if you will. From there? The good seasons end well. The bad seasons end poor. There are moles galore either way.
And no matter how the season goes, you can always count on Kiefer Sutherland's full commitment, whether Jack is detoxing from heroin addiction, suffering the after-effects of months of Chinese torture, mourning the death of the woman he loved, lamenting that his estranged daughter is dating C. Thomas Howell or fighting against wimpy bureaucrats who keep waving the Bill of rights in his face. Sutherland has always been grateful that "24" got him out of acting jail and that the show waited for him tog et out of literal jail. I can't think of many performances who have put in this long a tenure on a show without coasting for a second. Kudos to Kiefer.
So that's why I've got "24" at No. 24 on my list of TV's Best of the Decade.
Coming up tomorrow? TV's most unlikely romantic hero? It's true, blood.