Jack, I don’t have to remind you that the last time I let you interrogate somebody, you shot him through the heart.
—George Mason (Xander Berkeley), “1-2am”
That’s basically our show in a nutshell… you struggle to get to the phone and all circuits are busy.
—Joel Surnow, Commentary track on “3-4am”
—Yusuf Auda (Donnie Keshawarz), “10-11pm”
“I’m always amazed to see it come together. Because so many times, you’re so close to it that it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be very good.” If you’ve seen even a couple of episodes of Fox’s “real time” series 24, you likely won’t be surprised to hear that Carlos Bernard, who plays Tony Almeida, has a sense of humor and humility. Still, it’s entertaining to hear him yuk it up with costars Sarah Wynter (who plays hapless but incredibly gritty bystander Kate Warner) and Michelle Forbes (Presidential Assistant Lynne Kresge), as they watch the fourth episode (“11am-12pm”) for Fox’s second season DVD collection.
Over the 45 minutes, the three remark on one another’s good or bad hair, enthuse about their camera people and writers, call star Kiefer Sutherland “the Keifernator,” and joke about the show’s lapses into convention (“Look at this guy with his arm!” Bernard giggles when he spots corny behavior by a victim of the explosion at CTU [Counter Terrorism Unit], at whose offices much of the show is set). From the sounds of it, they actually like working on this show.
And no wonder. The series not only takes on a timely subject—ongoing and organized terrorist threats against the U.S., this season set in L.A., where a nuclear bomb is set to explode—but it also treats its performers with unusual care, granting them unusually lengthy onscreen minutes in which to build characters. Indeed, it is somewhat amazing,” to borrow Bernard’s term, to consider that the show commences production each season with only six or so episodes written, that the confluence of events and storylines is only imagined late in the season, that the actors don’t exactly know who will survive or not; on one of the DVD set’s documentaries, a casting director says she tells agents wondering about character arcs, “If you don’t die, you can come back.” Still, it does “come together” and make for compelling tv, and despite the Perils of Kim (Elisha Cuthbert).
The new DVD set is certainly well outfitted (especially compared to the notoriously no-frills first season), with commentary tracks on six episodes (some more engaged than others), and a seventh disc with two documentaries, “On The Button: The Destruction Of CTU” (in which FX Coordinator Stan Blackwell dryly observes, “You don’t want too much Styrofoam flying when you do an explosion, ‘cause it’s so light. Nothing ruins a frame more than one piece of fluttering concrete coming down like a leaf”); and a two-part documentary, “24 Exposed,” about the making of the final two episodes (with a focus on the shootout and fighting between Jack and an array of feisty villains).
This in addition to 49 deleted scenes and alternate takes, and the original extended version season premiere, which remains excellent, even on repeated viewing: the moment when Jack, sullen and short-tempered following his wife’s murder last season, shoots that slimy suspect point blank in the chest is seriously disconcerting. As George Mason (Xander Berkley) looks on, appropriately aghast, Jack instructs him, “That’s the problem with people like you, George. You want results, but you never want to get your hands dirty… I’m gonna need a hacksaw.” (As producer Joel Surnow pronounces, “This is a red meat show. People kill people and go eat a sandwich right after.”)
The season had much to live up to, given that the first was critically lauded, but took some time to gather a broad audience (this process including the repurposing of episodes on Fox’s sister network, FX, such that 24 was available to view, for a few months anyway, repeatedly (though not nearly so often as the Law & Order behemoth or Seinfeld reruns, for that matter). Jack’s transformation from morally upright hard worker to singular angry ex-agent is efficiently conveyed in the first episode, “8am-9am,” as he appears, “inactive,” walking away from the camera in a split screen, next to Tony walking toward the camera. Grizzled, flannel-shirted, and stalking his daughter, Jack’s still suffering from the traumatic events 18 months earlier, but NSA calls him in anyway, as he’s the only guy with a remote chance to respond usefully to a “domestic terrorist alert,” a nuclear device timed to go off within 24 hours. Of course he’s the only guy. He’s Jack Bauer.
The “domestic” aspect of this terror always works across boundaries in 24—the private and public domains are continually collapsing here. As Forbes notes, “Read it on paper, and you expect it to be like heightened melodrama,” but, between Jack’s job at CTU (however reluctantly he returns to it) and the extraordinary/daily crises faced by President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), the series neatly inserts imminent, global catastrophes. As Forbes notes, the directors work this line repeatedly and unusually, for television: “Here,” she says, “they let the camera rest on all of these characters’ faces, and they let their eyes speak what isn’t being said.” It’s a productive way to exploit tv close-ups, as well as these particular actors, all great faces. (As director Jon Cassar puts it during his commentary, “It’s all about the faces, the looks, the raised eyebrows. We don’t need the visual eye candy that other shows have”).
This season’s plot, as Sutherland notes in “24 Exposed,” runs more or less (and often uncomfortably) parallel to current headlines, except, as the politically outspoken Sutherland offers, “Our show is about trying to stop a war; our country, unfortunately, is at war.” During shooting (much of it in Toronto), cast and crew were only too aware of these correspondences (“It was just hitting a little too close to home,” says Forbes), and the series made its own (sometimes subtle, sometimes not) assessments of the wrong-headedness of U.S. administration policies.
Such assessments are most plainly realized in the terrorist plot, in which Second Wave, a group “officially not recognized by any of the Middle Eastern States,” threatens to explode a bomb in downtown L.A. This sucks in everyone at the office, including Paula (Sara Gilbert, who is terrific) and Michelle (equally sharp Reiko Aylesworth), who brilliantly juggles her part in the ticking bomb plot, her daughterish relation to George, and her growing attraction to self-interested Tony.
The series also handles politics in a slightly offset way, for instance, in the supposed wedding between pert Marie Warner (Laura Harris, currently making charming trouble in Dead Like Me) and Reza Naiyeer (Phillip Rhys), the latter introduced speaking Arabic on his cell while speeding along in his red convertible, that is, just asking to be profiled by viewers, up until the point that he walks up behind his fiancée accompanied by vaguely menacing music. Wynter says in her commentary, “I think it was really gutsy for [the terrorist] to turn out not to be [Reza], but my very white, very blond, very privileged, very cheerleading kind of sister.” (At which point Bernard adds, if only he knew she was a cheerleader, Tony “woulda been mackin’ on her.”)
Other commentaries include the one over “3-4am,” by Sutherland and Surnow, which solicits my favorite comment of the whole package, from Sutherland: watching a series of images sans Jack: “When I look at these scenes, it’s just other people, other people, other people, just waiting for Jack” (he hurries to declare this a joke, in case you’re wondering). Another commentary, for “1pm-2pm,” features Cassar (who directed 10 episodes this year) and Sarah Clarke, who plays Nina (to file under gossipy trivia, she is recently married to the terrific Xander Berkley, whom she met on last year’s set). Like everyone else, they discuss their affection for the series structure (Clarke likes “the constant storylines coming at you”) as well as the episode in which Jack first confronts Nina (murderer of his wife), specifically, the smart use of surveillance monitors and window or doorframes to mark the tension and confusion caused by her re-appearance at CTU. “It’s like two fighters,” Clarke says, watching Jack and Nina square off in a sequence of unnerving close-ups, “Round after round.”
The season’s other brilliant return belongs to Sheri (Penny Johnson Jerald), with machinations as sinister as before. This complex, powerful woman can do anything, it’s clear, the ethical and emotional arrangements in her own mind are always breathtakingly focused on her relationship to that man she loves. At the same time, Sheri is part of the show’s commitment to intelligent and politicized casting; watching a scene with characters of color, Johnson Jerald notes during her commentary track, “This is the beauty of 24 here, in terms of casting. I enjoy it when I see people who look like me and look like other people and represent the full spectrum of people, without making a big deal out of it.”
Definitely less well rounded, much like last season, Kim’s annoying storyline stumbles from calamity to calamity. Again, she’s caught up in serial dangers, so that her box is always about to break out into chaos: dashing about in her tight little top, she’s always in dire need of Jack’s help (that said, she does eventually come into her own, and proves wholly capable of the sort of “red meat” violence for which her father is infamous). Still, she tends to distract him from whatever latest international fire he’s forced to put out (as Johnson Jerald says, “Look at the difference between Dennis and Kiefer, just in terms of the manly look. You have this clean-cut, very Presidential man with power, and then this rugged look of this man who’s going to save the day). Working as a nanny for a little girl whose father is abusing her, Kim escapes with the help of her gorgeous beau Miguel (pop star Innis Casey), runs right into the arms of hard-charging head case Kevin Dillon, then has to deal with the apparent fact that her father is playing Slim Pickens on a nuclear warhead. Again, he’s the only guy. He’s Jack Bauer.
As Jack careens from mishap to tragedy, he’s set off against the President, who behaves in the noblest manner imaginable, no matter what disasters head his way. Haysbert describes his performance this way: “I live in a world where there are no accidents.” It’s an apt way of looking at the responsibility Palmer shoulders (Haysbert says he models the character on Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Colin Powell, and does his best, even off set, to seem a role model; “My personal belief,” he says in his incredible voice, “Is that I have to maintain a certain footing.”
Leave it to Sheri to see though this gallant posture, as when she confronts Jack with his own only guyness, his lonely absolutism, in the final episode, “7-8am.” “You’re a very impressive man, Jack, but you see everything as either good or bad, just like David. And the world is so much more complicated than that.” 24 appreciates these complications, even if it might wish Jack is right. It reveals dangers from within the U.S. administration (emerging from corruption and ineptitude equally), from within the perfect Southern Californian family, from within those “corporate interests” propped up by government policies. It also gives you a hero, but he’s mad about it.