[17 January 2010]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Does anyone around here think this happened a little too fast and a little too easily?
—Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub), “5pm-6pm”
“I hate this place.” No matter that CTU is relocated to Manhattan for 24‘s Season Eight. To Jack Bauer, it’s the same old—a government bureaucracy slow to move and resistant to his usually good lead. And no matter that Jack has sworn off the spy business, that he wants to settle down with Kim (Elisha Cuthbert) and her husband Stephen (Paul Wesley) and adorable daughter Teri (Claire Geare). He’s sucked back in to yet another whacked-out terrorist plot full of melodrama, betrayal, and split screens.
This season, he’s also being used to introduce a new action series, Human Target, which premiere Fox is serving as lead for the first two 24 episodes (thus inviting a comparison underlining that, and even on its bad days, 24 is more ambitious and innovative than the new series). Though he’s not especially fond of his work either, for the most part, Christopher Chance (Mark Valley) is the opposite of Jack Bauer. Cocky, bland, and inclined to prolong tensions (that is, he has none of Jack’s sense of urgency), Chance is an ex-criminal of some sort, now “fighting the good fight,” according to one disdainful former colleague. His handler, Winston (Chi McBride) has to remind him to get paid appropriately (Chance prefers cases of expensive whiskey) and to keep focused on jobs at hand. He also has to complain that Chance regularly brings in his friend Guerrero (Jackie Earle Haley) to provide undergroundy information, which means he meets scurvy types in a dimly lit diner and makes accurate evaluations of all stories as soon as he hears them.
For Chance, that “good fight” is something like bodyguarding: clients perceive a threat and come to him instead of the police. His method is to “blend in,” he says, to go unnoticed so the threatener will reveal him- or herself in order to suffer the violent punishment Chance metes out. In the premiere episode, Stephanie (Tricia Helfer) has designed a superfast train and become someone’s target. Chance agrees to ride along with her on the train’s inaugural trip (SF to LA in three hours) in order to suss out the villain. (When she protests that he’s got Kevlar and she doesn’t, he assures her, “I’m your vest.”). Predictably, Chance is pulled into drama involving the train mechanics: it’s hurtling along the tracks when problems arise concerning the brakes (the vehicular angle is vaguely repeated in the next episode, when he’s protecting a passenger on a plane). Also predictably, he comes up with exorbitant stunts to avoid annihilation (leading the client to ask if he’s “crazy”) and indulges in fast-cut fight scenes with uninteresting secondary thugs while the show cuts occasionally to Guerrero or Winston on the phone with important info.
Even the flashy action is of a piece with all this conventional structuring, as Chance regularly takes a few minutes to run and jump or punch and shoot. Such predictability does Human Target no favors. Can it surprise anyone that Chance has a troubled past? Or that Winston will not only raise the obvious question of this past and his agent’s motivation (“Why would he just continue to do, to put himself in situations where he ends up in front of one loaded gun after another?”) but also come up with an obvious answer (“Because deep down he hopes that one of these days, he’ll get what he really deserves and the gun will go off”)?
It’s helpful that the show then jumps to a scene “one month later,” featuring a very satisfying guest star. But it doesn’t help at all that this guest star’s primary function is to ask Chance the question everyone will apparently be asking him. On the job again—having not taken the time off Winston has recommended—Chance is devising another lunatic way out of another very bad situation. That is, he’s taking the kind of “chance” declared by his name, supposedly astonishing but really, too expected. As much as his spectacular stunting might help him avoid the sad state of the hostage-taker who opens the premiere episode. “Blending in, you have no idea what it’s like,” this guy in a suicide vest whines, though of course Chance knows exactly what it’s like. “They push you and push you further into the margins. They treat you like dirt, take away your manhood, make you small.” Even as Chance resists such a fate, his very slickness, his self-assuredness and inevitable rightness, all make him seem like more of the same.
If only he could be less like himself and more like Jack Bauer. That’s not to say Jack is unpredictable: his days actually tend to deliver to expectations, even when and exactly because the plots turn loony (most) every time. But Jack is not slick, not self-assured, and certainly not always right. Over the course of 24, Jack has made any number of mistakes, taken wrong turns, tortured the wrong people, extracted or guessed up wrong information, caused terrible injury to loved ones. Again and again, the larger context makes his errors seem all right. He saves the world but loses the wife he’s cheated on. He averts disaster but kills his brother. He wins a battle but brings on his girlfriend’s debilitating breakdown. Despite—or because of—his reputation for decision-making and deft action, Jack pays dire prices every season.
Indeed, the first moments of the new season hit you upside the head with exactly that point: as his granddaughter’s name reminds you, Jack lives daily with his past. And that past is ever lurking as repetitive plot: as soon as he takes the apparently momentous and Kim-pleasing decision to leave New York, where he’s resettled after last season’s multifarious traumas, a knock on his door changes his options. One-time informant Victor (Benito Martinez) has information concerning an assassination plot against the president of the fictional Islamic Republic of Kamistan, Omar Hassan (Anil Kapoor). The stakes are high, as his Iran-like nation has been messing with nuclear technology at the same time that he’s agreed to a kind of peace process, to be announced before the U.N. and brokered by President Taylor (Cherry Jones). Jack believes Victor, whom you know is telling the truth, owing to a bloody action sequence at the top of the season premiere, and so he must do what he most wants not to do.
At least he gets to do it with Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub), also called back in (due to her husband’s (so topical) downsizing) and a field agent, Cole (Freddie Prinze, Jr., who takes his opportunity to do something other than a stupid romantic comedy very seriously). As lunatic and outraged and unhinged as Jack can be, his remarkably repetitive world is populated by individuals who make him look sane, or at least morally inclined. True, his moral options are starkly drawn: will he go to LA and abandon Chloe and the world, or will he put off his semi-retirement and familial bliss a day? And true, this time the decision is more or less made for him, by Kim, of all people (“If something terrible happens and you could have done something to stop it, I don’t think you could live with yourself”). Still, as soon as Jack plunges into this eighth day, it’s plain that living with himself is going to be a problem.
During the first four hours, he’s a party to a range of mayhem and frustration, betrayal and belligerence. The new CTU boss, Hastings (Mykelti Williamson), misreads Chloe. The new Chloe, Dana (Katee Sakhoff), has her own over-determining past (white trash) and wears a tight sleeveless top that attracts the attention of Arlo (John Boyd), the new Edgar. And none other than Eugene Tooms (Douglas Hutchinson) shows up as the ruthless Russian, Davros, prepared to kill everyone he meets in order to “do [his] job.”
Jack knows from ruthless adversaries, of course. As he and Chloe deduce the scheme of the day, or at least its opening stages, Jack confronts a few problems, including a taste of his own physically abusive medicine at the hands of a pissed off New York City cop (one of the series’ more politically incorrect stereotypes). As well, and like he’s done before, Jack will be dealing with a pre-grandfather version of himself, his ruthless self, in the form of someone from a past season. When Hastings calls in this specter, Jack knows what’s coming, and tries to warn everyone the agent is not fit for duty. But no one in the bureaucracy can see that, and so Jack has to monitor the soon horrendous goings-on himself, seeing himself in this monster he’s helped to create. If it’s not an ingenious or very new device (see: Nina, Tony, Curtis, et. al.), the damaged soul who is Jack’s Self Reflected re-raises and continues to complicate the questions that are typically understood as resolved in Jack. Patriotism and heroism, bad choices and hideous torture in the name of a big picture: it’s 24 repeating.