24 began sugared-up on gooey clichés of liberty and freedom -- and ended in hypoglycemic shock. Would a new series be worse for our health?
It seems like every other day there's a story in the news – always with some hyperbolic headline – about either the wonders or the dangers of wine.
One week a 'recent study' will say that it's bad for you: acid reflux, heart disease, liver damage. The next week it will be all good: it'll help your cholesterol, your circulation, your brain function. Sometimes it robs years off your life, others it extends your sunset days exponentially. It stains your teeth; or it gives you better skin. It raises your risk of stroke; it helps to keep you from getting fat. It gives you cancer; it prevents cancer. It gives you unicorns; it gives your unicorns cancer. Back and forth, on and on, each time cited with some half-baked clinical trial and a photogenic white coat technician from the University of Overzealous Press Releases.
They do it with coffee, too. And beer. Sun-tanning. Videogames. It's always some pleasure that rational thought would dictate is probably fine in moderation, but that would be a mistake to overindulge. But that's all part of the dance. That fluctuation that has always been at the heart of headline journalism between 'Hey, psst... Wanna know the ultimate secret?' and 'OH MY GOD WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!'.
I mention this because of 24.
More specifically: the finalé of the latest season of 24: “Live Another Day”.
With rumours that there might be a new, perhaps Keifer Sutherland-less season of 24 on the way, it seemed a fitting time to catch up with the first time that the series had returned from cancellation in a truncated form (12 episodes instead of the eponymous 24), picking up the story four years after the previous season’s whimper of an ending.
While 24 is hardly an addictive chemical substance (even if that ticking clock does trigger some kind of Pavlovian response in our brain chemistry), whenever I watch the show it reminds me of all those news reports and the way they vacillate so wildly with such predictability. Not just because 24 itself frequently becomes the subject matter of such debates in its often cavalier depiction of torture and insensitive portrayals of other cultures. It's because that flip-flopping is precisely the way that I personally feel about the show; those are the wild swings of emotion and sniping voices in my head as I watch each season play out. One week it's 'the greatest thing evah!' the next it's 'the worst crap I've ever seen!', and I can never resolve whether I think it's a text that's ultimately transformative or utter trash. (Except seasons six and eight -- they were definitely garbage, front to back.)
As this latest, more condensed miniseries has shown, it's like wine: it's both and it's neither.
It all depends upon your taste, and what you're using it for.
* * *
I remember watching the first season of 24 back in 2002. At the time I was so enamoured with the conceit that not only could I forgive the necessary extra suspension of disbelief – the portals in spacetime Jack had to exploit to navigate LA in the time allotted him; the fact no one ever grabbed a sandwich on the fly, napped, or had a functioning bladder – I flew headlong into the adventure with rollicking abandon.
Hey, lookit! The split screens! The multiple angles! The that-guy-said-it-would-take-five-minutes-and-then-it-took-five-minutes! The ticking clocks that actually real-time clock ticked! There was Dennis Hopper doing the crazy eyes. There were 'splosions – sometimes just 'cause why not? There were outrageous, status quo shattering twists (how could Nina be the traitor? She's one of the cast members!) And there was the final, sombre sting in the tail: the needless death of Jack's wife, just to disabuse the audience of the notion that this was all just some big, swaggering hero fantasy.
Yes, it sucks that in some ways Teri Bauer's death could be seen as a variation on the woman-in-the-freezer trope (a sorry well that the writers would pathetically revisit again with the character of Renee Walker), but here it didn't seem to have been done to motivate the 'hero', or even to further the story. It was a sign that in this world, no one was safe. Good people – resourceful, useful, loved people – could die; because in this narrative's universes there are unforeseeable consequences for those who strive to do good.
It was exciting. It felt fresh. It was willing to do both slow burns and frenetic mayhem. In a network television landscape of formulaic action fare, 24 was like a revelation.
Then season two happened, and after starting strong – chasing a nuke through the city streets?! Yikes! – the formula that the show had traded up for started to bite into the narrative. From that season on stories suddenly began chasing themselves into redundant side alleys just to fill up screen time: double crosses and secondary villains, agents with personal problems and loser friends/family members/ex-boyfriends that would re-enter their lives to inject predictably tedious complications into stories that already contained the potential end of western civilisation.
I know she's become a bit of a punching bag in criticism of the show, but perhaps the worst casualty of these treading water plotlines was Jack's daughter Kim Bauer. In her several years of involvement it's difficult to identify a single moment in which she forwarded the narrative. During season two in particular she became like a walking farcical game of 'good news, bad news':
Good news! Kim Bauer escaped the child abusing guy she was babysitting for. Bad news! She's caught in a bear trap...
Good news! Did we mention Kim Bauer is caught in a bear trap so she's not going anywhere? Bad news! Now there's a hungry cougar lurking over her shoulder...
Good news! Kim Bauer gets saved by a loner weirdo in the middle of nowhere. Bad news! He's a survivalist nut job who's going to lock her in his dungeon…
On and on and on. Poor Elisha Cuthbert having to work overtime to sell the audience on her plight as she's tasked with staring into the middle distance at unconvincingly mountain cat stock footage or reacting to cheap soap-opera peril. She got some marginally better material in her later seasons when she joined CTU (she joined CTU!), and yet it still seemed she was relegated to the role of most-hapless-intern, with corny 'Don't tell dad his partner is my boyfriend' nonsense she had to sell.
Similarly, as the series continued, the shock value and theatrics overall were ramped up. Perhaps chasing the visceral jolt of the death of Jack's wife, or the nuke blast in the middle of season two, the show just kept piling on the carnage, dialing up the threat.
It made for compelling viewing. At any given moment, any of the characters could be sacrificed. Just because you had a familiar face on 24 was no guarantee you were going to make it through the next commercial break (unless you were Kiefer Sutherland, naturally). One year, just to get things rolling at frantic pace, three of the principle characters were assassinated within the first hour. (Okay, so only two of those people were successfully assassinated, one returns all Winter Soldiered up. But you know what I mean.) In another season starter a nuclear detonation went off in Los Angeles. Those were only the opening salvos. From that point on it felt that the story could go literally anywhere.
24 was white-knuckle stuff; rambunctious and rollickingly paced. It might meander down ultimately extraneous narrative back alleys, but there was always the sense that things could kick off at any moment. Anyone was expendable (and almost without exception, they proved to be); everything was wired to explode.
But it became cartoonish. Only a couple of years in and Bauer had literally died and been brought back to life multiple times. Multiple. More than one.
It became a show where oil barons try to blow up Los Angeles (a city with no public transport system) to convince people to buy more oil. Where Jack's father and brother are revealed to be villains, supplying nerve gas to Russian terrorists, because... something about 'legacy'? Where the central conceit of an entire season (which I enjoyed, but that everyone else seems to have panned) was a previously assassinated character coming back from the dead (with an evil-Spock beard so that you know he's not to be trusted).
Even at what is widely considered its best, it was still barking nuts: the season that won the Emmy revolved around the President of the United States being a scheming, murderous, moustache-twirling tyrant! The President of the United States!
...I mean, I know the obvious gag to make is 'Nixon', but come on. That's a big card to play.
On a smaller scale it was a kind of mugging for the camera that even seeped into the production – my gods, the product placement! When Ford was sponsoring, you knew which vehicles Jack was going to go out of his way to hotwire (which, now that I think about it, is kind of a strange feature to advertise: 'Look at how quickly someone can steal your car!') Dell computers get to show you how accessible all of the country's electronic infrastructure truly is.
This final season, when they switched on a Sprint mobile phone (in close up of the logo) uplinking directly with the president (who, wouldn't you know it, is also on a Sprint plan!) to find him flashing a toothy smile and declaring, 'You're coming through loud and clear, Jack', I thought perhaps I had entered into some weird Home Shopping Network co-production:
'This is great coverage, Chloe. And at such an affordable price! I wonder what those terrorists are using?'
'Probably AT&T – the freedom-hating bastards.'
The show's only restriction was to its central time conceit – but in a striking irony, it was this concession to 'reality' that led it so astray.
24 had trapped itself in a rigid order – 24 hours, chronological, unbroken. It wore this convention as a guiding principle: this is what will evoke tension, this will give immediacy and weight to the premise. And it did. The only thing is – like a moral code – when you lose sight of why those rules are in place, why they are necessary, they can feel too much like a chafing restraint, like some shackle arbitrarily applied.
That's what happened. Whenever 24 lost sight of the purpose of those rules, it reacted to them by piling on the gore, by ramping up the peril until it reached an hysterical pitch.
For a show thematically obsessed with how poised upon the precipice of ruin the western world perpetually stands, constantly flirting with how easily anarchy can overtake order, it's fitting that the narrative seems to play out in precisely the same way. Locked into the restrictive real-time conceit, with multiple characters to juggle and impending deadlines unavoidably ticking down, it became clear that the writers really were just making it up on the fly, desperately trying to lay down the next piece of track before the oncoming train rolled over it – a fact they later confirmed.
Presumably there were broad arcs mapped out – characters earmarked as moles; revelations to spring – but for the most part, week to week, it was a giddy, long-form improv. There were minutes to fill, corners they wrote themselves into and from which they had to claw their way free.
What the writers proved was: it's impossible to live like that, to tell stories like that, without making mistakes.