Friday, July 2, 2010

A Tale of Two Finales, Part II — 24

It's funny — for years I had considered Lost to be "real" television and 24 a guilty pleasure sideshow attraction unworthy of shining Lost's shoes, so I never would have guessed until a few weeks before their back-to-back finales (around the time we got the Lost episode entitled "Across the Sea") that 24 would end up being the more coherent, competent, and recommendable series by a pretty big margin. That's not to say that 24 is perfect and it's sure as shit not to imply that perfection was even a blip on the hazy horizon for its eighth, final, filler-choked season, but by and large I thought it did well by its protagonist and left behind a somewhat proud decade-long legacy of constant cliffhangers, gratuitous violence, sudden deaths, and absurd plot twists.

Also, the nice thing about 24 is that each season stands alone, as the overriding threat and mysteries and major villains are pretty well cleaned out every year. I mean, sure, you gotta keep track of big picture stuff like who's President of the United States, which main characters are dead, and where exactly Jack Bauer stands with CTU and the government, but unlike Lost where the entire series-spanning mystery was reliant on its eventually botched conclusion, a bad season of 24 (and there is at least one really bad one, the dreaded season six) can be seamlessly skipped and doesn't sour what came before — all this being a longwinded way to say that whatever silliness followed, season one of 24 remains a clockwork action thriller, one of the absolute best produced in film or television over the last decade.

But we're not here to discuss the first season. Not yet, anyway. Quite the contrary, let's get into the show's ending.


It goes without saying that the resolution to the final season's running storyline, the all-encompassing peace treaty MacGuffin, was mostly uninspired, as 24's overarching plots tend to be. Federal agent Jack Bauer killed his way up a chain of Russians to discover who was behind the murder of his love interest Renee Walker and eventually found that the conspiracy went up to Russian President Yuri Suvarov himself (with evil former US President Charles Logan in on it too, naturally). So Jack grabbed him a sniper rifle, found a vantage point, and got ready to assassinate a foreign head of state on US soil — at the signing of a peace treaty, no less! I confess I was vaguely excited by this, not because I still hold onto some kind of Cold War-era grudge, but because Jack Bauer, annihilator of terrorists, ending the series as a wanted terrorist would have been some serious full circle shit.

But it was not to be, of course. Jack frequently steps up to the line but rarely over, and much like every time in the series that he threatened to maim and / or kill a terrorist's wife or kids to get them to talk or when he threatened to kill President Logan in season five, Jack was unable pull the trigger and instead turned himself in. However, he was able to encourage US President Allison Taylor to step away from the fraudulent peace accord and vow to bring Suvarov to justice, so that's awesome, except that I never cared about the silly peace treaty anyway.

But that's okay, more or less. You see, unlike Lost, a mythology-centric show whose writers and fanboys laughably tried to claim was "always about the characters" in the final season when they realized they wouldn't be able to satisfyingly or coherently wrap up said mythology, 24 really was always about the character of Jack Bauer (and to a much lesser but not negligible extent, his longest-running ally, newly-promoted CTU Director Chloe O'Brian). Want proof? Ask a random Joe who knows of but has never seen Lost to tell you about the show and he probably won't be able to tell you about Jack Shephard or Kate Austen, but he probably will be able to tell you that it's about a plane crash on a mysterious island. You know, the mythology. Ask a random Joe who knows of but has never seen 24 and he probably won't be able to explain the story of any specific season, but I bet he will be able to tell you that it's about an oft-torturing loose cannon federal agent named Jack Bauer.

And thus the final twenty or so minutes of the last episode, which got past the season's thriller story and turned their focus on Jack, mostly satisfied. Basically, government mercenaries took Jack out to the back of a building to kill him but just in time President Taylor called, ordered them to stand down, and gave Jack a head start to get out of the country (thus setting up the movie, which is indeed confirmed to be set in Europe). By itself that doesn't sound great but the writers smartly realized that the show's key relationship, the one fans really cared about, wasn't between Jack and the president or Jack and any of his field partners or romantic interests or even Jack and his daughter Kim, but between Jack and Chloe, and the show's last scene was an emotional goodbye between the two via satellite, with Jack thanking Chloe for everything she'd done over the years and Chloe blubbering. No, it wasn't among the finest human drama of the TV season but I sure felt more genuine emotion during that scene than I did during Lost's asinine final revelation.

Better still, former President Charles Logan, caught conspiring with terrorists yet again and with the authorities closing in on him, shot his right-hand man before turning the gun on himself. And in perhaps the finale's most subtly brilliant twist, Logan couldn't even blow his own brains out properly and instead wound up a vegetable — an ignominious and viscerally satisfying fate for Jack Bauer's longest-running nemesis.

The season as a whole was admittedly a lukewarm one, arguably second worst in the series' history behind the bafflingly awful Frankenstein monster of stitched-together reheated storylines that was season six. This is largely due to the presence of a really terrible character named Dana Walsh who spent the entire first half of the season wrapped up in a moronic, neverending subplot about being stalked and manipulated by her redneck ex-boyfriend, a plot so stupid we wouldn't have cared even if it had involved a beloved character from seasons past, much less a brand new one. Adding insult to injury, it all wound up moot and pointless anyway when she just killed all her subplot's supporting characters we had spent hours wasting time with, they were never mentioned again, and she turned out to be the mole inside CTU and was shot dead by Bauer several episodes later. But not nearly as dead as she killed the story's pacing and momentum every time she stepped onscreen. Dana was maybe the worst character in the history of 24, and that's saying something.

Beyond the contemptible Miss Walsh, season eight was mostly about some terrorists from the fictional Islamic Republic of Kamistan who planned to assassinate their leader for trying to make peace with the United States (at which they were successful) and set off a dirty bomb in Manhattan (at which they were foiled) before they got killed off and the focus switched over to the Russians above them for the final act. It wasn't innovative or compelling storytelling by itself but served as a sturdy enough clothesline on which to hang chases and gunfights and explosions and 24's trademark frequent, often sudden deaths of major characters.

That's 24's true legacy — its style. It's shamelessly style over substance. The stories were generally predictable, through-the-motions B-movie stuff about terrorists wanting to either kill or control the president and deploy nuclear bombs, missiles, viruses, or nerve gas in major US cities (outside of season five's absurd, brilliant, and hilarious twist of the head terrorist being revealed as the President of the United States of America), but it's the way these stories were executed that made 24 one of the best genre shows of the last decade; a show that was not only narratively and structurally ahead of its time when it debuted in 2001 but, looking at most of the bland and episodic fare that passes for action and thriller television right now, is still ahead of its time today.

24 is the highest evolution to date of 80s action shows like The A-Team, shows which had virtually no serialization, incredibly rigid and predictable episode structure, one straightforward plot at a time, small casts of characters with no turnover, zero meaningful risk to anyone, and no consequences. These shows are incredibly boring and frankly unwatchable today. 24 in contrast has tight serialization that demands your attention, new and different action unfolding in new and different locations every single episode (although there is admittedly a roughly recycled season structure from year to year), tons of stories running concurrently and intercrossing, a large and fluid cast with a high attrition rate totaling 42 main cast members across its eight seasons, and most importantly, real risk and consequences.

Yeah, the biggest overriding threat of each season inevitably gets foiled, but in the meantime main and major recurring characters get killed off constantly and often with very little warning (sometimes more than one an episode), presidents get assassinated, Air Force One gets shot down, a nuclear bomb gets set off in Los Angeles, bioweapons released into major urban centers, CTU has most of its personnel killed off in a nerve gas attack, Jack Bauer's wife gets murdered, and basically all kinds of shit goes down. This keeps the show fresh, compelling, and tense and keeps you on your toes while you watch (that, and the fact that about 95% of episodes end in an "oh god what happens next!" cliffhanger). If more action-adventure shows were to take their queues from 24 in this regard, then, well, I'd watch more action-adventure shows.

The first season, as I mentioned up top, remains the gold standard. It can be vaguely surreal to watch season one for the first time if you came into the show later on in its run, as it lacks many of 24's future signature elements — there's no loose weapons of mass destruction, no Islamic terrorists, the President of the United States never appears (future President David Palmer is a main character, but he's Senator Palmer at this point), no Chloe O'Brian, no Jack angsting about his dead wife, no "TELL ME WHERE THE BOMB IS!", and most strangely, no torture. At one point Jack threatens to shove a towel down a guy's throat, let it partially digest, and rip it out along with his stomach lining, but the guy still doesn't talk and Jack doesn't even make good on his promise. It's sort of a prototype season, and that uncertainty gives it a freshness and an experimental nature that future seasons just couldn't match.

Best of all, outside of a moronic three-episode arc where Teri Bauer gets amnesia because Fox didn't understand the show yet and told the showrunners they couldn't leave her unconscious in a ditch for three episodes like they had planned, there's no filler.

The biggest problem with every other season of 24 is right there in the title — twenty-four hours of television (or about seventeen once you cut out the commercial break time) is a lot to write every year, and it inevitably leads to the show bursting at the seams with filler, a tendency which came to a tragic head with Dana Walsh in the final season. Season one's most impressive element is the way it keeps almost everything on task, juggling countless balls with only the one amnesia misstep as it moves towards a hell of a climax.

Seasons two and three bring the weapons of mass destruction and President Palmer and constant torture that we know and love into the 24 mix and have A-plots nearly as exciting as the first season's, but unfortunately are held back from true greatness by the filler rearing its ugly head. Jack's daughter Kim Bauer and her run from her crazed babysitting employee is the culprit in season two and President Palmer's struggles with an angry billionaire campaign donor eat up screentime in season three. Season five is the show's second greatest. It lacks the relatively down-to-earth nature of the freshman season — in fact, this is pretty much where they abandoned all traces of realism and said "fuck it, let's go crazy" — but the glory of the nerve gas attack on CTU and the villains being President Logan and the guy who played Robocop cannot be denied.

The fourth, seventh, and eighth years are the show's weaker efforts (and the less said about the putrid season six, the better). Some 24 fans argue that season four is better than season seven, but they're mistaken, because at least season seven shakes things up a little by moving the action from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. (the first time the show left California outside of a few season three episodes in Mexico and the TV movie set in Africa) and bringing Jack Bauer's former closest ally Tony Almedia back as a villain. Season four is amusing pulp but about when the Islamic terrorists and nuclear missiles in LA started to get a little stale, and is also the only season where the show's political content actually made me wince.

Much was made through 24's run of the show's perceived right-wing bias, mostly due to the parade of nonstop torture to make bad guys talk and the fact that the show's creator, Joel Surnow, is indeed a right-winger who would later, after leaving 24, go on to create the howlingly idiotic, pathetic, laughable, and swiftly cancelled 1/2 Hour News Hour, a "conservative version" of The Daily Show minus all the wit, humor, and insight. It got to the point where right-wing forums and bloggers pretty much adopted 24 as "their" show and real-life politicians were pointing to the fictional scenarios within as justification for torture and dropping "who would Jack Bauer vote for?" into their stump speeches.

But even as someone who generally doesn't stress too much over the political nuances of fiction that isn't explicitly political I admit being uncomfortable in 24's fourth season when villainous Osama bin Laden stand-in Habib Marwan released his evil human rights attorneys — yes, you heard me, his evil human rights attorneys — to stop CTU from torturing bad guys, and it was portrayed as a grand moment when Jack Bauer managed to subvert them to heroically torture again (getting the information he needed to save America from nuclear annihilation after about twenty seconds of breaking fingers, of course).

I don't know if the passing of showrunning duties from Joel Surnow to Howard Gordon changed the show's tone or if they simply decided they needed to balance the scales, but season five threw off some suspicion of 24 being right-wing propaganda by making the big bad Republican President Charles Logan, who had facilitated terrorist attacks on American soil to frame another country so that he could start a war to secure oil pipelines. There seemed to be a little bit less torture after this point; as a matter of fact in season six CTU tortured the wrong person, Nadia Yassir, a Muslim woman no less, who would go on to become Director of CTU Los Angeles by the end of the day.

There was also an interestingly feminist bent to season eight. Sure, Renee Walker got gunned down as soon as she had sex like she was in an 80s slasher flick, but all three of the season's major factions — the United States, the Islamic Republic of Kamistan, and CTU New York, the latter two of which were headed by men at season's start — wound up under command of women by the finale: President Allison Taylor for the US, Dalia Hassan for the IRK, and Chloe O'Brian for CTU. For such a manly and macho show, I thought that was kind of neat.

So, wrapping the series up: if you haven't seen it, would I recommend you watch the entirety of 24? No, not really. I wouldn't subject the sixth season of 24 to anybody; it's almost as bad as the sixth season of Lost. But narrowing things down, would I recommend you watch the first season? Hell yeah, even if you find the show's political content repellant and have no intention of getting wrapped up in a near 200 episode-long narrative. It's awesome; pure crackerjack entertainment. How far you want to go beyond that is entirely your call, but it's pretty easy to get addicted and keep going and going, even if you do it while rolling your eyes, groaning at, and fast-forwarding through some of the moronic subplots. And hey, if you barrel straight through to the end, I think you'll be relatively satisfied by the finale, as I was.

Of course, whether or not you even consider this the "real" finale is pretty subjective. For one, the showrunners had every intention to return for a ninth season until they were informed right before shooting the final two episodes that they were cancelled due to falling ratings and soaring budget, so everything in the last episode was planned about a week in advance (which makes the fact that it far surpassed the Lost finale, which had its date set for three years, all the more sad and hilarious). More importantly, the 24 big screen movie which continues Jack Bauer's story from the end of season eight is not only announced but well into preproduction, with the script written and everything, so this is, at best, an impromptu psuedo-finale.

I'm definitely nervous about the 24 film. The 2008 TV movie 24: Redemption where Jack Bauer went up against African dictator Benjamin Juma was set in real-time just like the show's regular episodes, being a two hour-long representation of two hours, but the upcoming theatrical film has been announced to be a feature-length representation of a 24-hour day, the first time in 192 episodes (plus miniature prequels, interquels, side-stories, and the TV movie) that 24 has thrown out its signature real-time format.

This could free them up or it could be an absolute fucking disaster. Far too many sure bets as of late, like Iron Man 2, have wound up disappointing for me to assume that the film adaptation of a series that has fucked up so many times in the past will be good. Or even watchable. I'm not concerned about filler this time around but I am concerned that it's just gonna be a stupid and generic cookie-cutter dime-a-dozen action flick devoid of any substance or originality. Not that I wouldn't be thrilled to be proven completely wrong, though. My only specific wish is that they bring back Mia Kirshner as Mandy to be one of the main villain's henchmen, because she's the only major bad guy that made it out of the series, through three seasons no less, alive and uncaptured. I reckon she needs a good villain's death to put a bow on things. Also, if he's not busy with another Bourne movie, I bet Paul Greengrass could do a pretty damn good job as director.

There's also rumors about them about doing a spinoff TV series with Freddie Prinze Jr.'s character Cole Ortiz in a few years, but that's an absolute fucking joke. 24 is Jack Bauer. Jack Bauer is 24. No Jack, no show, and definitely not one starring Cole. The only two non-Jack characters I could see being cool enough to anchor even a six-to-eight episode Jackless mini-season are Curtis Manning and Renee Walker, and both of them are dead, the former by Jack's own hand. So 24 is done on television, at least as something with any dignity whatsoever. The movie is our last best hope.


Chances of me ever rewatching 24 from beginning to end: 5%

Chances of me ever rewatching season eight of 24 while skipping most of the Dana Walsh subplot: 20%

Chances of me ever rewatching season one of 24: 65%

Chances of me watching the 24 movie when it comes out in theaters: 99%

No comments: