America’s autonomic fight-or-flight response gets a rest this week. After eight day-years the clock on “24” is going to stop ticking, with a two-hour finale Monday on FOX. Millions of viewers will be coming down off adrenaline and heading directly for PTSD.
I didn’t follow the show in real time. I stressed my way through season one and have watched 18 hours of the next.
Now when I leave home I tell everyone I love them and that I may not be back. When I see blond teenage girls I worry about their choices and for their safety. I trust no one.
Many who have followed the show from the beginning believe the first few seasons were the best, so I’m going to consider myself qualified to talk about it.
Watching the show is like eating a bouillon cube instead of making soup out of it. 24 is filmed in real time, standing on its head the traditional expectations of story compression and narrative flow. This is interesting, for awhile. But it presents two problems.
First, the suspension of disbelief is, as Twain would say, thrown down and danced upon. The show’s assault on credibility is almost as severe as that on our stress receptors. Soldiers, firefighters, cops and others whose work puts them in danger will tell you that their days alternate between extended periods of boredom and moments of excruciating intensity. In a traditional visual narrative the boredom is excised and the story is compressed to account for this.
24’s writers don’t have that tool, and we don’t want to watch people doing nothing, so we end up following Teri and Kim and Jack as they move from one near-death experience to the next, with no time to freshen up or pay some bills. At the beginning this is exciting. By the 17th hour it’s “oh come on.” Even when you take into account the multiple story lines it loses its credibility.
Second, this method of story-telling results in a mandatory relentlessness, which means that the emotional range, while at a high pitch, is limited. The show stimulates the adrenal glands, not the mind. Not once in 42 hours has anything funny happened. No release of dramatic tension, no physical comedy, no irony in the service of humor, no gallows humor. George Mason’s attitude towards Jack I think comes closest to humor – the “How Do We Solve a Problem Like Maria” problem.
There usually isn’t time for emotions that aren’t instantaneous. The end of the first season, which has heroism and victory and tragedy as you would expect, left me in a collapse consisting of relief (we can all go use the bathroom now) and a numb confusion. Good art lingers, and I do remember feeling sad in the days after when I thought about what happened (I’m trying hard here to not give things away too much for anyone else who hasn’t watched) but the pacing robbed the tragedy of its full meaning. This is unsatisfying, and it also detracts from the realism of the show.
Music is written in time, with a certain number of beats per
measure. There is a practice called “rubato” in which when performing you shift
the time values assigned to each note a little bit, stealing here and
adding there. It gives the music a breathing, natural quality. There
is no rubato in 24. It is forever prestissimo and motoric.
Often you will find a moment of relief smashed into the next moment of danger. The Bauers hug each other in a reunion and there isn’t even time for that. At one point they’re all hiding behind a van that is being pummeled by automatic weapons fire and they’re having a conversation that in some ways resembles a family argument in the van when dad has gotten lost. It should be funny, or profound. But it’s not, it’s just rushed and anxious, with no sense of irony or metaphor.
Can you imagine living in Jack Bauer’s neighborhood? You’re in the
grocery store when he comes to pick up some dessert on the way home.
“PUT…..THE CRACKERS…DOWN!!!…..NOW!!!!” Where’s the manager? Sir, I don’t have time to
explain to you how I know this so you’re simply going to have to trust me. If you don’t find some kind of meat
alternative that has an acceptable taste and texture at a reasonable price-point then everything and
everyone you know and love will die. Please. There is a display case of large-curd cottage cheese that is going to go off in five minutes. You need to tell me where the dairy section is.”
In the second season one of the characters is poisoned in a manner that will kill him before the day is over. This, for me, was the only time the writers were able to push the essential truths of the human condition through the restrictions imposed on them by the storytelling device. You can actually imagine this being true. In the scenes where he stands alone or shares his predicament with the other characters time, for once, slows and expands to accept the emotions that we feel when we look at him. In his final scene he challenges the way Jack has chosen to live his life since the end of the first season. It’s a powerful scene and it moves in real real-time. The show could have used more of it.
I’m weary of the impossible plot twists that are necessary to keep the story going. I capitulated in a recent episode of season two. Kim, Jack’s daughter, has in the space of a few real-time moments gone from an overturned state trooper’s car on a Los Angeles highway to being trapped in a hunter’s snare with a mountain lion approaching. Extraterrestrials are sure to follow, or perhaps the lion is the current manifestation of Teri, her dead mother. A different kind of cougar.
I’ve given up hope that Kim will supplement her resilience with a St. Christopher’s medal and a chaperone for her brain’s judgment center. Kim moves from one imminent and often self-generated catastrophe to the next, with equal amounts of absurdly good and bad fortune. She’s like a reincarnation of Job who’s trying to win the Darwin Awards.
It’s because her character isn’t intended to be a real person. The characters do not change or grow. They are devices to take us to the next crisis, to push the story and your buttons. I watched many episodes with someone who would start hurling invective at the screen whenever Nina or Sherry or Kim would appear.
I would argue that even Jack’s character doesn’t really change. He drops out of the program and grows a beard in the first off-season, his response to the personal trauma of the first 24 hours. But this takes place outside of the script and by the end of the first episode of season 2 Jack’s back.
Jack Bauer does offer a model of devotion, heroism, duty and masculine energy. The tension in his choices, many of which cross acceptable boundaries, remains interesting after most of the other devices get tired. We ask ourselves what we would do in the same situation.
Kiefer Sutherland is pretty great. They showed him in the stands at a hockey game the other night and I was proud to
be a fellow citizen and grateful for his service.
Even in the super-concentrated story format he is able to bring us true, breathable moments of action or emotion – such as the way he eats (I think it’s the only meal consumed by any character in the show) in the interrogation room before he’s questioned by Roberta.
Much has been written about the show’s fondness of torture scenes. It seems to me that the show doesn’t work without them. If your goal is to create a story that makes everyone anxious, fearful, primal, retributive, reflexively patriotic, etc. then I think it’s an appropriate tool. Besides, why should the military and its contractors get to have all the fun.
Compared to the unimaginative programming that makes up most of
television (and film) it was an exciting experiment, with good
production and commitment from the actors and superior execution of the
you can adjust your expectation from a TV action drama to a non-animated
dramatic video game in which you don’t get a joystick then maybe it
could be sustainable enjoyment. But when people say the show is addictive, I think it’s more Pavlovian — it hits the brain at an even lower level of development. Which means, of course, I’ll be barking my way through the rest of season two.