The Best Written TV #71 & Looking Back (without re-watch): 24

THE SPECS:

Who: The first run series – not the current event series “24: Live Another Day” (yet) – is available to stream exclusively on Amazon Prime, either via rental or purchase.

What: “24,” the program, featuring the efforts of a fictional agency called the Counter Terrorism Unit or “CTU” and its conflicted, talented senior agent, sometime agency head, sometime pariah Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland, in what has been his defining role) in attempting to stop terrorist attacks on American soil, most often with potential of devastating losses of lives.  As Jack’s voice-over introduction to start each hour indicates, events in each episode occur in real time.  Thus, each one-hour episode is one hour’s worth of events in the story, and each season of the primary run was 24 episodes long.

When: The primary show aired in its entirety for eight seasons, from 2001-2010, on Fox.

Where: The show was most frequently set in Los Angeles, California, though it did venture to other locales, including New York City and Washington DC.

Why: This show was recommended to me by my most favorite boss ever, who still works for the same employer but in a different division now.  He told me about this intense show with Kiefer Sutherland that he couldn’t miss; plus, the buzz at the time was overwhelming.  I think the advent of 9/11 and the quality of writing, at least until the infamous cougar, was so novel at the time that audiences grew based on word of mouth.  I remember having to wait until F/X offered a marathon airing to catch up on season one because one simply cannot enter into one of the seasons without starting at the beginning – one would be lost trying to pick up the story at any other point.

How – as in How Was It?  

This viewer would rate this show 4.5 out of 5 stars (****1/2).  The earlier seasons were better.  The first season was phenomenal.  No other program has been like it, before or since.  The “real time” conceit rendered the show so intense, and the writers demonstrated an impeccable talent for “holy shit” twists and turns. Plus, Kiefer Sutherland simply is/was Jack Bauer, a character dealt countless blows to his home life and personal happiness as he continued to put it all on the line and fight against enemies from foreign powers, or those aligned with foreign powers, aiming to attack America for whatever the reason.  The most patriotic of citizens who can deal with a healthy dose of violence and the discussion of terrorist endeavors, including bombs, bio-weapons, and other frightening fare, would love this show.

SYNOPSIS

Each season covered 24 hours in a day during which CTU, and by extension Jack, fought to stymie a new terrorist plot, while the show also focused on Jack’s personal life and family as well as, to some extent, the lives and families of some of the supporting characters. Several actors became famous (or more famous) apart from Sutherland, who had a career prior to this show, as a result of their time on 24: Elisha Cuthbert played Jack’s daughter Kim, who displayed an uncanny knack for getting herself into trouble, though she also worked at CTU in later years; Kim Raver (who has resurfaced on Live Another Day, among other television shows) played his most popular love interest, Audrey; Sarah Clarke, who was recently on The Tomorrow People, played Jack’s nemesis Nina Myers; Dennis Haysbert, i.e. Mr. Allstate, played the first black US President on TV long before President Obama made history in real life; and Mary Lynn Rajskub played loyal friend and fellow tech agent Chloe Sullivan, in one of the best depicted platonic relationships between man and woman on television, ever. Chloe has also returned for the event series.

Each season also focused on new styles of weaponry and new and old enemies.  Seriously, throughout the seasons, there were all sorts of countries plotting to crush America, aligned with other governments, privately or publicly, using American mercenaries or relying on their own countrymen to infiltrate and destroy the US of A in the name of some offense.  Middle Eastern countries and/or citizens and/or descendants were most often the culprits (thanks – or no thanks – again to 9/11), but Jack fought against Asian, European, South American, Mexican, and even other American threats, assassination attempts, plots to undermine infrastructure including nuclear power plants, and all sorts of horrific and intense situations. In the meantime, Jack lost his first wife, attempted to find love apart from his work but nearly always failing to sustain it, attempted to protect his strong but otherwise clueless daughter (and eventually son-in-law and grandchild), tussled with his own father, and eventually accepted exile as a fugitive, blamed for actions in which he was involved or for which he was responsible but undertook to save his country.  All throughout the process, Kiefer Sutherland played Jack as the ultimate patriot and humanist, though his body count was ultimately very high.  Also, his favorite phrase is “Damn it!”  If the phrase wasn’t such a common exclamation, it would probably be the official catchphrase of 24 and a signature/trademark along with that ticking clock.

THOUGHTS

24 instantly engages the viewer because each season turns a day into a nightmare for the characters and particularly for Jack, who was most often the smartest and/or forthright of those around him.  He could sniff out moles like Nina or bad seeds like his own dad (played by James Cromwell of all people) while still finding time to save unlucky bystanders from random nuclear explosions in the greater Los Angeles area. He is a man’s man, with uncanny aim with a weapon and a MacGyver like sense of resourcefulness.

Each hour is intense.  In order to focus the action on the players in movement in each episode, one of the trademarks of the series was to show side-by-side panels, with different camera angles of the same scene. Thus, the viewer would be able to see Jack from behind a structure, his gun aimed and ready to take a shot, while the viewer would also see his intended target, looking back at him with whatever the appropriate reaction or response or a gun similarly poised. Sometimes, three and four panels would crop up for the largest scenes, if several players were on the board, or to snapshot, in summary, all of the relevant players at the end of each episode.  Shooting the series this way delivered a level of urgency that similar shows just haven’t been able to achieve, before or since. Add the ticking clock that appeared in and out of commercial breaks and at the end of episodes, and whenever time truly was a factor, one couldn’t help but wonder, on occasion, how certain objectives would be achieved, particularly when enemies permitted ‘x’ number of hours to produce money or weapons or to save a hostage’s life.

These touches and trademarks certainly help bolster the idea that 24 is one of the best written series ever. In addition, the dialogue was always sharp and delivered with intensity.  CTU agents were skilled interrogators; some of them employed torture.  Yet, never did the show feel as if it was pandering to the audience, explaining intelligence lexicon and techniques in order to set stages.  The words were intelligent, but the actors played the emotions.  Jack is such an enduring hero because he is a man of intense passion and loyalty to his country and to his loved ones.

The writers also had the exciting task of creating all new threats each season in an effort to top the last crazy nightmare from which Jack and his CTU compatriots, with various levels of drive and passion for their work, were tasked to save their fellow Americans.  Some stories were more successful than others: the first season was excellent, but the second season endeavored to place Kim in danger by being lost in the desert and chased by a prowling cougar, for example.  Yet, overall, each season was carefully mapped out.  What happened in between these long days was relevant to Jack and would be covered in the first few episodes, even if years had passed.  The rest of the season would explore the crisis at hand and end with an episode or two leaking some plot details to set up the next longest day.

And speaking of the nightmares themselves: assassination attempts on presidential candidates, nuclear explosions in the greater Los Angeles area, bio-warfare, bomb threats, aggressive computer hacking to undermine the worldwide network… the writers dreamed it all up.  Sure, some of the scenarios seemed implausible, but that’s why 24 was so exciting.  Could these crazy events really happen, even those that seemed too horrible to contemplate?  The writers created enough suspension of disbelief via a well depicted CTU nucleus and riveting characters like Jack to allow the viewer to believe, at least for a moment, that it was all scarily possible.

24, thus, is an intense watch – so intense that I chose not to convince myself to re-watch the series a second time.  I remember quite a bit of it anyway, but, also, I think this series is most successful on first viewing only, when the viewer would not able to see the twists coming or know for certain that Jack or any of the people for which he cares are going to be alright (or won’t be, in some circumstances).  The key ingredients to 24 are Jack Bauer, the intensity of the situations affecting the characters, and the level of unforeseen danger confronting our heroes.  This viewer could see much of the excitement undercut by taking the sense of the unknown out of the equation, but the intensity of the show also dissuaded me from watching the whole series again, because the viewing of each episode is the equivalent of watching a short action/thriller film for 24 episodes and eight seasons…  This viewer is satisfied with 24 being a one-time viewing experience; I would even warn against binge-watching it, or serious recovery time may be required.

24 is a series with a specific niche and mainstream appeal.  It captured the imagination because 9/11 and ongoing conflicts left our world more scary and dangerous than ever before, and the series spoke to that fear and to the sense of rallying together to stave off unseen enemies.  It also spoke to the need for heroes and patriots to confront that fear, to answer the call of country and men, and that’s where Jack Bauer comes in, as a character and man willing to sacrifice it all to keep people safe.  The series is well written, if not perfect; well performed; and one of the classics of television history.

In fact, 24 carved out such an esteemed slot in the viewing public’s heart, talk of shooting a film, which was supposed to tie off some of the loose threads left by Jack’s actions in the series finale but which was never produced and/or enjoyed a green light to production, ran rampant for several years.  Because the film idea never saw the light of day, Fox and the producers/writers of 24 saw fit to bring Jack, Chloe, Audrey, and others back for a limited run series of thirteen episodes for 24: Live Another Day, another long day for Jack but the first televised long day in four years.  This “Looking Back” entry was written in anticipation of the return of 24.  Stay tuned for the review of the first episode of the new season in Jack’s rather complicated life.

RECOMMENDATION

24 is recommended to anyone who loves Kiefer Sutherland, action-heavy drama, spy-related stories, stories about defending America in all its patriotic glory, and anyone who wants intensity and the unexpected to be part of their television diet.  The show is not for the faint of heart – there is a heavy dose of gun violence, torture, and casualties from explosions and other spy warfare collateral damage.  One must also like political thrillers, for the show examines the intelligence community from field-level agencies like CTU to the role of the President of the United States in such matters.  What can be said, however, is that if you, gentle viewer, have not seen the original run of 24 and decide to give it a try, you won’t be able to stop watching.  That’s why it’s so exciting that Jack is back!  Will his return be triumphant, or will it fizzle after such a long delay?  The next post will examine the success of the premiere of Live Another Day.  Until then…

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