24 has always had its problems, but it’s been an innovative and interesting show, worth keeping an eye on if not always worth watching. The basic conceit is brilliant: each episode occupies one hour of real time, and each season tells a contained story (featuring Jack Bauer, counterterrorist operative) that takes place over the course of one action-packed day. It’s the closed nature of that structure that holds the greatest appeal for me, because it means that each season has a beginning and an end, not just a start and a finish. Intertwining multiple storylines in real time while still forwarding a plot isn’t easy, but the writers manage it for the most part. It’s in directing that the show really stands out, though—everything is tightly shot, with frequent but not overbearing use of multiple panes to show what’s happening simultaneously at different locations. The performances are also solid, and Kiefer Sutherland is often exceptional.
The show’s pace has always been more frenetic than it needs to be. It wants to have it both ways—to tell a continuous story over 24 episodes, but also to give each hour enough hooks, twists, and cliffhangers to keep people tuned in and attract viewers mid-season. We never get to see an in-depth half-hour conversation, or any scene, for that matter, that lasts longer than ten minutes, let alone an hour. The fact the show is constantly cutting back and forth between subplots makes this sort of thing quite feasible, but the show never takes up the opportunity to slow the pace down—this lessens the impact of all those tense moments, over time. And then there’s the Fox factor—everyone in the show is three times as attractive as real people in those situations would actually be, and Kim, Jack’s nubile daughter, has a remarkable tendency to fall into sexually charged situations with torn clothing.
The ending of the first season was exceptional because it was tragic, in a very literal sense. That story was about Jack desperately trying to avert an assassination attempt on a presidential candidate while simultaneously keeping his family safe. Ultimately, he fails. The candidate lives, and his wife dies—the last shot is of him holding her body in his arms. The second season started off strong, and with surprising willingness to address post-9/11 issues head on. Early on, CTU Headquarters gets bombed, and the plume of smoke that rises above the skyline looks so much like the one over the Pentagon that I can’t believe it was an accident. That sight hit deep, and I had a moment watching it where I tried to decide if I was being crassly manipulated or if it worked. I decided it worked. The season’s best moment comes when Jack puts a terrorist (who knows the location of the suitcase nuke) in front of a screen that’s showing his family back in the Middle East, about to be executed if he doesn’t cooperate. When he resists, his son is shot before his eyes, and he buckles. Later we learn that some clever video tricks had made the scene seem real, even though no one was actually killed. In a lesser show we’d assume that that was the case all along, because Jack is the Hero. But 24 has taken pains all along to present Jack as a protagonist on the line—effective because he’s willing to take risks and do questionable things, but always just shy of losing his humanity as a result. When we see the guy’s son get shot, it’s possible to believe that Jack really would do such a thing, and there’s palpable relief when we learn that he hasn’t gone that far yet.
Unfortunately, season two’s latter half doesn’t live up to the standards the show has set. The scheming to oust the President and Kim’s damsel-in-distress act both approach the farcical. Because of this, I tuned in to the premiere of season three last night with a certain amount of trepidation. And, for most of the hour, my concerns proved well-founded. Jack has a Spunky Young Sidekick, the dilemmas of the minor characters circle around office politics, the President has yet another person who he trusts that we’re not sure we can trust, and Kim is being given an even bigger role. I had just decided that I wasn’t going to bother with the show this season when the final scene kicked in. Jack’s been acting strange all episode, and as he yanks the syringe and rubber tube from a locker in his office, we suddenly realize that in the year he spent undercover bringing the drug dealer in, he’s become addicted to drugs. There’s a great moment where he prepares to shoot up and comes to a moment of crisis with the needle less than an inch from his arm. In the end he perseveres and tosses it across the room in disgust, but we can see now what the contours of his personal crisis this day are going to be. It’s a great scene, and it’s enough to bring me back one more time. But if the Spunky Sidekick (did I mention he’s dating Kim?) doesn’t get killed off in short order, I’m bailing.