Thursday, May 27, 2010

Rage, Rage Against Fox's Cancellation

There was a lot of screaming and blood and only fleeting moments of clarity; it was a long struggle, but 24 has finally breathed its last. As we stand with its maimed corpse before us, I can't say I feel all that bad for the show.

Way back in 2001, I was enthralled by 24's premiere, and I continued to watch the show (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) for the next six years. The formula was simple and, throughout the series' entire run, the producers never dared to mess with it: Start the action rolling in Hour One and do not stop until the moment Hour Twenty-Four ends. It does not matter if the story is following evil terrorists, conniving bureaucrats, omniscient IT people, or that singular lunatic called Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) – that ticking time bomb (metaphorical or otherwise) never stops until it absolutely must.

Sure, one could give credit to the writers for delivering so consistently on raw tension and thrills, but I won't. By the end of Day Six, I was fully convinced that those people made the crap up as they went along. There were points where it all coalesced beautifully (namely the end of Day Five), but there were oh-so-many where it was an incoherent ramble. At no point in my time as a 24 fan did I ever watch the final episode of a season and find myself able to recall where it began; no given season ever featured any substantial themes or arcs tying things together on a large scale, and I cannot remember any individual episode that did these things effectively on a small scale. So, while the writing was certainly complex (practically byzantine at times), I never felt that it even approached the level of depth necessary to make me give a damn.

In fact, the writing often held the show back. Hilariously bad recurrences abounded: Jack's daughter stumbling into idiotic slasher movie situations, espionage tech that was able to do anything with a few taps of a keyboard (unless the plot necessitated a complication), White House staffs that were full of Machiavellian twats, use of fourth wall-shattering phrases like "within the hour" or "before the end of the hour," the United States government's forgiveness of Jack Bauer's genocidal inclinations, and the torture.

Oh, yes. The torture.

One can forgive a show for being silly, but 24's constant glamorization of torture was so destructive that the real-life United States Army sent a brigadier general to beg, producer, Joel Surnow to stop. He did not oblige. In his eight years on our TV screens, Jack Bauer never stopped using torture as his primary means for getting the job done. That's eight years of jacking people to car batteries, shooting housewives in the knee, taking power drills to flesh, biting off body parts, and just, plain beating the living shit out of anyone and everyone. Not only do countless real-life interrogation experts emphatically state that these tactics are ineffective, but many have found that American soldiers and agents have been compelled to replicate them by watching 24 while in the field.

Now, I'm no advocate of the school of thought that suggests well-adjusted people will become deviants merely by seeing evil acts committed in fiction, but the US Army is not populated by alarmist PTA members; if they are taking issue, there's likely a real problem. Besides, alarmist PTA members should have been saying something about this show. On a week-to-week basis, it featured prolonged sequences of graphic violence that would probably push the boundaries of the MPAA's R rating, except it was being shown on broadcast television at nine PM with a TV-14 rating.

(Censorship sucks, but blatant hypocrisy is worse. In the years since 24's debut, the supposed profusion of sex and profanity on broadcast TV has become the subject of many moral crusades. Yet, has there been a peep about violence so vile that the Army finds it morally objectionable? No. Give me a fucking break.)

Even within the show's plot, all of this sadism proved extremely damaging. It eventually became impossible to take Jack Bauer seriously as a character. He was almost entirely defined by relentless anger (and apparent invincibility). There was that one moment at the very end of Day Three where Jack cries, and there were the occasional lectures from Jack's daughter, but these attempts at lending some humanity to the character could not overshadow his usual behavior. Besides, even these moments were meant to highlight just how impossible it was for him to change; the writers wanted us to think there was nothing more to him. I suppose this could have qualified as tragic, but that would have required the character to suffer more consistently (see: House); Jack rarely seemed to mind his own faults or be adequately punished for them.

It is not worth discussing specific supporting characters. Most of them were glorified plot devices – mainly there to deliver exposition. The villains suffered the most from this. They were generally bad action movie stereotypes: The Eastern Bloc military men, the Mexican drug lords, the Russian intelligence agents, the Chinese intelligence agents and – last, but certainly not least – the Muslim extremists. The show came under fire for making particularly heavy use of that last one. While the criticism was certainly justified in earlier seasons, it seems to be one of the few areas where the writers became repentant. The final few hours of the series portrayed the president of a Muslim country being victimized by both the American and the Russian presidents. It was a nice surprise from a show that was largely incorrigible.

All of these flaws should have rendered the show unwatchable, but I cannot deny how certain aspects of it were always effective. The music, the editing, the directing, the camerawork... 24's uniquely cinematic feel was always its ace in the hole. The characters could be discussing cake recipes in Tagalog, and 24 would still have you on the edge of your seat.

The end-of-episode recap sequence below illustrates this fact well. Nothing really happens here, but that doesn't stop it from being intense:

The show's ability to pull off the shaky-cam aesthetic better than many movies do, but on a fraction of the budget, was a testament to how well it was made. Deep-focus shots would turn someone typing at an office computer into a life-or-death act of espionage... quick zooms would turn a shocked stare from a stiff politician into a scream for help... and, for better or for worse, a quick whip of the camera would turn a punch from Jack into a fatal blow. It is easy to overlook how difficult it is to orchestrate such shots while still keeping them coherent and immersive.

It is even easier to overlook how difficult it is to make an incoherent story seem coherent. Those iconic split-screens were always a very powerful tool. Their geometric layout gave the subliminal impression that the story's various pieces fit together better than they really did. Nothing, however, did more to this end than the music. Sean Callery's score never let up, submerging the viewer in a world of constant tension and ensuring that the visceral impact always hit first and hit hardest.

These achievements ensure that I will look back on the show with at least some fondness. Yet this series was always its own worst enemy. For all of 24's style and ambition, the show's makers could never harness these powerful qualities to create something of true substance – a failure that proved toxic as the years went on. Perhaps a limited run of one or two seasons could have remedied this but, they way things played out, 24's nastiest faults have left the deepest impression.

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