Independent: The Apolitical Appeal of 24
Well, I’m finally caught up on 24, the action-fueled torture-ganza that pits counter-terrorist super agent Jack Bauer (played to conflicted perfection by Kiefer Sutherland) against ... well, the bad guys. The first thing a died-in-the-wool, pro-gun-control liberal like myself needs to come to terms with about 24 is that it’s loved by some pretty hardcore Republicans. In fact, Joel Surnow, one of the creators of the show, has described himself as a Republican and is friends with Rush Limbaugh, according to the Gospel of Wikipedia. Dean Koontz has also endorsed season one in a pretty big way. Of course, he knows a thing or two about suspenseful storytelling, so his endorsement doesn’t sting so much.
But you know what, not even a (thankfully) brief cameo by Senator John McCain managed to derail me from the 24 Express (Stephen Merchant also has a cameo later in the show, and Janeane Garofalo is part of the regular cast in season seven, so there is balance in the universe; Sutherland himself is not exactly a conservative, either, from what I can gather). My real point here, in other words, is that it's to the credit of the creative forces behind 24 that the show lacks an easily identifiable political message. The world of 24 is filled with ruthless villains, which means that sometimes the law needs to be stretched in unfortunate ways. Who can argue with that, especially in the safe context of a television show?
But who gets to decide when the law is in need of stretching? Jack Bauer, that’s who. He is easily the most layered and interesting of all the characters in the show, and though he moves through many episodes like a capeless superhero (he wears a shoulder bag instead of a cape much of the time), vanquishing evil wherever it rears its head, there is depth to the troubled agent. It's Bauer's inability to maintain relationships while simultaneously being unable to avoid having a profound effect on virtually everyone he comes into contact with that makes him much more than yet another federal thug. His capacity for questionable judgment makes him downright human at times.
As a groundbreaking feat of televised storytelling, 24 is without fault. The writing—which must have been exceptionally rigorous, given the show’s use of real-time narratives for the sake of maximal suspense—is always well above average and often excellent. Casting is a marvel in itself throughout the series. The acting, directing, music, lighting, et cetera … All first rate from the last half of the first season onward. Cinematic, even.
I made it through seven seasons with my wow detector fully ablaze. That’s pretty amazing when you stop to consider that usually only comedy programs with shorter episodes have any hope of holding my interest for that long (Peep Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and M*A*S*H, for example). And after the stunning first season of 24, one would have thought there was no way they could possibly top it (for evidence to the contrary, I guide you politely in the direction of season five).
But with season eight, I swore there were signs of stress in the rigging at last. Most of the quality markers from previous seasons were still on abundant display, but I had an increasing sense that the producers were getting a little complacent about 24’s reliable appeal. Why this matters most is that the feeling of being in the midst of the longest film ever produced began to decay in the first half of season eight, which felt more like a TV show than any other season. Meaningful connections to previous plot points and characters were eschewed in favor of new sets, new locations, and new actors. Some opportunities were missed as a result.
Or so I thought, for the tension ratcheted up considerably in the second half of the season, erasing most, if not all, doubts I may have harbored early on. Most notably, the Dana Walsh subplot takes a head-spinning turn, putting her in exactly the right context for all the behavior that was beginning to feel a bit incongruous on her part. The lesson? Never underestimate the writers of 24. They’re always a step ahead of you. Is season eight among my favorite seasons, then? No, but it recovered fully from my initial assessment and kept the 24 engine humming along, right up to the closing bloodbath, during which we learn how apt it is that Russians are associated with the color red. We even get to enjoy more of the slimeball antics of President Charles Logan, who did so much to make season five the best of the lot, so there’s really nothing to hate on here.
And even if there were, perfection is a moving target. It’s pretty amazing how often 24 has managed to nail it right between the eyes.
As for the most recent installment, Live Another Day, fans couldn’t have hoped for better results, especially if they value the unique relationship between Jack and his techno-sidekick, Chloe O’Brian. I’ve avoided going into any plot details or ruining any of the show’s many surprises. This really is not the kind of show you want to know too much about ahead of time. It’s all about letting yourself be stunned again and again, or trying to outsmart the writers (good luck). But I will say one thing about Live Another Day, and it does necessitate my revealing a couple of minor spoilers. President Heller has Alzheimer’s disease for the entire twelve-episode season (set in London, by the way). Only a handful of characters know about his affliction until the very end. The writers and producers deserve a good deal of praise, I think, for the restraint they exhibited by not using his illness in an obvious plot complication. The temptation must have been there. I’m sure they thought about having him forget some key piece of information at a crucial moment, but they avoided the easy way out. Instead, they treat the president’s affliction in realistic terms, with compassion and poignancy. In some ways, it’s the most quiet surprise of the entire series. Looked at another way, it’s one of the most powerful. And talk about a red herring!
There are a number of ways you could come at 24 if you really wanted to dig into its social relevance or make a serious study of it in the context of the film and television arts, or in the context of post-9/11 terrorism in popular culture. The feminist angle would be fascinating, for instance. The show has some of the best women characters (and actors) ever to appear in a single program. Of course, that’s true of the men, too. Maybe these are sister topics. Brother topics? How about cousins? Race relations and Islamophobia certainly rear their heads from time to time and are handled with a laudable degree of nuance. And of course there’s all that violence to contend with. Let’s face it, Jack does some things that would make Jason Voorhees blush, and he’s hardly the sole purveyor of pain throughout the series. But for the most part we give him a pass. He’s doing it for the right reasons, with some troubling exceptions. Interesting.
Alas, we’re not going to take those issues on at this time. But they’re worth thinking about as you watch the show. There’s a lot going on.
The only additional praise I can think to toss in here is that I would welcome another season, but only if Kiefer Sutherland was involved. There’s much promise in the character of Kate Morgan, introduced in Live Another Day—perhaps so much promise that she could carry a spin-off eventually, as long as Yvonne Strahovski were to continue playing her. But I’d want to see her interact with Jack Bauer for at least one more season before striking out on her own. It would deepen their connection, which could only strengthen the prospects of a Kate Morgan solo act.
And that’s as much as I’m going to say about 24 for now. In parting, however, I leave you with my ranking of episodes, or days. Thanks for hearing me out.
Ranking of Seasons:
1. Day 1 (Contains the biggest surprise of the whole series.)
2. Day 5 (Simply amazing. It’s actually better than Day 1 in some ways, but Day 1 deserves the top slot for setting the bar so high.)
3. Day 2 (Let’s just say we get to know one of the characters much more intimately in this season.)
4. Day 4
5. Day 7
6. Redemption (Such a nice shift in pace to a two-hour format; very cinematic and suspenseful.)
7. Day 6
8. Live Another Day (Yet another fine president is installed; the show did an extraordinary job with the casting and introducing of presidents throughout the series.)
9. Day 8 (Again, the carnage that wraps this season up is a jaw-dropper.)
10. Day 3 (Bauer’s breakdown at the end of this season is not to be missed; and don’t read too much into my ranking; this is not the worst season of 24: it’s simply the least excellent—and only based on one pass through the series, over a fair span of time, in one man’s opinion.)