I Speak TV: Jack Bauer’s Own Worst Enemy
It’s taken me about seven years to accept this, but… “24″ would be great if it wasn’t “24.”
Let me try that again.
If “24″ weren’t beholden to its central conceit – a series of catastrophic events occurs over the course of 24 hours – it would probably be the greatest action series of all time.
But however admirable the storytelling gimmick is, or however much they take a hammer to it in order to make it work properly, having all these ridiculous things happen in the course of one day makes the show too ridiculous to really root for.
In the first season, it…kinda made sense. The L.A. branch of a counterterrorist agency gets wind of a plot against a political candidate in town for the California primary. And a previously unrealized link between agent Jack Bauer and senator David Palmer keeps them working together, even both men deal with strife within their own families.
All of this gets pretty ridiculous – the overarching terrorist plot ends up like a revenge plot concocted by Rube Goldberg and carried out by the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. And that’s ignoring the Bauer clan’s bouts with stress-related amnesia or Stockholm Syndrome – but…that it all happens in one day is mostly believable.
But as the years have gone by, the things the show has attempted to do right have been whacked in the kneecaps by its own format.
Take, for instance, the current season. This year, Jack Bauer actually has to answer for himself his increasingly gratuitous use of violence in the line of duty. Meanwhile, Tony Almeida, his presumed-dead colleague, is actually alive and working for the bad guys, and also their former boss is convinced that the government has been infiltrated by traitors and is working without mandate to expose them.
Throw in the increasingly-paranoid delusions (or ARE they?) of the First Gentleman that his son’s suicide was staged, and you’ve got a lot of interesting plot points that could tie together into a larger thematic arc about trust and responsibility, and important character arcs revolving long-time characters.
By this point, Jack SHOULD be wondering how much torture works, especially after being tortured himself, mercilessly, for 18 months in a Chinese prison. And Tony’s willingness to turn bad SHOULD merit consideration, since over the course of his employment at CTU, he’s been betrayed, been manipulated into committing treason, been sent to prison, gotten divorced, and then lost his wife.
If you take that kind of character development into account, and throw in Bill Buchanan’s insane (but totally likely, given this show) idea that the government is secretly under siege, and throw all that into the new terrorist plot this season revolving the goofy MacGuffin they’ve come up with, and you SHOULD have a great story going on.
On any other show, these interesting arcs would be given a slow buildup, cut between these characters and plotlines over the course of the days, weeks, or even months leading up to the present moment. And it would probably be pretty cool – maybe even brilliant.
But on “24,” all this has to happen within one day, so all the drama has to already have built to a head. All the buildup has happened off-screen, for the audience to imagine. We only ever get to watch the Big Moments. And if it were a two-hour movie, that’d probably be great. But it’s still 24 fricking real-time hours. So we get to watch that Big Moment where we realize Tony’s working for the enemy. Or Bill thinks there’s a conspiracy.
But because the story has to match the time-frame, those Big Moments are usually followed by a shitload of driving scenes, effectively killing any dramatic momentum.
It’s too late to change this format – I mean, imagine if they were to simply go, “Y’know what? We’re just gonna tell a story now, real-time be damned!” The fans would go apeshit. Which is sad, given that it would absolutely result in a better show.
You’d still have the characters you’ve gotten to care about. But they’d be allowed to have honest-to-god moments where their thematic arcs can catch up to them, and they can make real decisions that would be dramatically interesting.
Yes, there’s some fun in Jack’s insane lateral thinking – “I have to get across town in five minutes + here comes an oncoming car = I will carjack this oncoming motorist.” But wouldn’t a few minutes of introspection be more involving in the long run?
But that ship has passed, and we’re left with a Day 7 that clucks its tongue at Jack’s torture-happy ways but can’t deny they work. Because in the 24-verse, torture is a quick, visually exciting way of getting information that would otherwise time the show simply doesn’t have.
So that’s where we are, seven seasons in – having to accept things we know for a fact aren’t true, while ignoring well-earned dramatic moments, because otherwise the plot can’t move on the way it has to. All thanks to its own format.
(You’ll note I didn’t talk about the biggest crutch “24″ uses to fill its day-long format: the agonizing family melodrama. Seven seasons in, whether it’s Kim Bauer, the Palmer family, or whatever nutbag CTU family member trots into the office, and it’s never been anything other than an awful, patently-unbelievable timewaster. But…I try to keep these articles down to about a page and a half. Count yourselves lucky, because I could rant on Kim-in-a-cougar-trap until Day 10 rolls along.)
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