I Speak TV: The Metrics of ’24’

Posted: January 19, 2010 in Threat Quality
Tags: , ,

“24” is, at this point, less of a “television show,” so much as it is “event-level rearranging of various plot points and character beats.” And so in that sense, it’s probably the most excitingly predictable show on television.

If you’ve never bothered to sit and watch 24, here it is. Here is the plot to every single season – and how the writers in all likelihood, choose the small variations that make it count as a different season (other than which new jacket Kiefer Sutherland has decided is comfortable enough to wear for the entire year):

“Jack (Kiefer Sutherland), must foil a terrorist plot by (Arab Guys/Russians/Mexicans) who have secretly been financed by (evil white guys/evil white guys/ look, it’s always evil white guys). Meanwhile, at CTU (insert secondary staffer) is dealing with (insert unlikely family melodrama), while (insert temporary head of CTU) is busy (meddling with CTU agent investigations/fending off meddling from supervisors).”

But of course, the devil’s in the details, and on 24, the details tend to get kind of insane, fairly quickly – because ironically, for a show that needs to meticulously plot out a complete 24-hour arc, the writers also have no long-term planning ability. They will do WHATEVER, regardless of whether it puts them in a corner two hours down the line. And if they end up in that corner, you know what they’re gonna do? BLOW THAT CORNER UP WITH SEMTEX. It’s actually kind of admirable.

So how’s the new season shaping up so far, four hours in? Well, plot-wise, we’ve already filled in about half the multiple-choice answers in the above outline. But 24 deals in some other metrics this season needs to meet:

How’s Kiefer starting his day?
Happy. Which is a nice change of pace from previous opening episodes, which have found him either suicidal, heroin-addicted, or traumatized after 18 months in a Chinese prison. So…a rare low-key opening for Kiefer this time around.

Has there been a gruesome death and/or maiming yet?
The gold-standard here is “Kiefer shoots an informant and hacksaws his head off to reestablish a cover identity.” It came close in season 6 when he ripped a guy’s throat out with his teeth, but no cigar. So this season’s “Swings an axe into an assassin’s belly,” while cool, can’t possibly top season 2. However, there was one other moment (see: “Left-field character developments” below) that could elevate this season to the levels of crazy we know it can reach.

Has a mole in a high-level government position been suggested yet?
Suggested AND revealed! 24 is wasting no time on its “Who could it be?!” play, because by this point every season has to introduce a whole new cast, and it’s hard to get excited about any of them unless they’re played by Jeanine Garafalo. And why is that?

Has there been a shocking death of a long-term cast-member?
Outside of Kiefer Sutherland, only two characters have actually managed to survive long-term, and while I’m sure they’re keeping “Kill Kim Bauer” in their pocket for just the right occasion, otherwise, it’s slim pickings. Besides, it’s pretty hard to top season 5, where at least three long-time cast-members were dispatched in about the first minute of the new season.

Has a tedious b-plot involving a character’s family been introduced yet?
OH MAN, HAS IT EVER. See, in past seasons, we’d have to get to know the new cast-members (through awesomely clunky exposition like, “You may be a hotshot field agent, but you’re still my fiancé!” Stuff like that). This year, apparently the writers can’t be bothered with that. THIS year, you’re introduced to Katee Sackhoff as New Tech Lady, and FIVE MINUTES LATER, we know she changed her identity to escape from an abusive redneck boyfriend stalker! And he’s come back! OMG! This is now taking up at least ten minutes of every episode (since the show’s real-time conceit means it has to SOMEHOW fill the time where Kiefer’s driving somewhere). It is ANNOYING.

How many bosses has CTU chewed through so far?
Just the one – but considering he’s a glowering, efficiency-minded bureaucrat, I don’t expect him to make it to hour 12. But “24” is at its most impressive with finding new, crazier reasons to switch bosses. You thought “Poisoned by radiation and flying a nuclear bomb to an unpopulated area as a dying act of heroism” was good? You could not have expected “Schizophrenic daughter commits suicide in the office infirmary” (a season that resulted in FOUR boss-switches), or “Sean Astin gets bullied by his crackhead sister, takes it out on the staff with increasingly panicked megalomania, then finally redeems himself by choking on poison” (a mere three boss-switches that season).

What about a left-field character development?
Again, there aren’t a lot of characters left to actually change from year to year. Season 4’s re-introduction to former CTU head Tony as an angry, unemployed layabout was pretty good since it actually made a level of sense (last year’s “Tony – who we saw die – is actually alive and working with bad guys”? Less so). But this year, they’ve only got the redheaded agent from last year to play with. Apparently ONE DAY with Jack Bauer was enough to drive her completely off her nut, and now she is suicidal and sawing off suspects’ thumbs and wearing heavy eyeliner so you know she’s In a Bad Way (to be fair, Jack did tell her to threaten a baby to extract info from its mom, so…not completely unbelievable).

Has anything egregiously stupid happened yet?
Not yet. But Kim Bauer didn’t get stuck in that cougar trap until half-way into season 2, so there’s plenty of time.

So, based on previous seasons, I’d say this year is at a B- grade for ludicrous plotting and half-assed characterization, but on the upside, it hasn’t blown its wad by having Jack shoot his partner, vomit, and watch Valencia, CA get blown up by a nuke in the span of 30 seconds FOUR EPISODES INTO A SEASON . Sometimes a slow burn is best.

  1. Moff says:

    Wait, there is boss turnovermultiple boss turnover — midseason on a show where a season only covers a single day?

  2. Jeff Holland says:

    And now you’re starting to get the retarded glory that is 24.

    In fact, in season 4, the boss turnover went from boss whose daughter just killed herself, to the UNEMPLOYED EX-CONVICT who used to run CTU, to his EX-WIFE, to HER boss/brief-boyfriend. In the course of four or five hours.

    Season 4 was one of the good seasons, too.

  3. Tad says:

    I continue to be amazed by how little they seem to plan beyond the first 8 hours or so every season. Last season, they had 2 years to write and even shut down production for awhile to fix up the scripts, and it still seemed like they were making it up from complete scratch by hour 12. I think the first season was the best of the ones I’ve seen in terms of keeping a strong story arc over the entire season, and even that one had an hour or two of Jack’s wife randomly getting amnesia.

    But its so much fun!! I am looking forwards to Renee out-Jacking Jack the next few hours at least!

  4. Jesse LaJeunesse says:

    Wow. You just perfectly summed up why this show is so terrible, and yet somehow you like it? I admit I watched almost 5 seasons, and I can’t blame that entirely on having Blockbuster-flix at the time and it being the only worthwhile thing at my local video store. But I GOT OUT, and never looked back. I can’t imagine people subjecting themselves to this show for this long! I’ve heard it’s better watched week to week, so you can let the…events sink in. But…gah. This is forcing me to use elipses!

  5. Jeff Holland says:

    Ellipses are our friends, Jesse. They…make it look like we’re really…THINKING. About what we say. (Or they give writing a kind of Shatner-esque vibe. Win-win!)

    Recognizing all the things that are terrible doesn’t preclude enjoyment of it. It just takes a little extra work. And I am a man willing to do that work!

    Joking aside, at a certain point, you become pretty invested in the continuing, ever-escalating torment of Jack Bauer as a byproduct of his relentless devotion to Getting the Job Done. Pretty much the only through-line that not only makes sense, and also undeniably compelling. And so you find ways of putting up with all the other stuff.

    Drinking games, and the like.

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