Tuesday, May 6, 2014

What Is Jack Bauer's Middle Name?

If you’ve looked at a magazine or watched a football game in recent days, then you’re probably aware that the TV phenomenon known as “24” is returning this week to Fox, with the somewhat major amendment that it’s no longer strictly 24 but more like 24/2.  After eight seasons of flexing the self-explanatory formula that lends the show its title, the producers have opted to halve the season’s run duration, continuing to cover a fictional time span of one day but doing so in an abbreviated 12 episodes.  Their stated rationale for changing the approach would probably be the same claimed by any author or artist who purposely woos attention for “stepping outside his comfort zone”.  We’ve all heard the spiel in one variation or another: Fox just wants to keep things fresh and explore bold new frontiers while simultaneously commemorating the original framework that fans fooled themselves into liking.  The more satisfying explanation to entertain is that Fox finally recognized how much the original framework sucked.


Let me preface this article with a disclaimer: any attempt to review even a single season of 24 is an inherent and total impracticality.  While most of the outstanding flaws encapsulated in a 2-hour feature film can be condensed without trouble into a 2000-word evaluation, the presentation of a serialized television drama of such magnitude as this presents unique difficulties that aren’t as easily surmounted.  Being eight times the length of an average Hollywood thriller about espionage, terrorism, and political corruption, the pilot season of the interminable hit understandably has at least eight times the plot holes, implausible character development, poor editing, and deus ex machina moments, far too many to mention in this brief (ha ha, NO) review of only the show’s most pivotal events, of which there are also far too many.  For example, I simply don’t have the time or space to question the reasons why:


* Gaines shoots the unfortunate second kidnapper Dan in the chest at point-blank range for landing the second girl in the hospital when she was always just an expendable tool whose sole function was to lure Jack Bauer’s daughter into the villains’ clutches for leverage and whose injury, in fact, was a prerequisite to getting Jack within sight of a hospital camera which could then be utilized to bug him.  If he really knew what he was trying to accomplish, shouldn’t he have thanked his underling instead of, you know, killing him?
* The jerkface of a senator and presidential candidate assumes he has the authority to boss federal intelligence agents around just because he’s a politician, and why the agents actually stoop to oblige him.
* All the characters, including the candidate himself, assume that the senator is going to win it all just because he might possibly win his own party in the primary of the state of California.
* None of the characters ever eat or use the bathroom other than to contact people from a relatively private location.
* We’re introduced to some random lesbian terrorist girl who blows up a plane in the first couple episodes only for her to exit off-stage the rest of the season following 4:00 AM.
* The real mole in the agency does nothing but help Jack and cover his behind until the last episode.
* Kevin takes a detour to the hospital to murder the mentally traumatized and completely ignorant York girl instead of just delivering Bauer’s wife directly to his employer.
* Kevin, who has since proven himself to be a highly professional assassin for hire, lets Bauer’s wife jump out of the car and leave his sight so as to take a vomit break, then lets her hit him over the head with a rock and bind him to a tree.
* All the drug dealers and gangsters are always blasting screamy heavy metal in their cars and in their homes.
* The writers make Jack’s wife lose her memory only for her to regain it approximately 3 hours later when a bad guy puts a gun to her head.
* Nothing even happens from 12 PM to 2.
* It takes the characters all of fifteen minutes to drive virtually anywhere in and around Los Angeles.
* The younger foreign-accented killer spends so much time sleeping around with the senator’s campaign staffer instead of preparing to kill him.
* It seems as though all the women in the show have their belly buttons or boobs partially exposed at some point.
* The I.T. guys are able to instantly pull up or hide away so many windows on their computers just by swiping two or three buttons on the keyboard.  Likewise, how do all the characters manage to set up innumerable calls between themselves just by tapping their phone controls once?

Alas, all those thoughts will have to be excluded from the final draft for purposes of concision, something 24 is altogether lacking.  It’s the kind of show that seems to have an awesome premise at first glance but later reveals itself to be fundamentally unworkable.  On the one hand the writers must ensure that each episode is an individual success, and so they must keep the action moving along at a brisk enough pace to sustain the audience’s interest, but on the other they have to maintain the illusion that audiences are bearing witness to real events playing out in real time in real space at a realistic tempo.  In order to fulfill both obligations, they’re forced to invent so many dull and frivolous subplots that more discriminating viewers will be either nodding off in boredom or groaning at the rank absurdity of the developments they’re asked to accept without question.

The crux of the first season revolves around a plot to assassinate a major presidential candidate and the efforts by Counter-Terrorism-Unit agent Jack Bauer to counter the terrorists’ schemes, or so we think for the first 2/3rds of the story, as the writers lead us to think that the assassination is being orchestrated by a rabble of white supremacists who “don’t like the idea of a black man in the White House”.  It turns out that the murderers in question don’t have a political axe to grind at all, thus precluding them from the broadly accepted interpretation of “terrorists”, but are really just heavily accented foreigners who want to exact vengeance against the senator for ordering Jack to kill one of their family in a secretive operation years ago.  They also speak English quite fluently and comfortably, even when there are no Americans in their midst who would stand to benefit from their usage of a secondary language.  But that doesn’t become an issue until later on.  In any case, rather than adopting a plan that’s truly foolproof and reliable, the bad guys inconceivably choose to make enslaving Bauer (the very man entrusted by CTU with protecting Senator David Palmer) an integral part of their conspiracy, thereby opening as many doors for it to catastrophically fail and backfire as possible.  The only way they can think of how to execute this is by kidnapping Bauer’s wife and daughter and holding them at gunpoint while issuing him orders.  In the event that Bauer somehow outsmarts them or the hostages escape the killers’ clutches, which they manage to do eventually, Plan B is simply to kidnap them again and start the whole process over, which they also do eventually.

Though the villains’ gameplan is fairly clear-cut and straightforward, what is much less apparent is why Bauer even bothers to comply with their demands.  His high-school girl Kim is the kind of headstrong dumb blonde protagonist who in spite of being constantly tied up, locked in a shed, and almost getting raped never loses sight of her greater purpose: to provide counseling for poverty-stricken street criminals and to promote a tough message of personal responsibility for one’s actions, as in this unabridged exchange from episode “5-6 PM”.

“You have so much going for you Rick. You’re smart, you’re good-lucking, you’re funny. How did you get like this?”
“I’m doing all right.”
“All right? You’re wanted by the police, you got shot in the arm, your friends you hang out with are criminals. Do you really want to end up here?”
“I do the best I can. I didn’t grow up like you did.”
“That’s just an excuse. I have a friend named Todd. He grew up in two foster homes and he has a scholarship to Stanford now.”
“Well, good for Todd.”

Jack’s wife Teri (I had to look up her name because I forgot), on the other hand, is not just dumb as dirt but a walking, talking magnet of unresolved subplots.  When the season starts, the couple are in the throes of recovering from an arduous “separation”, during which Jack struck up a largely unperceivable affair with his co-worker and other major character Nina.  Though we aren’t informed of it until later, Teri also became attached to another man who appears in at most three or four episodes before disappearing and never having an impact on the plot again.  Further complicating matters is her discovery upon escaping the bad guys’ compound that she’s pregnant with another child, which precipitates a heated argument with her daughter over how she could possibly shirk her parental responsibility to properly use birth control.


“You and dad were trying to have a kid and you didn’t tell me about it?”
“No, honey, it wasn’t like that… dad and I use birth control – it’s protection, but it’s never 100%.”

Um, right.

Despite the initial disarray of these seemingly disconnected developments, all the narrative strains are conveniently tossed together in one frying pan when Jack’s ex-flame-turned-Serbian spy shoots Mrs. Bauer dead in the final minutes of the show, thus leaving us feeling cheated and baffled as to why the writers wasted so much of our time elucidating these rabbit trails in the first place.

They didn’t stop with the Bauer family, though, as a good half of the show or thereabouts is dedicated to the personal and professional woes of the embattled first-black-president-to-be.  Blindsided by emerging allegations that his teenage son accidentally killed the man who sexually assaulted his sister seven years ago (piling still more layers of stupid sentimentality onto the script), David Palmer must confront a) all his campaign advisors who want him to cover up the incident, b) all the reporters who want to break the story before he does, and c) his very own power-hungry first-black-first-lady-to-be, Sherri, who has been concealing the ugly truth from him and everybody else for as long as she’s known of it.  As Mr. and Mrs. Bauer are artificially drawn closer together by their experiences, Mr. and Mrs. President drift ever further and further apart as they continually fight each other for the right to lose and win their race respectively. David only decides he’s had enough of his devious wife after she encourages one of his staffers to commit adultery with him so as to… distract him… or something.  It doesn’t make any sense, but Palmer won’t have any of it, saying curtly “I never want to see you here again” after 24 hours filled to the brim with as much bickering and deception and betrayal as a single fictional day could possibly accommodate.  The senator’s plot arc gets to be so convoluted and muddied with extraneous political scandals that it took an immense resilience from your own author not to skip through every scene involving him in the latter half.

Indeed, probably the greatest undoing of the show besides its unfathomable length, banal dialogue, and the stunning idiocy of its characters’ actions is the unduly emphasis it places on the candidate, who honestly would have better served the program if the writers had relegated him off-screen and made him a faceless symbol of American representative government.  As he is in this script, the more closely we get to know him, the more intensely we find ourselves rooting for the “terrorists” to wipe him out.  Constantly losing his temper and blowing up on others, Palmer bribes, blackmails, and threatens to unleash the executive authority he has yet to attain upon anyone who gets in his way.  An unprincipled thug and self-inflated cad who’s perennially lording his “former slave” victim-status over everyone, he has neither the maturity nor the poise of one aspiring to lead an entire country, and his endless pretenses of self-pity over his skin color exemplify liberal whininess of the lowest order.  And yet I think we’re somehow supposed to like him for this, even with show creator Joel Surnow’s self-identification as one of Hollywood’s only open conservatives.  As for the actor’s part, Dennis Haysbert has gushingly attributed Barack Obama’s ascension to the popularity of his own totally made-up TV character.  Thanks a lot, dude.  The financial future of my future children really appreciates that favor.

Split at many points between up to six parties at different places, 24 exploits the toggling-narratives-trick to the point where it no longer amplifies suspense or serves any discernible purpose but to create gratuitous commercial cliffhanger cuts.  It’s annoying, it’s lazy, and it interrupts the natural flow of the story, which is supposedly the main draw of a show that purports itself to play out in real time and avoid the more cinematic flares of typical scripted drama.  In a kind of weak desperation to tie all these disjointed characters together, the writers organize the scripts such that half of the dialogue is delivered via phone in splitscreen conversations, most of which are jumbled and pointless meanderings that do nothing but cement the action which the audience has already seen firsthand.  24 violates the rule of Show, Don’t Tell out of routine along with what I’ll call the Don’t Show Conversations That Defer Themselves To Later Occasions rule.

“Jack?”
“How ya doing?”
“I’m doing OK.  Just trying to get some rest.”
“No, I’m fine… a lot’s happened and I really need to talk to you.”
“Fine, then let’s talk.”
“No, not now.  Now’s not the time.”
“Why not?”
“You do what you have to do and we’ll talk when this is all over, OK?”
“OK.”
* Hang up.

Even outside of the phone talks, most the dialogue consists of “Is everything all right?”s, “What’s wrong?”s, and “Wait, are you saying that repeat whatever just happened on camera in another location?”s.  Think of the wordplay as some kind of experiment in electronic dance music where the same line cycles through over and over again… but it’s just electronic music, no frills attached, and its actors have all the musicality and prowess of a D.J. who has autotuned all the soul out of his own voice.  Keifer Sutherland is the one fleeting glimmer of competence in the cast as Bauer but this isn’t even his finest performance, paling in comparison to the demented biker vampire he played in The Lost Boys.  “You’re eating maggots, Michael.”

If Steven Moffat’s and Mark Gatiss’ Sherlock represents the pinnacle of television screenwriting, then 24 must be the trough.  When a rare critic does dare to step out of the marching line on this tripe, he’s usually some kind of left-wing Pacifist who’s disgruntled at the program’s resounding jingoism or machoism or attempt to justify torture techniques in interrogation, but I think those protestors are giving the creators too much credit for their ability to articulate and advocate a rational idea.  24’s most outrageous and offensive transgression isn’t its depiction of torture; we saw that in Zero Dark Thirty and nobody much threw a fit about it then except for the anti-Bush ideologues who would sooner cut the head off of an innocent infant than see our country’s sworn enemies suffer any physical pain.  Nor is the show’s worst crime its excessive portrayal of violence against women, which we also saw in that slave movie last year that nobody much threw a fit over either except for conservatives who didn’t feel like buying into a white liberal guilt trip frenzy.  24’s unredeemable offense is that it thinks you’re stupid: stupid enough to gape at the reveal of a mole who was never forecast as a mole or even decided upon as such until halfway through the show, stupid enough to believe that the criminal masterminds would ever settle for such a foolhardy plan and that intelligence agents would so ineptly respond to it, and stupid enough to mistake such a hurried and forced conclusion for something remotely dramatic and heartbreaking.

In its defense, 24 is very addictive programming, especially when you don’t have to wait a week between installments to start the next segment.  Like many before me, I found myself racing madly through the final hours, not because I cared what happened next but because I couldn’t wait for the mess to be over and done.  What can I say?  ’Twas the longest day of my life.

4 comments:

  1. I don't think the writers ever gave him a proper middle name but I'd go for Al if I had to take a wild guess and Jack was threatening to push a wet towel down my throat or something, ha ha! Get it, Jack-Al? Mrewkaka! lolz

    I am good.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think Jack Bauer's middle name is Asster. Uh, I mean Aster. It just really seems to roll off the tongue, don't you think? Jackasterbauer. It definitely has a certain ring to it. Kass or Cass would also fit pretty well. Jack Kass Bauer. It seems to match up with his character well too.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Is it "Chet"?
    Did I win anything?

    ReplyDelete

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