It’s official. Day 8 of the series 24 is going to be its last. The show’s ratings have dropped significantly among its key demographic (18-24); several key actors’ contracts are about to expire and the show’s writers and producers can’t come up with a compelling story arc for Day 9. Might as well end the show in good form rather than let it limp into irrelevance like the X-files. There are plans for a 24 movie sometime in the nebulous future, but when the last hour airs in May, for all practical purposes, 24 is done.
I came to 24 late in the game (Day 5) and watched the series inside out, catching up on earlier seasons by renting DVDs and downloading the occasional discounted episode from iTunes. My main reason for watching was to have something to talk about with my co-workers, the majority of which were rabid fans of the show. I continued watching (long after many of my colleagues had stopped) to see how the show’s writers would deal with a most difficult creative dilemma.
You see, until 2 seasons ago, 24 relied extensively on torture as a dramatic device. Then the infamous Abu Ghraib photos appeared. Suddenly, as many as two torture scenes per 43 minute episode didn’t look so good — especially since 24 was exported around the world. At one point officials from the US Army met with producers of the show and asked that they tone it down.
Torture in 24 land was soft core violence porn that had very little to do with torture in reality. Bad guys favored the low-tech bloodier forms: battery acid, pulling out of finger and toenails, sawing off of extremities. Good guys were partial to the high-tech stuff — designer drugs that produced mind-numbing (and tongue-loosening) pain and psychological humiliation — but if the situation demanded it, they could pull off the low-tech stuff as well as any master villain.
Torture in 24 was 100% effective; it always produced actionable intelligence that saved many lives. And while 24’s super agent Jack Bauer didn’t enjoy being cruel, he rationalized it as a necessary evil. After all, he was fighting a war.
So here was the writers’ challenge: to keep the show’s trademark tinderbox high tension while giving Jack Bauer more than a comic book conscience. Oh yes, and to find another device to keep viewers on the edge of their seats.
The more thoughtful Jack Bauer first appeared in a special episode entitled Redemption which aired after a long hiatus due to the writers’ strike. In this episode Bauer is a fugitive hiding out at his friend’s orphanage and school in an African country that resembles a combination of Sierra Leone and Rwanda.
Jack is haunted by his past deeds of barbarous heroism and is a man with nothing important left to lose. His wife was killed long ago; his evil father and brother are dead and the latest love of his life lies catatonic in a bedroom in her father’s house. His daughter has stopped talking to him because he is a death magnet. And: by this time, Bauer has been a victim of torture. A couple seasons back he was tortured at the hands of the Chinese.
Someone arrives at the orphanage to serve Jack with a subpoena to appear before a Congressional committee. Bauer’s about to pack his bags and be on the road again when suddenly it looks like the orphanage might be in danger. The old Jack springs into action to save the children, but ultimately to accomplish that end, he has to give himself up to authorities.
The fan reaction, judging from various discussion boards, was mixed. While there was enough ass-kicking, explosions and car chases to please some people, and others were just glad Jack Bauer had returned, it unnerved some fans to be presented with a hero with doubts about his mission.
The following season had the requisite number of explosions, gunfights and terrorists, but it also featured storylines about the legality and morality of torture, questionable methods of investigation such as racial and religious profiling and the outsourcing of military operations to private security firms. Jack is exposed to a deadly designer virus and in one climatic scene near the end of the season, actually asks a Muslim cleric for absolution when it looks like death is near.
Fan reaction was uneven at best. A big complaint was that the show had gotten too preachy and political (as if it wasn’t political before) and that Jack had gotten wimpy. Even a terminally ill Jack would have been G.I. Joe to the end.
I thought last season was okay for what it was. Some of the dialog addressing hot potato topics was clunky, but then again the show was never known for its snappy wit. Besides: how subtle can you be when your main character is either shouting or speaking in a hoarse whisper? Sometimes the medium limits the message and you write yourself into a corner. I doubt I could have done better.
Whatever you may think of 24, if indeed you think about it at all, it does serve a purpose. Since we are not a nation of deep readers, TV is how most of us deal with national trauma. Something horrible happens and then the made for TV movie appears. You ease into your favorite couch, grab the remote, watch, process and move on.
24 is a 9-11 “do-over” show. (The Unit was another shorter-lived example.) It presents a world that is both more evolved and far more dangerous than our own. 24 has had two Black presidents and one woman president and is about to broker a peace deal with a country that closely resembles Iran. (Although after Monday’s episode, that deal might have been shot to hell.) However, there’s also been a mushroom cloud over LA. But Jack always thwarts the terrorists, the tech comes online in the nick of time and the millennium changing disasters are always averted. If only it were true.
Perhaps the fact 24 has lost its mojo means we no longer have as strong a need to relive, repackage and revise 9-11. Maybe we are finally getting closer to that time when we can rise from our easy chairs, gather up our grief and anger and move on.