Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Is 24 Becoming Ordinary? Is Jack Bauer Losing His Edge?

FOX's 24 is and has been one of the best shows on television the past few seasons. It's unique real-time concept, action packed episodes, plot twists, great writing and even better acting have rightfully earned praise from television critics and fans alike. Yet, after an well deserved Emmy winning 5th season last year (which I thought was its best year so far) something just isn't right. columnist Andy Dehnart wrote a column earlier this week talking about the season of 24 so far and he seemed likewise unimpressed.

“24” was on track to have another riveting season, but the writers have squandered the opportunity they created, and after 12 hours, the show lacks a coherent direction.

After 12 hours, this season feels like the first few hours of any other season of “24,” where the show searches for a solid rope to climb up the rest of the season. Producer Howard Gordon has admitted as much, telling Entertainment Weekly that writers have “struggled much more with trying to find that big idea, and if you don’t find it, it’s like mining coal with your hands: It’s really bloody and it’s ugly.”

I couldn't agree more. It has been hard to put a finger on it, but something about this season seems off. Maybe it was the involvement of Jack's family, and that it was just too coincidental that an estranged brother and father we've never heard of in five years would suddenly appear and be the evil masterminds behind last year's phenomenal storyline.

And maybe it's just me, but looking back, killing Jack's brother Graem (played by former ER-doc Paul McCrane) was a big mistake. I thought McCrane was great last season playing the Bluetooth-earphoned puppet master who was ordering President Charles Logan around. Even if it was believable that he would turn out to be Jack's brother (despite continually asking last season if 'Bauer' was taken care of, strange nomenclature from one's brother), they could have had a great story with him matching wits with Jack, just as cunning, and just out of Jack's reach as Jack tried to stop whatever nefarious plot was on hand this season. Instead, Graem was killed just as he was getting more interesting so we could focus on the real "bad guy", Jack's dad. Maybe it all just seems too much like a soap opera, but the whole Bauer family tree just hasn't clicked this season. And as a result of the focus on the Bauers, all the great characters at CTU, including Chloe and Bill Buchanan, have been shoved to the background this season. They were two of the strongest characters from the past few seasons.

Another problem has been the season seems like a repeat, and in many ways, this is like the "Greatest Hits" of the first five season of 24. For instance, President Wayne Palmer was urged by his chief of staff to get tough on Muslim-Americans and detain them in an effort to prevent terrorist attacks on US soil. The same thing happened to his brother, President David Palmer, in the series second season. And both times, their chiefs of staff turned against them in an effort to push through their pro-detainment solution. And both times the Vice President was completely opposed to the President's civil liberty policy and moved to impose strict laws as soon as he was ushered into power. In fact, while this season an assassination attempt has sidelined President Palmer, for a while, I thought they were just going to have a direct repeat of Season Two and have the Vice President and Cabinet remove the President from office under the 25th Amendment. And while Peter MacNicol's Tom Lennox showed at least some backbone last week becoming a more interesting character, I can't be the only one missing Jude Ciccolella's Mike Novik, absent from this season so far.

This isn't to say 24 has completely fallen off the map, because it hasn't. It still keeps you on the edge of you seat most of the time, and Keifer Sutherland continues to be great as Jack Bauer. And maybe we are turning a corner. Gregory Itzen's President Logan is back, and not a moment too soon. While Logan's buffoonish and spineless behavior in Season Four set up beautifully his unexpected turn to the darkside in Season Five, his presence has been missed this season.

Which is perhaps 24's biggest problem. The show has been on such a run, and had such a great season last year, that it has become hard to top. The action sequences may seem ordinary this year because we've become desensitized to them. It's almost ironic given the controversy the show has created about glorifying torture. We've seen Jack Bauer torture so many people in so many different ways in five years, it is hard to really be wowed (even when Jack went nuclear when he found out his brother was behind President Palmer's death from last season). Similarly, when there is little action and gunfire, which 24 has built an expectation of, the show seems boring and slow moving. The producers shouldn't be worried about the press harping about desensitizing us from real violence and torture. They should be worried about desensitizing fans from the show itself.

When a show wins an Emmy for best drama, has a cult-following like 24 does, and promises edge-of-your-seat thrills each episode, expectations are raised. And when the bar is high, it becomes more difficult to cross. So far this season, 24 hasn't cleared the bar. But with a little less repetition from past season's storylines (or, by drawing a parallel on the show from the problems faced by both Palmer brothers to show the audience the similarities are intentional and not just because the writers couldn't come up with anything new) and a little more from Charles Logan, there may be hope for Jack and company yet.

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