Friday, March 12, 2010
Jack Bauer hasn't much time. Dammit.
Variety reports that low ratings and pricey costs may make this years season of 24 the last 24 ever. This is despite the very real possibility that Mandy, the oh-so-sexy terrorist, will never be put to justice.
I say dammit not because 24 is a fantastic show. But because it isn't anymore. The only thing sadder than a show canceled before its time is a show canceled after its time. Had the axe suddenly fallen on 24 four episodes into Season Six, we'd all be cursing those damn Fox executives for taking away a brilliant show. Those bastards killed Firefly, and now this?!
If I were playing God, television executive, I, in my infinite mercy, would give 24 one more season for redemption. Every idiotic CTU bureaucrat gets a chance to be a hero and redeem his stupidity before his death why shouldn't 24 get the same chance?
In fact, Entertainment Weekly just reported that NBC may pick up the franchise.
Say that happens: Here's a list of 24 ways 24 could reclaim its former glory.---
1) One word: Suspense. That's what 24 does well more often than any TV show before or since. That's its strength. Not political commentary, not action, not who-done-it mystery. Suspense. The prime job should be to make viewers hold their breath and bite their nails. An episode that doesn't do that, fails. In the first season the writers understood this. They seem to have forgotten.
2) Keep it claustrophobic. The real time format works best, classically, under constrained conditions. Elevators. Trains. Airplanes. This week's episode featured a tense standoff with a terrorist -- the only lead -- locked with a suicide vest in a hyperbaric chamber. That's claustrophobic for you. Now if only 24 had spent more time with Jack, instead of cutting away to Random Pointless Subplot F, it would have been a great episode.
3) Know which plotlines can be lengthened. Let's say somebody crucial is kidnapped. Lets say Jack's trying to protect a key witness. It's okay for that chase or that escape or that tension to last more than an hour. Twenty-four hours is a lot to fill. Season one was smart enough to be able to stretch a kidnapping and an attempted assassination into 12 hours -- perhaps the best 12 hours of the series.
4) Kill any family drama subplots. We don't mean remove family drama where one family member has to torture another, or where Kim has trouble accepting that her dad likes to lop off heads with a hacksaw for the greater good. We're talking about the sort of plot where a president's wife is paranoid her husband has a mistress, or where a key CTU employee has to leave the in-progress terrorist attack to pick up her daughter from soccer practice.
5) Kill any subplot that could be delayed by America's last defenders, those sworn to protect the security of the nation, saying, 'Hey, I'd love to, but I've got something at work I've got to do first. Yeah, got this whole saving-the-free-world-thing. Boss is a real hard-ass.
6) Let Jack Bauer be wrong. Having a character play Cassandra (he knows the truth but nobody will listen!) makes great television. But if Bauer's gut tells him to torture, dude's guilty. If his gut tells her not to torture, dude's innocent. Heck, even House on House is wrong once and a while. If Jack becomes fallible, suddenly things get a whole lot more uncertain -- and a whole lot more dramatic.
7) Get Aaron Sorkin to write the political scenes. Whether it be the machine gun dialogue, the too-clever-to-be-real banter, or just the walk-and-talks, somehow the president discussing steel tariff vote details on the West Wing is of a magnitude more entertaining than watching the 24 president discuss using a nuclear bomb on an enemy country.
8) Get Shawn Ryan to write the interrogation scenes. Similarly, Shawn Ryan, writer of The Shield, was able to write interrogation scenes that were far more suspenseful, compelling, and nail-biting than those on 24, even when pressing a drug lord's face against a stove-top burner wasn't an option. The dialogue -- the intellectual gamesmanship -- was riveting in itself.
9) Hire a dialogue polisher. The types of ideas communicated in 24's dialogue are fine in outline form. But it's like they just say the outline instead of dressing up the dialogue in interesting words or phrases or analogies the way actual people do. They just say "This is what I believe. This is how I feel. You cant do this. Blah."
10) Outline the season beforehand. So you don't have the ridiculous hilarity of, like, five different backup-terrorist attacks in Season Four of 24.
11) Plan double the events, double the action, double the fun that you'd expect for a single season. So you don't have the plodding, padded boredom of seasons six and eight.
12) Introduce a character with a personality. There's a reason 24 fans love Chloe. She has a sort of personality. The rest are skeevy nerds, brooding agents, shrewish women, incompetent bosses, or pure exposition delivery vehicles. Look at Human Target. Chi McBride and Jackie Earle Haley have more personality than nearly any character on any season of 24.
13) Keep the dead dead. Bringing back long-thought-dead characters is for comic books and Prison Break. That's one aspect of ridiculousness that doesn't work for 24.
14) Halve the subplots. Double the action/suspense quotient. The parts with Jack Bauer are exciting, naturally. He's fighting dudes and following dudes and getting into all sorts of wacky situations. So give us another Super Tough Action Hero character and have him (or her!) go on missions, follow up leads, torture people with lampshade cords, and rasp "We haven't much time" parallel with Bauer. They could even disagree or, sometimes, unintentionally hinder the other's investigation by being so darn loose-cannony.
15) Realize twists don't work on a long-running show. Twists were never 24's strength. They never ever really made sense, probably because the writers don't come up with them until 17 episodes in. It's worse in the eighth season: If long-beloved characters turn out to be evil, the reactions are sighs and grrs, not gasps. We've seen enough moles. We already know the Right-Wing White Warmongering American Corporation is actually behind the Arab Jihadist conspiracy.
16) Let the tortured lie. Pop Quiz, hotshot. You're a crazed cog in an evil mad man's scheme to nuke Detroit. A rasping American agent has you strapped to a chair and is making you quite uncomfortable, what with your teeth being pulled, gonads being shocked, and eyeballs being ever-so-gingerly plucked. Do you A) Tell the truth, that the nuke is hidden under a tarp in the garage of the secretly evil Secretary of State's home, or B) Lie, and say the nuke is somewhere under the Alaskan oil pipeline, but you don't know exactly where?
Real torturers use facts they already know to see whether the man (or woman!) being tortured is lying. CTU either needs to get smarter about torturing, or terrorists need to start accusing innocent men and sending Bauer on rabbit trails. Either way makes for more compelling television. (Also, watching people being tortured is not nearly as enjoyable as the 24 writers seem to think it is.)
17) Increase the time it takes Jack to heal from near-mortal blows. One huge appeal of Die Hard is seeing John McClane go from a healthy cop with nothing to worry about but marital problems, to a battered, beaten and bleeding husk of a man. Jack Bauer, however, seems to be stuck in the world of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, where he needs only to duck behind a rock for a few minutes for a near-mortal knife wound to disappear. An interesting hero, whether Indiana Jones or Han Solo or the dad from Firewall, barely survives. The point of 24 is that the day is a really, really bad one. Let us see the strain of all 24 painful hours by the end.
18) Remember that bigger threat doesn't mean bigger drama. This is known as the Russell T. Davies Doctor Who Season Finale Fallacy. In reality, it's usually more dramatic if the hero's son is about to die than if the entire universe is about to collapse. Most of 24's best moments have been kidnappings and hostage crises because they're close-up, they're human. That said, a small abstract threa -- say, introducing some sort of chemical into a water supply -- is lamer than a large abstract threat. Unless, of course, Jack has to stop his poor grandmother from drinking the poisoned tap water, and she's not answering her rotary phone, and he hasn't much time!
19) Give the show a sense of humor. Nearly all action movies work by having larger-than-life-characters and giving them someone to banter with. 24, in all its eight seasons, has had no banter, no humorous one-liners, and only two (intentionally) funny scenes. So when the suspense or action doesn't hold up, its boring as hell to watch.
I'm not saying that, after chopping a dudes hand off with a fire axe, Bauer has to quip, Can I axe you for a hand, but it'd be nice if there was some of the actual jocularity of real life in there. Remember, some people deal with stress and tragedy by making entirely inappropriate (but hilarious!) jokes. Trust me on this.
20) In at least two out of every three episodes, the awesome needs to happen. There's an old phrase: Funny forgives a lot. The 24 version is Jack Bauer pulling a knife from his stomach and throwing it across the room into a Russian mobster's neck forgives a lot. Whether its kicking a terrorist through a subway car window or biting a terrorist's jugular clean off, a boring episode can be revitalized by a single moment of macho holy-crap-that-was-awesome. Too bad they're only a once-every-five-episode-sorta-thing. That should change.
21) Terrorist attacks should have actual consequences. In Season Six, a nuclear bomb went off on the suburbs of Los Angeles. Two hours later, the world had forgotten about it. The world of 24 is always skirting the edge of apocalyptic, but we rarely see that. Give us panic, give us looting, give us traffic jams and overstressed phone lines and full churches. A nuclear blast should have, you know, fallout.
22) For once, allow CTU one brilliant boss. While its all fun to rail against the incompetent Boss, fact is, geniuses are more fun to watch. Give him (or her!) the ability to make insightful deductions. Give him the flexibility to rapidly put a contingency plan in place when the first one fails. How much more fun would 24 be to have, say, a twitchy, obsessive genius like Alex Mahone from Prison Break as the CTU boss instead of watching Samwise Gamgee slur through establish-a-perimeter orders?
23) Destroy a real-life landmark. Hey, if it can make Roland Emmerich movies better, it can work for 24.
24) On the final hour of the final day, Bauer needs to die. For realsies this time.