Thursday, June 17, 2010

Seconds Out

Sometimes things don't end the way you want them to.

After headlining serial television through most of the 2000s, 24 finally bid farewell to TV on May 24th (fittingly), capping off eight adrenaline-pumping seasons. But compared to its groundbreaking genesis that reinvented how stories could be told on TV, 24 went out with more of a whimper than a bang.

The invincible Jack Bauer was once again betrayed by the country he's saved so many times from total annihilation, and is once again on the lam. There was a tender scene with him and Chloe as the final seconds ticked away, but it wasn't the particularly affecting conclusion that 24 deserved—at least, at one point in time.
"24 came onto the air in 2001 as a form-breaking serial that looked strikingly different from anything else on TV. As all successful insurgents do over time, though, it became another institution, with its own familiar forms, tropes and patterns. And last night, 24 said goodbye—to TV anyway—with a closing that was much more like just another season finale than a series finale." —James Poniewozik
The major impediment with 24's finale was that, after all this talk about this being the end, it wasn't—the last episode just served as a setup for the forthcoming movie that's been in the works for months. And it didn't help that 24 had an impossible act to follow, with most of America still reeling from the fever-pitch finale of Lost the night before.
"I know these last few months have been difficult ones. It must be hard to look at the brass-band sendoff for Lost, whose serialized story was made possible by your success, and not compare it to your own less-glorious finish." —Sam Adams

It's interesting to juxtapose the two serial thrillers, because for me, Lost was always second to 24at least for a while. And in terms of where 24 stood, there was no clearer marker in the sand than when I called Professor Thom's in January about when the next Bauer Hour would be. The NYC bar had held 24 viewing parties for years, handing out free shots of Jack Daniels every time Jack killed someone. But when I spoke to the owner, he said that they had canceled the Bauer Hour this year due to lack of interest. However, still on the schedule was Lost, whose viewing parties continued to be marked by long lines and sitting-room-only crowds.

In the end, 24 could have learned from Lost. Plotting a show's demise in its prime is never easy or sensible in today's philosophy of goldmine entertainment, but 24's atrophy was self-inflicted, opting to exhaust itself over the course of 192 episodes rather than go out on top. Even as a die-hard fan from the very first hour, I was hoping that the producers would end the series after three or four seasons (circa 2005), having Jack die a hero's death in the final seconds (the only truly fitting ending). Because even though 24 suspended reality from the start, it was still grounded enough where there was no way someone could have as many bad, sleepless days as Jack Bauer, right?

But as it turned out, 2005 was right around the time when Jack Bauer became a household name. With the 24 epidemic spreading, I can't completely blame FOX for keeping the juggernaut rolling, but they had to know that the longer they dragged it out, the more preposterous it would get and the less serious people would take the show. As Lost taught us, a serial is a different animal that has the potential for huge payoffs. The caveat: You've got to end it at the right time, on your own terms. Compromise, and you'll have a price to pay, as well as a far dimmer legacy.

That's not to say 24 didn't have some good seasons in the latter part of its run. Seasons 5 and 7 are actually two of the stronger ones, continuing to push boundaries and execute impossible twists despite waning originality. But there was an aura from the first few seasons that was gone.
"Those were heady times, when everything seemed new. People went nuts for your continuity-driven concept, which seemed to flout every canard about TV's dwindling viewership. Rather than chase after an audience's attention, you demanded it, and promised to reward it as well. The heedless momentum of your real-time rush turned the rules of television inside-out. Rather than returning to the status-quo ante at the end of every episode, you promised that things would change, and keep changing. There was no going back." —Sam Adams
With the show's rigid structure and the act of resetting of the clock each season, the writers had little wiggle room in the corners they were forced into. But you have to give them credit for surprising us more than you thought they could for eight entire seasons, because most shows couldn't have survived that long with a gimmicky plot conceit. Even when you thought it was just another mole inside CTU or a seemingly benign subplot, there was usually something else in play. Our jaws dropped less, but the turns weren't all predictable.

"I know they get incredibly burnt and bent," Sutherland said of the show's writers. "The more you do it, the more you paint yourself into a corner, and I think, 'How many times have I played the same moment over and over?'"

One of the biggest corners was limiting the counterterrorist operation to Los Angeles for most of the show's run. Aside from a stint in Mexico during Season 3, it's a shame that it took 24 six seasons to get out of LA, because the last two seasons (set in Washington D.C. and New York City) added a much-needed freshness. But it was too little too late.

Executive Producer Howard Gordon said he called it quits because he couldn't see another season in the cards.

"The real-time aspect was one of the propulsive devices, but it was very restrictive, even with the absurdities, the license we allowed ourselves."

But no matter how implausible the twists were, the backbone of the show—Kiefer Sutherland—was consistently remarkable. His unceasingly intense portrayal of Jack Bauer as hero/antihero was the one thing that was always believable. Even when the quality of the show dipped, Sutherland was a class act that compelled us to watch from week to week, season to season, to see how much saving the world several days over could torture one man's soul.
"There are many moments in television that are simply unforgettable, and the moment Jack was told that Renee has been killed ranks among the most gripping I've ever seen. There seemed to be so many emotions bottled up in his eyes. For all the things he's seen, all the predicaments he's lived through, and all the bullets that have whizzed past him, THIS moment seems beyond his comprehension. It was a finely tuned, well-oiled moment of epic drama." —Dereyck Moore

One thing 24 will be remembered for was its uncanny ability of being a step ahead of real life, with its 9/11-style attacks, means-to-an-end torture tactics, government conspiracies, and an honorable black president. Not to mention viewing habits.
"If nothing else, 24, you helped changed television forever, pushing the networks towards uninterrupted seasons and redefining the way the industry used DVDs to market their shows. Every time someone devours a complete season to prepare for the next one, they have you to thank." —Sam Adams
When asked if he would have rather had 24 end a year apart from Lost (which would have happened if not for the writer's strike in 2008), Gordon was both humble and cognizant.

"All I can say is, I hope we will be missed as much as Lost. I hope we will both be missed."

Lost may be my favorite TV series, but there was none more addicting or instantly gratifying than 24. I reminisce on getting hooked on the show during my latter days in college, watching it week to week in dorm rooms while the rest of the world was somewhere else. That's what I miss the most.

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