Tuesday, February 07, 2006

24: déjà vu

"24" is seven episodes into its fifth season, and it all feels the same. I complain only because I love the show so much, to the point where I cancel arrangements with people to get home in time on Monday nights. All the renewed vigor and "shocking" twists of the season premiere have quickly faded, and we're back to the usual. Jack Bauer continues to torture one-episode guest stars for vital information. If anything, the writers have already set up the show to have its world rocked thanks to last season's cliffhanger, but that cliffhanger was way too neatly wrapped up in the first episode alone, and the ramifications of it are on the backburner or not important at this stage.... they've stacked the deck with unsurprising terrorist scenarios with predictable outcomes. Nothing that they're showing us feels new: we should be getting into the thick of exciting and uncharted territory.

I won't get into a step-by-step analysis of what's going wrong, but instead get to how they're using the same rusty wheel instead of reinventing it. "24" seems to love its chain of bad guys. It's all a complex ladder that the viewer isn't allowed to see. Every season has introduced us to one villain, only for us to learn there is a person over them, and then a person over them, and over them, and so on.... and we have to believe that they're all intricately involved with the events of the day. This device is too much of an easy out; instead of complicating the current villain and making him/her/them interesting and "deep", they usually get killed off and up the ladder we go. There's no payoff with this device, because we learn about these characters and are invested in them, but once we start climbing the ladder of bad guys we never get to see the big picture and then all this info is dropped. (For instance: Nina Myers claimed quite a few interesting connections in Season 1, 2 & 3, but we never got to learn anything about them.... the picture bottom left is an example of this unknown connection, which would have been satisfying in some way, but the producers decided not to air it. The Araz family of Season 4, one member of which at bottom right, was pretty well connected and got a lot of meaty screentime, but the writers lost interest in them too quickly and gave us a boring villain in their place.)

So far, this season is no different. We've got a bad guy with some ill-defined vendetta, and he's got a lot of nerve gas. We've already heard about his superiors, so it's only a matter of time before they show up. In fact, we've already moved up two tiers of bad guys to get to him. [Here's an idea: in the last episode we have the bad guy holding a gun to an innocent metal-cutter, forcing him to cut open tubes of nerve gas to get to some computer inside each. If he cuts too far, the nerve gas is released.... of course that won't happen though, because this bad guy hasn't finished his plan and the inevitable release of the nerve gas is a card the writers want to play later. Why not have the metal-cutter slip, and oops.... nerve gas everywhere!? That would have been a surprise.]

Because every character on "24" is assumed to have a gun, there usually isn't much suspense in terms of people getting shot up. Ah, but this week's episode had a 15-year-old sex trafficking victim snatching a gun out of Jack's holster, thereby the fact that she shot her crusty molester should have been a shock. It was for a moment, until the stench of reused-plot-development surfaced all too quickly. We've seen the bad-guy-with-important-info-is-shot-dead-before-he-can-reveal-it twist a few too many times in this show, and in many other shows too. (Examples: some dude in Season 2 had necessary info but was shot dead, leading Jack to extract a convenient computer chip from his neck. The finale of Season 3 has a one-episode guest star, the wife of a guy killed earlier on, show up and find a gun very quickly and then kill the bad guy before he can reveal his connections. Funny how the unstable characters that turn up in this show all tend to be women.... but that's for another post.)

Some other Season 5 rehash:
* CTU has got some serious security problems with covert operatives gaining high-level positions, especially to keep on chugging happily for five seasons. It's not a good thing when we expect each season to have a mole. It worked for Season 1, but just got silly after that.
* Someone close to the President is in cahootz with terrorists to create a threat that was never supposed to reach American soil! Are we surprised that something goes awry and now American lives are threatened? Uh, this was the idea in Season 2, guys.
* Why is it that whenever someone from CTU has their life upended, it's because of someone from their family and not at work? Just in the last episode, Lynn McGill (played by 2004-Oscar-snubbed Sean Astin) has a junky sister who had her boyfriend beat him up for his wallet. See also Season 2 with Michelle Dessler's cuckoo brother making a scene, and Season 4 with Erin Driscoll's daughter untimely whisking Alberta Watson off the main credited cast.

It can't be that they're simply just running out of ideas! There's so much to work with in this show, but they keep torpedoing their chances to do anything terribly risky and instead play things safe with the same old rulebook. There's a lot of potential with Jean Smart's rockin performance as the First Lady (though, they could cut back on the "she's a wacko!" musical flourish whenever she's on screen). It'd be great to kind of play around with Kim Bauer coming to terms with her dad being back around, and that's evidently on the horizon. It feels like they've boxed themselves into the same old corner, and nothing's sitting on the horizon to move the story along differently than it already has (but maybe this is a sign of something shocking....? Now would be the time to do it, fellas). Some of 24's most entertaining stuff (to me, I guess) comes from storylines somewhat unrelated to the central terrorist crisis.... so I'd like to see them throw something really crazy at us. I know they have it in them, I just don't know why they're not doing it.

I remember one evening quite a few years ago seeing a commercial for a new episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" where Worf and Data and Deanna Troi were on the holodeck acting out a western (the episode, "A Fistful of Datas", heh, is actually not bad). My dad astutely pointed out then that whenever the characters turned to the holodeck, it meant the writers were running out of ideas. He was right, and the memory sticks with me. Now, whenever I imagine the writers of a show running out of ideas, I think of that commercial, and of a Klingon in a cowboy hat.


Dad said...

Could Worf Gets Lucky with Chloe be a future sub plot. I'd submit it with the exec production people. ... Great post. And thanks for the nod.

Writeprocrastinator said...

I wondered about this right around two episodes into the first season (I bailed out four episodes before the finale) and I'm sure it's been said before, but how can a show whose main premise is jumping the shark, actually jump the shark?

How many forced situations of peril and terror before you run out scenarios? How can you avoid falling into the cesspool of soap opera-type surrealism?

You can't if you want to go beyond two seasons. A friend of mine told me that after they cancelled Chris Eliot's show "Get A Life," he would die at the end of each episode. What if Bauer spontaneously combusted or his head exploded each episode, ala "Scanners?"