Tuesday, March 21, 2006

24: another one bites the dust

Never has there been as trigger-happy a show as "24". This season, the writers decided to pull out all the stops and start slaying main characters left and right. My guess is that this was in an attempt to be shocking and unforgiving, a trait the show is known for. I'm disappointed though: the show wears it's badge of "unpredictability" with pride, hence the unpredictable has become predictable.

Last week marked the demise of one of the remaining characters that has been around since Season 1, stabbed in the chest with a syringe full of painful death serum. The week before that they killed off the big-lug cranky-yet-lovable analyst by having him miss the chance to get safely away from a room filling with nerve gas. It seems that in each season a main character gets wiped off the opening credits because their character has met with death.

When a main character is killed off, it (should) signify a major turning point, a place from which the story cannot return, thus forcing the course of the story to proceed in a new and uncharted direction. I think this goes for any kind of long-form storytelling, not just television series, but novels too. I think killing off important characters is a powerful, challenging, and potentially daring move to make in the course of a series.... but "24" has cheapened the effect dramatically, and I feel that the writers have abused a complicated trick. "24" moves at such a fast clip (each season getting faster and faster, hence upping the suspension of disbelief required to stay tuned) that there seems to be no time for the deaths of main characters to affect the story. They are seen as casualties only, victims of the Threat At Hand and swept aside with sheets over their cooling corpses. It seems that the Threat At Hand is unstoppable until it is inevitably stopped in the last episode of the season (duh), and everything that got in its way is left forgotten.

I think that killing off a main character can be an incredibly useful device, particularly in the way of shock value. I think "24" blew its shock value wad back at the end of the first season when Jack Bauer's wife unexpectedly bit the dust (let's not even consider this a spoiler anymore: to the rest of you, rent yourself the series and start watching). That death was a great point to launch from into the second season, thus changing the relationships of the characters and altering how the story was told. Shock value is a really important trick too, especially in the way of waking up the viewer.... unfortunately, it's the kind of trick that shouldn't be overused. With Jack's wife meeting her maker so unexpectedly, "24" picked up a reputation that "nobody is safe".... which worked for awhile. Now that we're in the trenches of Season 5 and three fairly important characters to the series (not necessarily to this season) have been killed off in the last three episodes. That "nobody is safe" mentality has lost its edge which in turn takes away from ther whole point of the surprise.

For really good TV, and I mean quality writing, it's important to challenge both the story and the viewers. The big death at the end of Season 1 did just that: challenged. In Season 3, two of "24"'s characters (in my opinion, the most interesting characters they've ever had) also met their end by death. I suppose that their deaths were unpredictable to some degree, but not challenging to the story. I can understand needing to write them out for awhile, but killing them off prevented the viewer from filling in some blanks that had been left open. With the recent deaths too (including those main characters that were axed in Season 4), I've been reading that the writers of "24" have said that the reason why these characters have been killed off was because they've reached the end of what they can provide the story. Why is it necessary to kill them all off, then? A more challenging route would to be find a plausible (and equally as shocking) reason to write them out of the story without putting such a final end to them. Besides, this always leaves the door open to bring them back and surprise the viewer in a completely fun and different way.... particularly if they bothered to even leave a complex villain alive long enough, this could be used (and they did, in Season 3) to great effect.

"24" must pride itself for being a bloodbath, I guess. As I said above, the killing off of a main character is a trick that should be used sparingly and necessary only when the story must change because of it. Season 5 opened with two well known characters shot by sniper (1) and then killed in a car bomb (2), but only one of those killings was necessary to launch the action of Season 5, and the poor character who met their end under a burning car was an unnecessray casualty. Not one death of the handful of main characters from "24"'s roster since that of Jack's wife from Season 1 (and the death by sniper bullet at the beginning of this season) has served a story-altering principle. They seem to be scuttled out of the way as an all-too-convenient way for the writers to move on; this wouldn't be such a big deal if it weren't such a disappointing pattern. A main character should not be killed off for the sake of shock value (like the two most recent from this season); it should challenge the story to evolve and not to wash the hands of writers who ran out of creative capital for them.

I think, in the end, "24" is changing. I'd be more angry about this if it didn't seem evident that this is the intent of the writers, so therefore I must let it be. A lot of the repetition and impulsiveness that the show has started to rely upon is it's own formula, the formula it's adapted for itself and has grown comfortable with now five seasons in. What started off as a solid serial television show is starting to break into a hybrid form of episodic seriality.... meaning each season is kind of episodic, rather than each episode. Episodic television delivers stories from beginning to end within an episode, and this trend is not broken as the series continues.... viewers tune in because they like having the sense of stability that each episode provides them, that nothing will irreversibly change or characters will not act out of their roles. It seems that "24" has taken this model up a notch to the season-long level; I guess viewers are most interested in the show because they like having the stability on the season-long level.... we can expect the same things to happen each season because that is the episodic quality the show has taken on. These writers have axed some of the best characters (and actors) that they've created for the show; I guess this suggests that they want a revolving door of continuous characters.... this only furthers the concept of the season-as-episode. I certainly tire of the all torture-pornography, all the slippery bad guys with an entire alphabet worth of masterminded backup plans, all the times Jack Bauer comes this-close to getting the information he needs before his informant gets killed. It seems though that this is what the viewing public likes and wants, and hence "24"'s ratings are steadily rising. And I keep watching.

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