“24” For Better or Worse

When I was a freshman in high school, I took a miserable electronics course with a teacher who looked like a troll and sounded like Tom Waits on helium. During lectures I fell asleep. In the lab I was competent, but slow paced, and the combination of a never-ending rainstorm and the tinny sounds of Steely Dan made freshman electronics a hotbed of hostility.

Later that quarter, still raining, the teacher decided to show us 24. The guy was a big fan of Jack Bauer’s techniques before the torture memos even surfaced, and I was intrigued, albeit for different reasons. In 2005, network dramas were an embarrassment, and my TV watching habits were limited to Arrested Development. And while I’d known of 24 since it came on, I was surprised to see how effectively it played out. So I started watching the DVDs, but things went downhill fast.

Here for your enjoyment is a list of what made 24 good, and what killed it.

Better: Kiefer Sutherland

I could list pros and cons with any number of actors on this show, but since Kiefer Sutherland is the main star, he gets extra points for embodying a character that you want to root for, but just as often hate. Jack Bauer’s frequent wrongheadedness makes him human, and in the hands of a lesser actor could have gone very badly.

Worse: Kim

Notice I didn’t say Elisha Cuthbert, because the problem with the character should be blamed first and foremost on the writers. “Kidnapping the Hero’s Daughter” is a secondary plot familiar to people who anyone who’s seen a lot of 80s and 90s action movies, but her gratuitous involvement was forced, dragged down the main plots, and made the show overall less rewatchable.

Better: Diversity

While there have been plenty of shows about terrorism, 24 was able to show all different kinds– the first season centered around a personal vendetta, the second an attempt to fabricate a Middle Eastern War. Season three stands out to me especially. By fast forwarding three years, introducing a whole group of new and genuinely interesting characters, and introducing a biological threat that built on earlier seasons, the series became ripe for an expanded universe (including a prequel game that could just as well have been another season). Unfortunately, even these seasons fell prey to…

Worse: Soap Opera Antics

Because of the real-time nature of the show, B and C plots often focused on personal conflicts that paled in comparison to the real action. When the writers realized this, they created even more sprawling, overblown scenarios that didn’t matter. Most of this revolved around the White House and David Palmer in particular, but notable exceptions include Terri Bauer’s amnesia, Kim’s babysitting gig, and all of Chloe’s family problems.

Worse: Success

In the end, success killed 24. With each successive season, the show became better known hand transformed into ridiculous political argument for gross human rights abuses. I mean, I love Breaking Bad but I’m not gonna go cook meth. This was made all the more glaring when the show recycled plots and upped the ante, losing viewers in the process.

In the end it was their loss; after the fourth season Lost went from enjoyable trifle to breakout hit, and ultimately expanded the possibilities of network drama. Like 24, Lost was written to be watched only once, but their better successors didn’t make that mistake.

Background Music returns in two days, see you then!

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