Tuesday, December 13, 2005

24: Season Four

Suspension of disbelief. Definition: The willingness of a reader or viewer to suspend his or her critical faculties to the extent of ignoring minor inconsistencies so as to enjoy a work of fiction.

To a lesser or greater extent, all drama asks us to "suspend disbelief". Otherwise, unloading two Berettas at the same time while diving for cover would be a useless waste of bullets instead of taking out a swarm of anonymous villian cannon-fodder; destroying half the cars in the city during a car chase would get you indicted instead of a dressing down from an angry sergeant. If we didn't suspend disbelief, aliens couldn't exist, and suddenly showing up at the girl's house in the middle of the night would get you a restraining order instead of a happy ending.

Fox's hour-long action show 24 not only asks us to suspend disbelief, but to expel it. To the uninitiated, the show takes place purportedly in "real-time", each season taking up place during one full day of the life of special agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) as he tries to defuse a dastardly terrorist plot through morally ambiguous means. To accept the "real-time" structure of the show itself requires massive suspension of disbelief. The show exists in a world where every location in the Los Angeles area is no more than fifteen minutes away, nobody eats, has to take a piss, gets sleepy (I guess these folks run on pure adrenaline) and bad news always happens at the top of the hour.

You must further suspend belief in regards to the fictional Counter Terrorist Unit, an arm of the government so powerful they can hack into almost any computer instantly, immediately retask surveillance satellites with such high resolution that they can track heat signatures and read the license plate off a moving vehicle, have unlimited access to special ops strike teams, and be allowed to torture suspects with impunity. Despite all this power, dress at CTU is business casual, their employees regularly engage in petty bureacratic squabbling and love triangles in the middle of national crises, and their background checks are so lax that it allows one person almost every season to be an enemy mole.

Many shows stretch disbelief. The other spy show Alias relies on plot devices that are pure sci-fi like genetic doubling, wiping out two years worth of a person's memories, and dead-Renaissance geniuses that create insanely advanced technology hundreds of years ago. And that's all before the show turned the population of an entire Russian city into zombies at the end of last season. Buffy has its immortal vampires that seem to age over the course of a few seasons anyway. Star Trek would have you believe that alien civilizations from the other ends of the universe all just happen to speak English (and before you Trekkies start sending me nasty notes screaming "UNIVERSAL TRANSLATOR!", remember...that didn't happen until a few seasons into The Next Generation, and doesn't explain away why their lips move in English.)

In contrast to those worlds, the universe of 24 seems to be firmly based in reality. Why 24 gets harped on more than those shows is that at times it seems so contrary to it's own internal logic that it most of its plot seems to collapse under even the mildest of scrutiny. Subplots and characters are created and discarded frequently. The writers jump from cliffhanger to cliffhanger without regard to any semblance of continuity.

While that might sound like a gripe, it is actually what makes the show extremely watchable. Unlike shows that rely heavily on their continuity and plot arcs (*cough* Buffy *cough*) a new viewer can pretty much jump into any episode of 24 and get their bearings pretty quickly. They might not understand EVERYTHING that is going on, but the important parts are explained at the beginning of the episode, often in painfully expository dialogue done via cellphone. It is less noticable when the episodes are spaced out week-by-week, but when watching the show marathon style on DVD, it's annoying to have to be reminded that "Marwan is the primary target," or that "All resources are being deployed to find the Secretary of Defense." To further enhance the show's crack like appeal, each episode ends with a cliffhanger, and the plot twists and contrives itself ridiculously to provide one at the top of each hour. You might not always believe it, but you will NEED to know what happens next.

Adding to the tension is the fact that nothing seems to be off the table when it comes to level of fucked-up-ness the show will descend to. Every character is a potential traitor, the president CAN be killed, and torture is not just a threat but a very real possibility, as is threatening a suspects children. Season Four features torture so quickly and so often that it loses much of its effect. The only thing about those scenes that makes you queasy is knowing that there are some dumbshit TV watchers out there who probably think this is a just reason for our real-life President to veto anti-torture legislation.

24 is also fearless about offing major characters, and unlike Alias or the Whedonverse, they cannot be brought back to life through cloning or magic. No one really important gets wasted in Season Four, but the show relies on the tension that the only actor guaranteed to have his contract renewed each year is Kiefer Sutherland.

It will be hard for Sutherland to shake off the spectre of Jack Bauer if he decides to move back into movies. As the uber-badass super patriot CTU agent, Sutherland delivers his dialogue like he is on the verge of a heart-attack (in fact, he developed a heart problem towards the end of Season Two, but that conveniently doesn't seem to be a problem anymore.) The intensity of his delivery makes up for the redundancy in much of his dialogue. If you were to play a drinking game where you had to take a shot whenever Jack says "TELL ME WHERE THE (bomb/virus/my daughter) IS!" or "WE ARE *OUT* OF TIME!", you would be quite drunk at the end of every episode.

In the realm of 24's four seasons, Season Four is like a greatest hits package. It starts with him working for the Secretary of Defense and his daughter, Audrey Raines, who happens to also be his love interest. Of course, on the show Jack only loves people so they can be kidnapped, so they are quickly captured by Islamic fanatics, to be executed on a live webcast. The parallels between this and the Iraqi insurgent beheading videos is unmistakable. 24 loves to tweak the audiences War-on-Terror fears in none-too-subtle ways.

The first 1/4 of Season Four runs fairly briskly. Besides the Aspberger poster-child CTU hacker Chloe, Jack is the only character to return from the end of the third season. The show also keeps it's eye on the ball without having to address weak subplots like Jack's daughter running away from a psychopathic daddy or the uninteresting Palmer subplot in Season Three. The drama with Driscoll's schizophrenic daughter seems pretty tacked on this season, but is arguably necessary for the overall plot. The kidnapping scenario harkens back to the dilemma of the first season, which is a good change of pace since seasons two and three are basically both races against time to disarm a weapon of mass destruction which threatens millions of American lives.

Which is too bad that the kidnapping is wrapped up pretty quickly and the show goes back to the old "disarm the WMD" canard so quickly. This is the point in the season where the show loses focus, since Jack not only has to stop nuclear powerplants from melting down, he also has to stop an electro-magnetic pulse bomb from going off downtown, prevent Air Force One from being shot down by a stealth fighter, and then stop a nuclear missle from destroying (of course) Los Angeles. The way the emergencies keep getting piled one on top of the other makes it obvious that the writers were making everything up as they went along and not being able to sustain a single plot line over the course of the season. 24 would benefit from having their storylines mapped out more in advance to keep the plot more cohesive. The number of "contingency plans" these terrorists quickly becomes ridiculous.

One can see why the Muslim communtiy got pretty offended by the depiction of the terrorists in the show. The Araz family, which on the surface seem to be typical Muslims integrated into American society, are almost comic-book in the levels of evil they stoop to. This of course leads later to painful scenes where the producers introduce some token "good" Muslims to stand up against terrorism, and convince the idiots in the audience that "Not all Muslims are terrorists." While it's somewhat necessary to the plot for the bad guys to be fanatics who will kill themselves at the drop of a hat, I don't know whether to attack the producers for their blatant stereotyping or for their cloying political correctness. At least in the DVD deleted scenes, you get to find out what happened to "good" Muslim Behrooz, who pretty much disappeared with no explanation during the TV run of the show.

The season ends on an interesting note, with Jack being officially "killed" before he could be sent to a Chinese prison camp. While it is an interesting set-up for the next season, 24 has ended with cliffhangers before and done nothing with them. Yes, I'm talking about Palmer's assassination at the end of Season Two which we got no explanation for. Apparently that is all to be settled in 24: The Video Game, which should be released this March. This marketing synergy crap has gone too far. After the shit that was Enter the Matrix, I won't be shelling out fifty-dollars for a licensed video-game just to get every arcane scrap of plot for a TV show.

Well, OK. Maybe I'll rent it.

Heavily promoted for this DVD release is also the ten-minute season five "prequel" (paid for by Toyota.) It is as worthless as the "prequel" on the Season Three DVD, giving us only two plot nuggets (that someone knows Jack is alive and that Kim still thinks he's dead) before an uninteresting car chase designed only to showcase the new Toyota and to smash a BMW into a garbage truck. Even more of a waste is the fact that there is a making-of documentary for this piece of unsubtle advertising at the end. It will illuminate only the depths marketing has plunged to.

The deleted and extended scenes can be watched either within the episodes, or all in one run with director commentary. Besides finding out the fate of Behrooz and some clarification in the second to last episode, it is easy to see why these scenes were deleted. Three other documentaries on the train crash, set designs, and the special forces they use as extras throughout the show are included, but I've not watched any of them yet, nor have I listened to the commentaries on the episodes to see if they are any good.


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