24: Season Two
There is a chicken-and-the-egg quandry when it comes to whether the times influence the entertainment or the entertainment influences the times? Was Crockett's white suits and sockless loafers actually the style of the mid eighties or did it influence it? Was Mulder really a reflection of our cultural paranoia in the 90's, or did the X-Files just allow legions of conspiracy theorists to come out of the closet?
Decades from now, I believe 24 is going to be seen as essential to understanding the zeitgeist of the 00's (how do you say that? The aughts?). It hasn't defined the times so much as it's an eerie reflection of the post-September 11 mindset of America and its fears during the War on Terror (tm). If I were to hold up one season of this show as required viewing for understanding this, I'd say it's season two.
The first season had about half its episodes and most of the storyline loosely mapped out before 9/11 (in fact, I remember seeing an ad for the show on September 10th, when I was whiling away an evening in a movie theater watching the atrocious Marky Mark movie, Rock Star..."last day of innocence for a nation..." whatever). By the time the second season rolled out in the fall of 2002, we'd already (officially) wrapped up the war in Afghanistan and were gearing up to unleash another one in Iraq. In the meantime, terrorism was on everybody's mind. Where would they strike next? How would they strike next? For the producers of 24 to exploit these fears is less a stroke of genius than just doing the obvious.
24: Season Two revolves around a plot by a Middle Eastern terrorist group with undefined politics and suicidal tendencies to detonate a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles. They are possibly backed by the government of a carefully unnamed Middle Eastern country, and it's up to the uncommonly sensible (as well as uncommonly black, and even more uncommonly divorced) President Palmer (David Haysbert) to stop them at all costs.
To this task, he yanks out of retirement the special agent who saved his life from Dennis Hopper, the ruthless Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland). Distraught from the murder of his wife, this season shows a changed Jack, willing to break "protocol" on a whim, as well as torture and murder people with a death wish frenzy. The only thing keeping him from flying off the deep end is the possibility of reconciliation with his ditzy, estranged daughter Kim (Elisha Cuthbert) who is working as a nanny for a daddy she finds out is a wife beating, child abusing asshole.
Why Kim doesn't realize that her employer is such a psychotic dipshit BEFORE the day that LA is going to be nuked, I have no idea. Surely he must have given some sort of sign? Well, the only reasoning can be to find highly contrived ways to keep Kim constantly in danger and thus justify her inclusion in the show. In the course of the day, she is chased by the Psycho Daddy, survives a bombing, is chased by Psycho Daddy some more until he is warded off by her hipster-trash boyfriend's roundhouse kick (he loses his leg in a car crash later, so that's a move he won't be doing it again) gets arrested for kidnapping and murder, escapes, get threatened by a cougar, gets "saved" by a creepy survivalist with his own fully stocked bomb shelter, shoots out the passenger side window of a potential hitchhiker rapist, and gets taken hostage by the World's Whiniest Liquor Store Robber. After about a four episode break, she gets attacked once again by Psycho Daddy who she finally kills by shooting him, twice.
Many people see the Kim subplot in season two to be the low point of the show, but I've kind of lightened up on them. While they add little to the drama of the show, her plot line is ridiculous to the point of being surreal, and given enough liquor (24 is practically made for drinking games) unintentionally hilarious. The same cannot be said for the whole plot concerning the Warners and the wedding plot that pollutes the first third of the show. For at least six hours, we get stale, soap opera worthy drama about whether or not the Arab fiancee is a terrorist. Sure, it may be a necessary springboard for the overall story and culminate in a pretty good (if patently absurd) "twist", but it's wrapped up in such preachy "we shouldn't be racist against people from the Middle East" message that your thumb will reflexively head towards the skip chapter button on the remote.
And let me take this moment to comment that Kate Warner (Sarah Wynter) makes for an annoying love interest for Jack, and makes you pine for the ridiculous pregnancy and amnesia antics of Teri Bauer. The love interest between Tony and Michelle Dessler is a much more compelling plot, despite an annoying, unnecessary and bizarre digression with Michelle's brother freaking out in CTU (they let anyone into that fucking office...) Though the fictional government agency with the worst employee background checks remains moleless during season two, you are always watching out for the latest traitor to spring up.
Despite these digressions, the main plot of the season with Jack Bauer struggling to find the missing nuke and President Palmer fending off elements trying to hijack his administration stays on track the majority of the time. Not only does the CTU and presidential drama dovetail nicely (they were disconnected most of the time during seasons one and three) the plot remains focused and coherent and doesn't jump around from crisis to crisis like 24 has had a tendency to do in later seasons.
Season two is also when "forced interrogations" became a staple of the show. The torture scenes are much more brutal and graphic than they were in subsequent seasons, where generic pain injections and sensory deprivation dialed down the horror some. Perhaps to the delight of viewers that are disturbed by the show's blase attitude towards civil liberties, Jack himself gets tortured to death (and quickly revived) in a rather gruesome way. Fittingly, our hero who always seems to be on the verge of a heart attack finally has one at the end of the show. You can at least say that Jack gets put through the ringer at least as much as the terr'usts during season two.
While 24 is often accused by knee-jerk liberals as being a right-wing war-monger's fantasy (certainly the fact that every television in the country seems to watch Fox News in 24 world doesn't help with that image) the show plays more to leftist paranoia. While the desperate pacing of the show slacks off midway through the season after the nuclear bomb is detonated, the remainder is dedicated to bringing down an oil industry conspiracy trying to use the incident to start a war in the Middle East. The writers constantly contrive reasons to keep the Cypress audio file just out of Jack's reach right until the end. These episodes of 24 may have just had the good fortune to air around the same time the Iraq War was starting, and how much it mirrors the arguments of "No Blood for Oil" crowd is eerie.
Because it's TV, the happy ending is that Jack and President Palmer do get to prevent a war in the end. Since it has to constantly ratchet up the tension every episode, 24 has a tendency to paint itself into a corner only to quickly, and often unconvincingly, wrap it all up in the final episode. The same thing happens here...at least until the last five minutes when Palmer gets in the middle of yet-another assassination attempt. That ending could have been the best oh-my-god season cliffhanger ending since Captain Picard got assimilated by the Borg. Unfortunately, the incident is summed up and brushed aside in the space of minutes when season three started, and I consider that one of my biggest gripes with the show.
(Oh, I guess you can find out what was up with that assassination stuff if you buy the 24 videogame that was released last month. Sorry marketers! I'm a big fan of the show, but not enough of one to shell out fifty dollars for a licensed game just for a few nuggets of plot. If I really want to know, I'll just download the cutscenes off YouTube...)
If I had to pick a favorite season of 24 at this point, my vote would be for season two, but just barely. While it almost collapses under the weight of its boring and unnecessary subplots, the focused pacing and cohesive storyline is the best it has ever been.