A critical view of the first two seasons of the hit US television series '24'

WARNING! This article contains spoilers!

'24', a new concept in television.

In 2001 a new television phenomenon swept on to the airwaves; a television show which re-defined what it meant to have high production values, what it meant to tell intelligent stories in which the audience has to pay attention and brought dramatic small screen shows into a new era. ‘24’ had, at its heart, a simple and outlandish premise; the show takes place in real time. Thus the writers attempt to cram one full day’s worth of action and story-arc into 24 episodes of brow-furrowed, explosion-filled television. This format presents exciting new opportunities for storytelling as well as introducing difficulties probably not encountered by any previous television producers. Can, for example, there be enough material to fill one entire day? Are the main characters going to be doing something sufficiently interesting, often enough, for the audience not to switch off? What if the characters have to travel to a new location; how interesting can it be to watch an FBI agent drive his car through morning traffic? On the other hand, the format means that the action will keep on coming relentlessly. Also the stress and tiredness of the events of the day can be emphasised with clever use of make up and costume (characters get more dirty and more tired as the day progresses). Lest we think that this ’24 hour’ concept is merely a gimmick, the producers of the series have an additional innovation for our delectation; that being the amazing use of split-screen. Anyone who is a fan of film will be used to the split-screen tool, the specific use of split-screen in ‘24’ is very reminiscent of its use in Richard Fleischer’s classic thriller ‘The Boston Strangler’. In that film a scene may open with three or four split screens, some of which provide a view inside a room or building that the character in shot has yet to enter. In ‘24’ a similar style is used, action is shown from multiple angles, some of which don’t immediately make sense. The use of split-screen requires the viewer to pay attention; ‘24’ is not a programme one can breeze through with one eye on the newspaper. On the other hand though, ‘24’ is a show severely limited by its own format. It is forced into ludicrously unrealistic plotlines in order to keep each hour of television interesting. The development of characters and the pacing of the stories told are also constrained by the insistence that everything must occur in real time. In this article I hope to discuss some of the problems and successes of this seminal television programme. Hopefully I will give fans of ’24’ something to think about. Please note that the article is written in retrospect of seasons 1 and 2, no attempt to avoid spoilers has been made.

Morality and Ethics in ‘24’

It would not be too much of an outlandish statement to say that Americans watch a lot of television; many Americans are therefore deeply influenced by the portrayal of ethical issues on television shows. Such programs then have a deep influence on American society and – as such – must act with great responsibility lest they misinform or propagate outright lies. One of the biggest of most ever-present themes of ‘24’ is ‘why do people hate America and what should we do about them?’. This has become one of the major talking points in discussions on the affairs of nations in the last 50 years. Interestingly, season 1 largely skirts over this debate by making the central plot a personal battle between Jack Bauer, David Palmer and the Drazin family. The question of why the US military attacked the oft-mentioned Serbian bunker where the Drazin family lived is never really addressed. Season 2 attempts to re-dress this balance and confronts the issue head on by tackling the question of Islamic terrorism and how America should deal with terrorist acts on its homeland. In the process of addressing this issue the series scores an own-goal by piling on the ethical questions until you can’t see the metaphorical wood for the trees. “How did it come to this?” asks President Palmer in one of the writers’ less catchy moments of dialogue. The ‘real’ reason that someone wanted a nuclear bomb detonated in downtown LA seems to be a near-impenetrable cobweb of lies, conspiracies, Islamic extremists, big businesses and whispering campaigns within the White House. It is clear that the ‘truth’ is pretty irrelevant; the reasoning behind having such a tangled network of lies and mistruths is twofold. One; audience expectations of all of the above allow the producers of ‘24’ to explore the numerous moral and ethical issues surrounding them. Two; in order to have a plot arc contained comfortably within each ‘hour’ you have to keep changing the focus. Why do Islamic fascists want to kill Americans? Why do people believe in government conspiracies? Why do big businesses crave power when they already have so much? All questions which are posed and explored all too briefly, no satisfying answers are ever drawn.

Much of the appeal of watching ‘24’ comes – from a European point of view – from a fascination with the way that Americans see themselves in relation to the world. ‘24’ is a series that can’t seem to work out if it has a left or right wing bias on the question of world politics, half of the time it extols the virtues of a ‘kill em all’ policy while other times raves about ‘engagement’ and conciliation. This is one of the series’ strengths, giving it the ability to explore several sides of a very difficult issue. Unfortunately the series is quite often guilty of drastically simplifying such issues in order to preserve the narrative and make it accessible to the mainstream audience. The plot often boils down to a terribly simple ‘fact’; there is only one way to solve the problem, it’s Jack’s way or the highway. This under-estimation of the viewer’s intelligence is surprising given the level of concentration needed to follow the average plot on ‘24’. This constitutes a failure to live up to its full potential, something that will always be to the detriment of the show.

Jack Bauer, only in America.

An alternative name for ‘24’ could be, ‘The Lone Ranger rides again’. Jack Bauer fits the description of the classic all-American Clint Eastwood Lone Ranger type for the postmodern age. Family man, tortured hero, trained psychopath, all perfectly fitting descriptions of ‘24’s main character. A man whose considered and ‘ask questions first...’ approach to counter-terrorism lasts only as long as his wife’s safety; is this really the sort of person America needs as its saviour? Jack Bauer, in many respects, is the archetypical all-American hero. I hope I’m not going to shock the reader too deeply though by making the following suggestion; Jack Bauer is a lucky idiot.

Kind of like Homer Simpson with a navy SEAL training, Jack Bauer epitomises the ‘might is right’ attitude of American foreign policy; the idea that the moral high ground can be captured with the most expensive weaponry. Consider the first half of the first season of ‘24’, Bauer spends the entire time trying to save his wife and daughter while at the same time just-so-happening to help the Palmers through a combination of lucky decisions and being in the right place at the right time. Basically Jack totally ignores his duty as a CTU officer, makes some lucky decisions and does the right thing without even realising it. Of course we can’t begrudge the man his concern about his family, but to hold him up as a hero because of it makes little sense. Any half-intelligent super-baddie wanting to get the better of CTU should kidnap Kim Bauer and put her on a trans-Atlantic plane flight, then Jack would spend the next 24 hours chasing after her and not giving a toss about any ‘evil’ plans that have been set in motion against the USA. The subtext of Jack’s actions is that the nation’s defence begins with the defence of the family. I.e. owning, carrying and using a gun in your personal defence is not anathema to the continuing safety of your community and country. These are the kind of sentiments that would not be out of place in the rhetoric of an NRA meeting or coming from anyone eager to defend their second amendment ‘rights’ under US law.

Jack Bauer, more than any lone hero to come before him, seems to rely intently on his instincts and powers of persuasion. How many times in the first 2 seasons of ‘24’ does Jack use the 'Tony Blair' appeal: “Please, you have to trust me.” How many times does he make a decision, based on no prior evidence, which happens to be right? Now we all know that storytellers take liberties with the bounds of probability and coincidence, but Jack Bauer’s actions form a subtle whitewashing of ethically dubious US foreign policies. The policies leading to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 were based on the kind of shaky evidence Jack Bauer often has access to when making his decisions; ‘we will probably be right because we are the good guys’. Well Jack Bauer always is right because he is the good guy; except that ‘24’ is fiction and this principle rarely applies in real life.

Jack Bauer is an emotionally frustrated idiot. An intelligent serial killer and murderer, he is mistrusted by his friends, family and colleagues and only seems to have two tones of voice; the shout or the frustrated whisper. Everything seems to be about revenge; be it Nina Myers or the Drazens, the problems of Jack Bauer can be solved with the business end of a pistol. He is also a terribly dull man – this is not helped by the structure of the show’s narrative; after all, we don’t get to see many sides of his character – who seems to have never told a joke or even smiled and behaves as though permanently stoked up on caffeine. How is it that such a successful and brilliant show can have such a dullard as its lead? ‘The West Wing’ has Martin Sheen’s Josiah Bartlett; ‘The Sopranos’ has Jimmy Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano; each characters with endless dimensions, each characters that thrive in a comic, dramatic, thrilling or soap format. ‘24’ is a show which is easily the equal of these modern US classics, but not because of Jack Bauer. ‘24’ succeeds because of its innovative narrative structure, engaging twisting plots and quite brilliant direction. Agent Bauer is – I’m sorry to say – an annoying, dull and pompous embodiment of everything that is wrong with America.

Characters in 24

‘24’ is probably the best television series with 1-dimensional characters there has ever been. The edgy and exciting production of the series alongside the novel and outlandish premise of the format give the series its pull while at the same time sealing the fates of the development of each of its characters. Put simply; while cramming 24 hours of full-on action, running around and shouting into 24 episodes is a brilliant innovation, it is a format that restricts the growth of anything beyond a single dimension in the characters. The most extreme cases in point are Cheri Palmer, who is – let’s face it – Lady Macbeth, and husband David Palmer. If I were ever to conduct an interview with the creators of ‘24’, my first question would be; “Have you ever watched ‘West Wing’?” Aaron Sorkin’s Jed Bartlett is easily the greatest fictional American President in the history of the moving image; coming across as an eccentric lovable uncle who always knows best, Bartlett is a man of great depth, humour and humanity. David Palmer comes across as little more than a badly drawn, but well intentioned, second string candidate who, despite clearly having great humanity and gravitas when speaking, often seems nothing more than a cardboard cut-out. The Palmers – who play such a crucial part in the first two series of ‘24’ and are probably multi-layered individuals – come across as being disappointingly 1-dimensional.

Let us consider the case of Nina Myers. Before discussing the terrible under use of this character in season 2, we need to briefly look at the absurdity of her revelation as ‘the bad guy’ at the finale of season 1. Regardless of all discussions pertaining to the consistency of her actions in season 1, her sudden decision to break cover at the end of episode 23 and warn the Drazens of Jack Bauer’s plans are appallingly out of character. This is a woman who is a mercenary, a woman who has worked for many years to get herself into a top position within the US government where she can make influential command decisions about counter-terrorism and sell her knowledge to the highest bidder. Everyone at CTU mistrusts Jack Bauer while there is no evidence to suggest that Nina is working for the enemy. Indeed she has even proven her loyalty many times throughout the day by saving Teri and Kim or warning Jack when he was in danger. Despite her revelation as the mole being an exquisite piece of dramatic television and Jack’s discovery of his murdered wife being a heart-rending bookend to what should have been a triumphant finale, it is ludicrous to believe that Nina Myers, the mercenary, would blow her watertight cover to save the Drazens. Sometimes dramatic license needs to be granted though, and this is a case in point. Turning Jack Bauer’s former lover and confidant into not only an enemy of his government, but also into the murderer of the only other woman in his life sets up the potential for all sorts of mouth-watering future conflict between Nina and Jack. Oh how we love to see bad guys come back and niggle our heroes. Such a shame then that the producers of ‘24’ decided to put Nina in jail and allow her to surface ever so briefly in season 2. I will never understand why didn’t they allow her to escape and have Jack live in constant fear and hope that she would re-appear back into his life. Season 2 could have been so much more than the roller coaster ride of action that it was if only Nina had been ‘out there’ in the shadows thwarting CTU at every turn instead of incarcerated in a US prison. Such criminal under use of the show’s best dynamic deserves harsh criticism.

In season 1 Jack Bauer has to fight to save his family. Wife Teri and daughter Kim shift between being bunglingly useless and resourcefully determined while in captivity at various points during the day. This makes for good drama as they come to terms with and adapt to their changing circumstances. Despite being strong and quick-witted, Teri Bauer cold probably win a prize for the world’s most annoying wife; but then there’s no accounting for love is there? It is also interesting that despite Teri’s portrayal as a strong female lead, she is also reduced to more of a stereotypically timid woman when she looses are memory and shakes like a leaf as her doctor comforts and consoles her – none-the-less, this is a ingenious way to explore Teri and Jack’s past relationships. In season 2, with Teri gone and Kim only in indirect danger, the writers of ‘24’ knew that they couldn’t place less of a focus on their eye-candy (actress Elisha Cuthbert) and so took the opportunity to shoe-horn into the plot a truly dire story that evolves around Kim’s day in Los Angeles. Oh how foolish I was to think that eventually her experiences would neatly tie into the main plot; instead we get a hopeless human interest style story in which Kim has to help out a child (Megan) from her aggressive step-father, survive in the ‘wilds’ of uptown LA and escape from a big cat (?) while all the time under the impression that her father is dead. Far from being the character development that I have been crying out for in this article, Kim’s story is little more than exploitation and something to fill the gaps in the main ‘bomb in LA’ plot arc while Jack is travelling to a new location. Once again this problem emerges from the ‘24’ format. In season 1, when Jack’s mission was to save his family, Kim and Teri played a crucial part in the storyline and were therefore main characters. By season 2 the writers had decided that they needed to do something else; correctly realising that getting Jack to rescue his family again would be flogging a dead horse they decided to virtually remove Kim from the main plot. Thus the demands of setting the entire series within 24 hours of real time prevent the writers from including each of the main cast in any kind of meaningful way, while the pressures of contracts and marketing demand that certain characters be included regardless of their relevance to the plot. Kim Bauer in season 2, case in point.

In short, the format of ’24’ provides the show with its greatest asset and its biggest flaw. While the fast pace of the action, movie-like use of cuts and camera angles, high quality production values and innovative narrative structure are worthy of heaps of praise; the same high-octane pace and quickly-shifting plots stifle character development and mean that the audience never get to feel like they actually know Jack Bauer. Characters are, after all, the making of a great story. The finer point of ‘what happens next’ is virtually meaningless if no one cares about the people involved. The characters on ‘24’ are condemned to remain mere shadows of what they could otherwise have been, forever secondary to the action as that ever ticking clock counts down to the nail-biting finale.

24, flawed genius.

There is no doubt that the format of 24 has allowed the producers of the series to push back the boundaries of television, innovative use of camerawork is a case in point. The use of hand held cameras build suspense, the use of long ranged shots gives the viewer a sense of the feeling of isolation that Jack must get all the time, we have already discussed the clever use of split screen. Jack Bauer's back-story is not revealed until a good third of season 1 has passed; the writers use the fact that Jack must make a 45 minute car journey across the city to good effect, the woman driving him asks about his life - cue back-story. The same is true of Teri Bauer, her extremely convenient amnesia towards the end of season 1 allows a friend of hers to 'try to jog her memory' by telling her all the things she has done in recent years. The problem is that this kind of thing is only innovative once, like after you've seen the special effects in 'The Matrix', the second time is never quite the same. A normal quality television series - or indeed a story of any kind - will have variations in pace depending on the current circumstances of the plot. Are the characters being reflective? Perhaps they are involved in a race against time to save a friend? The action can move quickly or slowly to compensate. In 24 this is not the case; in the 12 - 1pm episode in season 1 we see the crew of eating boxes of sandwiches. Why? Because it is lunch of course. Except that these people have all been awake for at least 12 hours, why on earth would they be eating lunch when all they want is a pot of strong coffee?

The plotting of the action in 24 is therefore rarely well-paced, we either require that enough action is fit into an hour of television that the plot begins to break down or the self-imposed constraints of time force the plot to slow into unreasonably convenient conceits.

To recap then; 24 deserves to have a place in the televisual hall of fame. But its politics, pacing and characters often leave a lot to be desired. I for one am looking forwards to settling down to watch the third season of this always captivating show; for better or worse, it’s rare that I can find the willpower not to watch the next episode.

© Dean Wright, January 2006.

Season three update!

Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way; season 3 of 24 was a great improvement over the second season for a number of reasons. The most important being that Jack Bauer finally appears to be emotionally connected to the events that are going on around him. Far from being the lone disconnected hero of the first two seasons, Jack breaks down and weeps at the end of the day after he has travelled to Mexico and back, killed numerous AK47-weilding goons, Nina Myers, Ryan Chappelle and been responsible for putting his daughter’s life in danger. The second crucial reason why the third season is an improvement on the last is that the plot – a biological attack on Los Angeles – naturally lends itself to connecting with the audience on an emotional level. Seeing the innocent people in the downtown hotel slowly succumbing to the lethal disease lends a much greater gravitas to the plot than the possible assassination of a president. The third and final reason is that the twists, turns and shifts of focus so familiar in 24 make perfect sense in this season. Rather than being used to hide holes in the narrative, each twist is timed perfectly to keep the action flowing and the audience guessing as to what is going to happen next.

Notwithstanding these positives, there are a number of issues which I have with elements of the plot and the blatant double-standards with which the series seems to treat its characters.

Characters, new and old

Once again Kim Bauer has a largely pointless role, although now she at least appears to have some vaguely relevant skills in computing which allow her to spend the series in the CTU building rather than running around in an unnecessary subplot. David Palmer’s role has also now been reduced to nothing more than a filler while we wait for the next action set-piece. His experiences through out the day are almost entirely unconnected to the main plot – all he does is learn a lesson about politics, and that an indecisive man is not cut out to be the president. The same is true of Cherrie Palmer and the senator who is blackmailing David; there is no connection between this and the main plot, nor is there anything in the way of interesting emotional drama. It’s just more filler.

Thankfully the successes outweigh the failures this season. Two new characters, Chase Edmunds and Chloe O’Brian, and two old ones, Tony Almeida and Michelle Dessler, bring a new an exciting dynamic to the series. Chase Edmunds is essentially a young version of Jack Bauer, the plot is cleverly scripted to allow Jack to see the contradictions of his own life though Chase. He sees the problems of marrying a social life with a life ‘in the field’ when he discovers that Chase and Kim are dating; where previously he had applied a double-standard to his own life, he now realises that he cannot mollycoddle Kim for the rest of hers.

The marriage of Tony Almeida and Michelle Dessler allows for a similar exploration of motivations and the problems of a work-life balance. Carlos Bernard and Reiko Aylesworth give wonderful performances as during the course of the day each fears that the other has been killed in the course of action. These two actors pour out their hearts and souls into the emotional scenes that they have to perform, one suspects that they were rather pleased that they were getting to do something other than glare suspiciously at Keifer Sutherland. Almeida is shot (and miraculously recovers within 2 hours) while Dessler is caught up in a biological attack. Almeida’s angst at being powerless to save the people in the hotel is contrasted against his obsession with rescuing Dessler at all costs, even though she is in the same position as the hotel guests. While the people in the hotel are statistics, Dessler is his wife; his emotional turmoil is an excellent device which allows the writers to reflect that of the people in the hotel.

Undoubtedly the best character in season three is Chloe O’Brian. Until this point all the characters at CTU in the series had been either super hard secret agents or irritating pen-pushers; none of this reflects the kind of people who really work in government offices and crack codes for the military – the nerds. Chloe O’Brian is a computer geek, a woman with a curt personality and who makes few friends; she excels at her job because she knows more about computers and code than anyone else in the building. Numerous times she makes uncomplimentary remarks about one of her CTU co-workers for no other reason than her total lack of social skills. The unfounded fears and suspicions of her fellow CTU employees are based entirely on the fact that her social airs and graces are not as well-evolved as theirs; this is the kind of prejudice that unappreciated intellectuals face every day of their lives. Chloe also gets the best line of the series; she tells Jack “Your tone of voice is not exactly filing me with confidence.” You go girl, tell it like it is!

Double Standards

While all of Ian Fleming’s ‘00’ agents had a license to kill, it seems that of CTU’s agents only Jack Bauer has the right to break laws. During the course of the third season Jack is directly responsible for the deaths of at least two innocent people and a number of others who had no reason to die beyond being in his way. Jack talks a prison guard into killing himself, murders Nina Myers in cold blood – whether or not Nina was going for a gun or not appears to be deliberately left as an open question – and kills Ryan Chapelle. Of all of these killings, it is the murder of Chappelle that begs the most disbelief; officially sanctioned by the president, Jack deliberately assassinates his own boss in order to buy himself an hour or two in finding Steven Saunders. What happened to not negotiating with terrorists? Now apparently it is acceptable to do their killing for them if it serves our purposes. Not only is there a double standard at the governmental level, it seeps down to Jack Bauer too. Not 2 hours after having killed Chappelle, Bauer has to decide whether or not to allow Kim into the field. His moral dilemma as to whether to use his daughter for bait is astounding given that he has just willingly murdered his own boss.

All the while that Jack is being allowed to play god and murder whoever he likes, Tony Almeida allows Steven Saunders to go free after the arch-villain kidnaps his wife Michelle. So given the proportionality of this crime when compared to Jack’s, one would presume that Tony would be given a light rap on the knuckles and told not to do it again. Oh viewer of little faith, Tony is immediately struck off the payroll at CTU and thrown out of the door while everyone falls over themselves to make excuses for Jack’s behaviour. And what is the reason for this? To tell you the truth, I can’t thing of one beyond it being a rather lame plot device.

© Dean Wright, March 2006.