Saturday, March 20, 2010

The State of the 24 Union, A Conversation

If you've been reading our weekly recaps or listening to some of our more recent podcasts, you know that we at Charge Shot!!! have a long history with Fox's real-time drama 24.  I'd say we have an actual affinity for it, but each season seems to polarize the staff further.  Is Jack a tired shell of his former ass-kicking self?  Or is he just too busy battling his own demons to properly entertain us for 43 minutes every week?  We can't seem to agree.

Now that we've reached the halfway point of Season Eight, Andrew and Craig decided a little recap was in order.  Well, recap's really a misnomer.  Think of it more as two guys bitching about the current state of a show we used to love unabashedly. 

I promise we don't hate all of it.

Craig Getting: Is there any possible way to start this discussion without bitching about Starbuck and Freddie Prinze, Jr.?  It took 24 a few seasons before it started pulling down huge audiences and warranting stars other than Kiefer.  Season Four is probably where it all started, when they cast Imhotep and Terror-Mom.  They've since brought on moderate television stars like Powers Boothe (who played Cy Tolliver on Deadwood) and Cherry Jones (who's just an all-around classy lady), but none have crashed and burned as hard as Starbuck and the Prinze have so far.

I'm not sure what I expected when they announced Starbuck'd be joining the cast (well, I sort of did).  She spent about half of Battlestar Galactica being a refreshing take on the stereotypical brash, in-your-face pilot and the other half being sweaty and rolling around on the floor screaming.  On 24, she's just sort of annoying.  She looks uncomfortable wearing feminine clothes.  Her it-only-shows-up-when-I'm-stressed Southern accent grates on my ears.  And to top it all off, they've yet to integrate her into the main plot line.

Freddie Prinze, on the other hand, at least took a bomb for the president of Iraqistan.  But he, like Starbuck, continues to disappoint.  I can't believe I'm saying this, but his underwhelming scenes with Jack actually make me miss Tony.

Andrew Cunningham: Their storyline is easily the worst in 24 history, mostly because it refuses to die - most of the seasons' inconsequential plotlines (and they've all had inconsequential plotlines, from Amnesia Teri to Cougar Kim to that time in season 5 when Samwise Gamgee had a sister or something who was causing him trouble) have given up the ghost after only a few episodes and took up a relatively small slice of screen time in which to do their thing. This Starbuck plotline must be some producer's baby, though, because it feels like they're spending more time with it than they are with the nuclear weapon that's about to go off in New York City. Meanwhile, the excellent Cherry Jones (who was the highlight of last season) barely gets to do anything.

Which brings me to the next thing - wasn't there another time when there was a nuclear weapon set to go off on US soil? Oh yeah, it also happened in seasons 2, 4, and 6. The thing about the show is, it has completely run out of ideas. This is readily apparent in the city-hopping from LA to DC to New York that we've seen since season 6. Truth is, the producers are just looking to inject some freshness into their aging premise, but a change in scenery rarely matters once the events start unfolding. People will always drive on roads completely free of traffic. There will always be a car chase or gunfight in one of the streets. And [major US city] will always be in danger from some terrorist.

This stuff was true last season, but it managed to be entertaining nevertheless. This season just feels like someone threw a bunch of stock 24 plot elements into a pot, stirred it around, and filmed the results.

CG: The serious Cherry Jones neglect is easily this season's greatest fault.  But they haven't really surrounded her with characters worth her time.  Last season, the cover-ups in the White House (her son's death, her conniving daughter) added a level of intrigue to the presidency missing since the Logan administration.  This year, she has only President Slumdog to contend with, and he's got his own problems.

I'm also a little frustrated with how Jack's tapered off in the past few episodes.  After they wrapped up the Russian storyline, he's spent a lot of screen time in cars or going to bat for Freckles or whatever her name is.  Jack in charge of CTU operations is never as interesting or dramatic as him working off the grid, calling in favors, stabbing people with Bic pens.  They knew this back in Season One.  I don't know why they're doing that now.

The nuclear thing is the Fonzie to 24's shark.  Once nuclear weapons became a plot option (see Season Two), the producers have had a hard time re-corking that bottle (see the real world issue of nuclear disarmament).  I've written before about how 9/11 forever changed the series, and it's readily apparent this season.  What started out as an extremely personal day for Jack quickly became a Hella Big Deal for the US.  I long for the economical storytelling of Season One (excluding Amnesia Teri, of course).

I'd like to hear your thoughts on this season's use of Jack.  Then perhaps we can get to what we actually like about this season.

AC: Oddly enough, the beginning of Jack's day was one of my favorite scenes with him in a long time - him settling down into grandfatherhood, having reconnected with his daughter. Of course, his new family has been forgotten about in the intervening episodes, but it was a very personal moment for a character who, in the show's middle seasons, became less of a person and more of an unstoppable terrorist-fighting God-robot.

Other than that, he's been pretty much by-the-book, which is as boring as you just said it was. People don't watch crime shows so that they can see a cop do his paperwork - they watch them because we the American people love loose cannons who get results.

I can't think of anything I really like about this season, otherwise. The new characters are all ineffectual versions of people we've known in the past. Some of last season's strongest additions - Cherry Jones, Renee "Freckle Face" Walker - have been pushed aside in favor of the Starbuck plot's all-consuming desire for screen time. The problem that most television shows have by their eighth seasons is that the characters and situations have become too well-known and too predictable. 24 takes that one further, and gives us uninspiring situations acted out by bland, poorly established new characters.

And, honestly, how much more ineffectual can CTU get? I would think that blowing up their offices with an EMP would actually make Jack more efficient. Also, where did these terrorists get an EMP, and why does every terrorist attack on this show have like six contingency plans?

CG: I loved the season opener with Jack and baby Teri.  Wouldn't it have been great if, for the whole season, we got to watch Jack do fun things with his family?  Go to the zoo.  Buy some ice cream.  Watch cartoons.  In the middle seasons, we did see Jack develop a relationship with Audrey, the trials and tribulations of which netted Kiefer an Emmy.  But his relationship with Freckles started out so uninspired that I totally didn't buy his willingness to put everything on the line for her.  Bring back damsel-in-distress Kim Bauer (not cougar-related-distress Kim Bauer) and have Jack save her.  At least then I understand the stakes.

I have no clue where they got an EMP.  I'm also not sure where the nuclear rods came from.  Also, if those rods made that Russian's guy's son sick, why are all these Iraqistani's totally cool hanging out next to it?  Our esteemed friend Ben also pointed out that, in the event of a nuclear threat to the U.N., the president would be out of there immediately, not hanging around negotiating with foreign leaders.

I do see this season trying.  The inclusion of drones and the focus on the complications of abiding a Middle Eastern leader with a checkered past being two inspired attempts to connect the real world to the Bauer-verse.  And for all my disbelief that Jack actually sees anything in Renee, her "Just how crazy am I?" plotline grabbed me for a few episodes.  She was unpredictable, which is more than be said for our dear Jack.  Example, that weird hyperbolic chamber thing in the hospital.  You knew the whole time Jack would scare the guy into surrendering because we've seen him frighten people into submission before. 

It was pretty hilarious when that guy blew up into red paint, though.

AC: True.

I don't think either of us have many good things to say about the season, but these are the normal things that happen to a television show as it ages, especially one where not even top billing can keep you safe - characters leave, people behind the camera leave (series creator Joel Surnow left about a third of the way through season 7), and other shows outstrip it in terms of creativity and relevance. I hope that 24 can rally as we move into the end of the season (it often does) and bring the series to a satisfying conclusion.

That is, unless NBC decides to make yet another stupid programming decision.