Thursday, May 24, 2007

24 or 6 to 5

The 2-hour season finale of the Fox TV series 24, Day 6, brings to mind the 1970 hit song from Chicago, written by Robert Lamm, "25 or 6 to 4," so, here we go:
25 or 6 to 4

Waiting for the break of day
Searching for something to say
Flashing lights against the sky
Giving up I close my eyes
Sitting cross-legged on the floor
25 or 6 to 4

Staring blindly into space
Getting up to splash my face
Wanting just to stay awake
Wondering how much I can take
Should I try to do some more
25 or 6 to 4

Feeling like I ought to sleep
Spinning room is sinking deep
Searching for something to say
Waiting for the break of day
25 or 6 to 4
25 or 6 to 4
This would make for a perfect theme song for the series, don't you think? I know the numbers are off a bit, but then again I don't traffic in quantitative research. And anyway, if this was 24, Day 6, doesn't that make it 144?

But, who's counting?

And why not just call it The Jack Bauer Power Hour, a 24-part series featuring the trials and ordeals of everyone's favorite counter-terrorist? Or I know, maybe The Passion of Jack (I made a similar point about The Sopranos in an earlier post,The Passion of Christopher, but hey, given the success of that Mel Gibson film, shouldn't we expect Hollywood to jump on the bandwagon in some way?).

But it seems to me that the problem with the direction that 24's been heading in is, in fact, that each season it becomes more and more about our hero Jack, man of the hour(s). This season 24 jumped the shark in having the main villain turn out to be Jack's father, assisted by Jack's brother, revealing that Jack's sister-in-law is also Jack's ex-girlfriend, and placing Jack's teenage nephew in danger repeatedly--that's my opinion, but in doing research for this post, I see that it's the opinion of many others as well.

The premise, and you might say the gimmick of 24 is that it happens in real time. Each episode in the 24-part season is an hour long, and represents an hour of a single day or 24-hour period (since different seasons have begun at different times of the day). Of course, there is the curious fact that every so often, all of the action subsides for a few minutes, for example, during the 23rd hour, the action died down at 04:15:04 AM (according to the digital time display on the screen) and resumed at 04:19:25. What was going on during those 4 minutes and 21 seconds? It was a commercial break, I know, but what were the characters doing during that time? Presumably the same as me, going to the bathroom or getting a bite to eat.

But 24 is all about real time in relation to television time, its predecessor being a short-lived (1995-1997) but interesting program called Murder One, where the premise was that each season would follow one single trial from beginning to end. But real time is tough, given the need at times to slow things down in relation to real time for dramatic effect--think about how many one minute countdowns in movies and TV shows actually take five or ten minutes--and to speed things up, condense time, and skip over periods of time when nothing significant happens (typically indicated by a caption or announcer saying, "the next morning..." or in the language of film/video, by a dissolve or fade out and in).

So, the premise of 24 is that we are viewing one unique day in which the action and events are essentially relentless. When things move at a slower pace in relation to real time, we can have an entirely linear narrative where we move from one scene to another, one character to another, moving across space from place to place (perhaps indicated by a caption or announcer saying, "Meanwhile..." or by a new establishing shot or just a plain old cut to a different scene). Because so much activity is packed into a short period of time, 24 moves from scene to scene by way of a transition using split screen and multiple images, showing that in this program's spacetime, events are occurring simultaneously. We don't linger on the split screen, because that would be too difficult to follow for the mass audience the program tries to appeal to (but take a look at the film Time Code for a full exploration of such possibilities, the name of the film being a metaphor taken from video editing). It would also be too difficult to watch unless you had a large screen.

It is fun to try to guess which of the three or four scenes that are shown during the transition will be the focus of the next segment. And this format seems to anticipate what's coming next in interactive media, which will be a series along the same lines, where the viewer gets to choose which scene to follow.

Apart from the format, 24 lives and dies by the shocking and unexpected turn of events. When the series premiered, I was surprised over and over again during that first season. The series excelled at misdirection and slight of hand, it had a magician's ability to get viewers to focus our attention in the wrong direction, and thereby trick and amaze us. I was not only surprised, I was surprised at being surprised (from Korzybski's general semantics, the principle of self-reflexiveness). Unfortunately, this sort of thing is subject to the law of diminishing returns. The second season, I was still surprised by each turn of events, but I was expecting to be surprised, no longer surprised by my surprise. And with each new season, while there are still surprises, I've learned that many sympathetic and innocent characters will die, that characters who seem good will turn out to be bad guys and vice versa, that when things move in one direction there will be a sudden reversal coming up.

So, okay, popular culture elements that start out as inventions eventually turn into conventions, that's just the way of the world. And maybe it's a sign of the declining novelty of the program that this year, 24 was parodied by both South Park (the subject of an earlier post entitled SOUTH P24K) and just this past Sunday, by The Simpsons (did they go easy on 24 because they're on the same network, Fox, or is it just that South Park is the funnier show? either way, I probably would have liked The Simpsons parody better if I had seen it before the South Park version).

And it's true that we're seeing repetition of story elements now, such as CTU headquarters coming under attack, the President becoming incapacitated and an incapable Vice-President taking over during a crisis. But I don't mind that so much as I'm tired of Jack Bauer's interrogation technique, which is to first ask a question in a soft voice, and then repeat the question in a loud and threatening voice. Yes, shouting at people, that's the ticket! I know folks on the left have been upset with the program's validation of torture and its whole premise about combating terrorism, but while the tactics are militaristic, the policies and politics of the program favor the liberals, the obviously Democratic Palmer brothers as opposed to the seemingly Republican former president Logan and Vice-President Daniels (no actual references to political parties are made, and coupling a Democratic President with a Republican Vice-President is at best unlikely in reality, but makes for good dramatic contrast and conflict). This season, with its validation of a repentant Arab terrorist, a patriotic Arab-American civil rights leader, and an Arab-American CTU officer, and with the revelation that the real villain is one of our own, Jack's father, working with the Chinese, strikes me as a reflection of the growing discontent with our involvement in Iraq, and with Bush and Cheney, and perhaps an attempt to reinforce the antiwar meme. My point here is not to make a political argument one way or another, but rather to note the politics underlying the show, which ultimately are confused because they attempt to have it both ways so as to attract viewers from every part of the political spectrum.

Part of what frees 24 to present political positions is the fact that the world in which these events take place is an alternate reality that is diverging more and more from our own. In the first season, we were moving in real time in what was, essentially, the real world. In a morbid coincidence, the program premiered after 9/11, and opened with a terrorist agent setting off a bomb destroying a plane in flight, but this seemed to match the new post 9/11 world that we found ourselves in. The only oddity was the lack of reference to the attacks on NYC and DC. The first season included an African-American presidential candidate, Senator Palmer, a fictional character but plausible given the popularity of Colin Powell.

The world of 24 became progressively less real, not only because Palmer was elected president, foolowed by a succession of other leaders. More importantly, in the world of 24 there have been a series of terrorist attacks on the United States, including nukes going off twice, and other radiological and biological attacks. Their world is much less secure than our own. But for a program whose premise is real time, this evolving alternate history makes the series increasingly less credible and relevant, less realistic.

But the even bigger problem with the program is that Jack is becoming tired. After a year of torture as a prisoner of the Chinese, which is how the season starts, the character literally is tired, and seeing him snap back into secret agent mode, even after showing some reluctance, is a bit of a leap (of the proverbial shark?). But it's more than that. Jack is too much with us. This season, with all the emphasis on Jack's family, and particularly with the confrontation and conflict between Jack and his father, we moved away from realism and into the mythic. Jack, I am your father--it's no longer Jack Bauer, it's Jack Skywalker.

Yes, Jack should be at the center of events, and this season also suffered because Bauer was kept out of the action for prolonged periods. But he should be in the eye of the hurricane and not the storm itself, thrust into the midst of things, in medias res, and neither he nor his family (an extension of the character) should be the cause of the events. He is best as a relatively blank slate, leaving room for the viewer to identify with him. He is a man of action, a doer, not someone whose psychological complexities we need to explore. He is our entry into the swirl of events going on in the series, which is what the show is all about, and he is the only person who can do what must be done. Again, it's about deeds, not words, he is the guy who does what must be done, no matter the cost. Kiefer Sutherland has a very limited range as an actor playing an action hero (as opposed to playing a bad guy), but action heroes are typically type characters, flat rather than well rounded. What counts is the plot, not the characterization, and 24 is all about the plot--no plot and the audience can plotz (as I noted in a previous post, The Plotz to Save Socrates: "Plotz: To burst, to explode, I can't laugh anymore or I'll plotz! To be aggravated beyond bearing." (Definition courtesy of the Yiddish Phrases website).

I began this post with the lyrics to one Chicago song, so for the sake of fearsome symmetry I will end with the lyrics to another one, "Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is?" which was also written by Robert Lamm, this time from 1969:

Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is?

As I was walking down the street one day
A man came up to me and asked me what the time was that was on my watch, yeah
And I said

Does anybody really know what time it is
Does anybody really care
If so I can't imagine why
We've all got time enough to cry

And I was walking down the street one day
A pretty lady looked at me and said her diamond watch had stopped cold dead
And I said

Does anybody really know what time it is
Does anybody really care
If so I can't imagine why
We've all got time enough to cry

And I was walking down the street one day
Being pushed and shoved by people trying to beat the clock, oh, no I just don't know
I don't know
And I said, yes I said

People runnin' everywhere
Don't know where to go
Don't know where I am
Can't see past the next step
Don't have time to think past the last mile
Have no time to look around
Just run around, run around and think why

Does anybody really know what time it is
Does anybody really care
If so I can't imagine why
We've all got time enough to die
Perfect for running the end credits to 24, don't you think?


Nienna said...

At work, people are always asking me:
"what time is it there?"
My cheeky reply is always
"same time as it is over there!"
To which I nearly always receive in return, a blank stare!

Anonymous said...

Who's counting?
I am.
Technically, it's a series about time travel.
Science Fiction.