24

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January 27, 2009

I suppose we can say the seventh season of 24 has got off to a good start. There has already been plenty of action. We are now six hours into the twenty-four and have reached two o'clock in the afternoon. Jack has joined with the FBI, broken with the FBI, helped terrorists kidnap a visiting African prime minister, almost killed an FBI agent who he then took measures to save, shot one of the terrorists with whom he was presumably allied, and is on the verge of a big shootout with people who have stolen a device that can disrupt all the electronic systems of the United States and can thus cause the deaths of tens of thousands. They have already killed more than two hundred innocent people, just as a little demonstration.

You wouldn't think you could get all that done in just six hours. But, remember, this is 24.

We still don't know who, within the government, is in cahoots with a murderous African dictator and is trying to undermine the policies of the president but we know somebody is because he has already tried to bump off the president's husband, and came pretty close to succeeding.

What a muddle!

In public discussions, there has been much debate about Jack as a symbol in the argument between those who want to use torture and those who don't. Torture, or at least very intense interrogation, has certainly been an aspect of the series. Yet, in my mind, other features of the show raise more vital questions than the torture issue does.

Why are they not being talked about?

As the series has progressed over the years, the government of the United States itself has become a more problematic entity. We have had numerous high-ranking conspirators and even one clearly criminal president. If life follows art, even melodramatic art, shouldn't we be asking ourselves if the government is a pit of civil strife and criminal behavior, where uprisings and coups are always on the verge of shifting American policy? Is the government itself a Mafia-type organization?

If it is, to whom or what should the citizen be loyal?

Jack continues to perceive a core of legitimacy in the government, which he tries to serve, even when officials think he has gone over to the dark side. But the series itself is raising the question, and not very subtly, whether there is such a core.

Maybe the genuine significance of the show is its introduction of the nature of civic loyalty. What is it, after all?

We should ask Jack about that.


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It seems that one thing we can count on for the windup of 24 is that it won't be an unmitigated triumph. The big disaster is thwarted, but secondary matters turn out mixed, at best. The drawback in not making the defeat of the enemy the prime focus is that the victory loses dramatic force. All season this year we've been worried that the villain Marwan was going to drop a nuclear bomb on an American city and wipe out millions. And, then, in the last episode (May 23, 2005), Marwan is killed by falling off the upper floor of a parking garage, and the bomb-carrying missile is simply shot down by the Air Force. And all this happens thirty minutes before the program is over. The last half-hour deals with whether Jack Bauer is going to be turned over to the Chinese to be tortured for the rest of his life or whether his own government is going to kill him to prevent the Chinese from learning what he knows. Neither happens, but the cost is that Jack is declared dead, and then, let out, by himself, on a highway leading to Mexico. It's a somber fate for a man who has just saved his country. All this, of course, is a prelude to next year, when Jack, somehow, will be drawn back into another horrific adventure. And, that, I guess, is an advantage. But it's an advantage with a dramatic cost.

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I thought for sure the flying missile on 24 could get to its target within an hour, leaving a two hour after-missile-time for the series' windup. But it turns out this is a pretty slow missile, and having been launched in Iowa, it might take as long as three hours to get to New York or Washington. In the next-to-last episode, everybody was rushing around trying to decide what to do about the on-the-way missile. Should cities be evacuated? Should the public be told? Blah, blah, blah! Meanwhile, Marwan escaped again. I'm getting to admire this guy  more every day. The answer to all U.S. security problems would be, simply, to recruit him. The only trouble is he seems to be a man of integrity. Imagine that. An enemy of the United States who's also a man of integrity! It's unthinkable. Actually the only compelling feature of the program on May 16th was Marwan's comment: "Your president sees me in only one dimension -- evil." It's worth thinking about as we wait to find out what happens on the 23rd.

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We have to give credit to Marwan, one of the most ingenious villains ever to grace a TV series. He has set off an A-bomb carrying missile, which now, presumably, will blow up some part of the United States. True, he got captured, but he didn't really seem to mind, now that the missile is underway. Jack shot him, just for meanness, which I thought was a vulgar action. High-stakes spies ought to show a little respect towards one another and never engage in anything as low as righteous anger. We'll have to see if Jack can redeem himself. Now there are just two programs left for 24 -- one on May 16th and then a two-hour smasheroo on May 23rd. How Jack and the intrepid folks at CTU are going to stop the bomb from going off -- if they can -- will be the next order of business. But since they've got to do it in the next-to-last episode, it's hard to know what's been reserved for the finale. But, doubtless, there'll be something.

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The spy drama 24 continues to delve into ever more desperate situations. As we approach the end of the season and the threat of an atomic explosion becomes more intense, the actions of the intelligence agents, headed by Jack Bauer, move outside all protocols of normality. Last night (May 2, 2005), Jack invaded the Chinese consulate to snatch a scientist who was working with the terrorists. In the process, though, the Chinese Consul was killed, creating a major international crisis. And the scientist himself was shot during Jack's escape. In a frantic effort to keep him alive long enough to get information from him, Jack commandeered the services of a surgeon who was trying to save the life of his girlfriend's former husband, thus causing him to die. What a mess! It seems pretty clear that Jack's romance has sailed into rocky waters. Meanwhile the villain ambles towards a major city in possession of a very big bomb. To bring all this about has required a marked rise in the contrivance level. But the action is so fierce and wildly paced the viewer scarcely has time to notice. We have only three hours left to sort things out and discover whether America will suffer a deadly blow. Who knows?

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For me, the most consistently entertaining series on TV remains 24. The producers generally find a way to pack a fully array of action into each episode. The genius of the concept lies in the treatment of breadth. Instead of stretching events out over time, 24 shows us what a lot of different people are doing at the same time, and by doing so, alters the mental picture of what an hour is. It becomes a thing wondrously expansive. The segment for April 25, 2005, featured a recently installed president losing his nerve, and in the process, endangering millions of people. His nervous resentment allowed the main bad guy to get away and an atomic bomb to begin ticking toward explosion. The show raised, in a palpable way, the problem officials face when they know the president is not only wrong, but disastrously wrong. What can they do? We are now to 2:00 A.M. in the morning. It seems to me that the adventure started at 8:00 A.M. the previous day. So we have six more hours to discover whether the terrorists will be successful or Jack Bauer will find a way to thwart them. I must say that the villains this year strike me as being more resourceful than their counterparts were in the previous series. So, maybe, they'll achieve, at least, partial victory.

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I had thought a couple weeks back that 24 was lagging. But after the episode of February 7, 2005, I certainly can't accuse it of that anymore. We had enough back-stabbing, murder, and questionable behavior on the part of the supposed good guys to make one's head swirl. We are beginning to get hints that the conspiracy to blow up nuclear power plants in the U.S. rises far beyond the groups that have been presented to us as the villains. How do we know? Because people we thought were the major bad guys are being eliminated by their own side. They are not the principals; they are mere pawns. So, who's in charge? An important feature of any good conspiracy melodrama is the discovery that the scheme involves people we thought we could trust. I begin to have hopes that maybe, just maybe, the president himself if behind the whole thing. But, I guess that would be too daring even for the most daring of TV adventures.

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I think we have to say, after the episode of 24 on January 31, 2005, that the Araz family has become seriously dysfunctional. The father sent the son out to be killed, without telling the mother about it and when she found out she was very perturbed. The son, instead of acquiescing, bashed the would-be killer in the head with a shovel, and then called the mother to tell her what had happened. The father found out and forced the mother to drive to where the son was, while he followed her with some unsavory looking guys. The mother turned against the father and tried to help the boy get away whereupon the father and his buddies shot at her car and wounded her. Now the son is fleeing with his mother while the father is plotting to kill them both. It's going to take some powerful therapy to get this family back together. They might have to call on Dr. Phil. I wonder if I'm the only one who thinks the Arazes are over the top. I've heard that some of America's enemies are fanatical, but, gosh! It may be that I just don't understand true devotion to a cause.

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Last night (January 24, 2005) on 24, Jack Bauer rescued the Secretary of Defense and his daughter. But, as we suspected, since there are quite a few hours left in this action-packed day, the plot to execute the Secretary live on the internet was just a diversion. What the bad guys are actually plotting is to blow up every single nuclear power plant in the United States simultaneously. And how are they going to do that? Well, it seems the CIA -- or something like the CIA -- made a device that would make that possible and then stuck it in a briefcase which was being transported on a train. One of the good things about TV technology is that it's far in advance of anything reality can produce. I doubt that even the CIA can make a machine that could blow up all the nuclear power plants in the country. But, maybe, that's not the question. If they could make something like that, would they put it in a briefcase and have a guy haul it around on a train? That strikes me as being more plausible. One of the effects of television melodrama is, gradually, to plant in the public's mind the thought that many of the people in charge of their security are actually dopes. All in all, this is a good thing. It may be fairly close to the truth and even if it's exaggerated, it does more good than consoling us with fairy tales about intellectual and moral giants who will protect us no matter what. It's clear that without Jack Bauer on 24, the terrorists would succeed and wipe out about half the people in the nation. And who can believe that there is somebody like Jack Bauer actually in our security systems?

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The second two-hour blast-off for this season's 24 slowed considerably compared to what we got on Sunday night. The main problem was that Jack Bauer got caught up in staging a false convenience store robbery  in order to delay the main terrorist suspect. It seemed that he would never get out of the back room of the store. Meanwhile CTU Director Driscoll continued to be a jerk, although a personal note about her was introduced that, I guess, is supposed to win her some sympathy. While battling maniacal assassins at work she has to deal with a schizophrenic daughter at home. It remains to be seen whether she can be redeemed. I suspect the less than stellar third and fourth episodes will moderate the interest the first two hours generated. But, even so, the audience will still be sizable because 24 remains one of the more effective action melodramas on TV.

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The new season of 24 got off to a smashing start last night. Jack Bauer has been dismissed from the Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU) and is now working for the Secretary of Defense. But he's drawn back into the fray when a network of Muslim radicals kidnaps his boss and promises to subject him to a public trial. The whole business is made more wrenching for Jack because he has fallen in love with the Secretary's daughter, who has also been captured. Most of the cast from former years is gone, which means Jack now has to deal with a different set of stupid bureaucrats, headed by the new CTU director, a hard-faced woman who consistently makes bad decisions. It all makes for entertaining melodrama and I would enjoy it unreservedly were it not for a slight worry that many viewers will see it as an accurate depiction of life in our new, celebrated "terrorist" era. There's a danger that so many Americans live stodgy, corporately-controlled lives they come to idolize radical figures like Jack who will do anything to protect us from evil. There's a big difference between cinematic fiction and effective statesmanship. Our propensity to mix them up may well have boosted us towards the official brutalities we see reported in our newspapers every day.

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The final episode of 24 was appropriate but, still, a bit anticlimactic. The great villain Steven was improbably killed midway through the program by a distraught wife who, supposedly, was in the one of the most top secret places the U.S. government has. And what was she doing there in the midst of the biggest crisis the U. S. has faced? She was cleaning out her husband's desk. So the second half of the program was spent chasing a minor villain whom we had not seen before. There were many loose ends left which must indicate that there's going to be a fourth season for 24. I'm not sure if that's wise. But I guess we have to give the series the credit it deserves. It did manage this year to sustain a fair level of excitement.

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Can it be that Sherry, the president's ex-wife on 24  is really dead? You would think that a woman that vixenish, that manipulating, that ruthless, would always find a way out of a tough spot. But last night (May 18, 2004), I saw her get hit right in the chest with three bullets, fired by a member of the legion she has duped. You can scarcely expect even Sherry to survive that. I've never understood why the program has made such a thing of the president's messy personal life. His lack of connubial bliss has been a constant distraction from the main action, which is always supposed to be a dire threat to the public safety. Television executives may be so addicted to soap opera tactics they can't imagine sticking with a simple plot, dealing only with danger to millions. And that's too bad. The program would have been more consistently gripping had been brave enough to remain focused on the attempt to thwart mass attacks.

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Poor President Palmer of 24 seems to get himself into deeper trouble every time his brother walks into the room. The president's behavior is getting a trifle hackneyed. He's presented with a terrible proposal. He reacts in indignation and says he would never do such a thing. Then the argument is repeated. He goes into his contemplative mode. After a minute or so of hard thinking, the president says, okay. I'm not sure this is a portrait of a heroic leader. But, it does cause me to wonder how realistic it is. Are presidents really talked into evil doings by advisors who claim to have the president's best interests at heart? The truth is, we don't know how much presidents struggle over their decisions. We get the impression, sometimes, that President Bush struggles not at all. He knows instantaneously and instinctively what he should do. There's no occasion for doubt because he's incapable of it. At least that's the picture of himself he likes to present. President Palmer is a different picture. He struggles over everything. But then he makes bad decisions as regularly as real presidents do. So, what's the difference?

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The national security melodrama 24 last night (April 27, 2004) presented us with a terrifying scenario that must have occurred to every thinking person. What would we do if we had to choose between watching a person we love get maimed or assisting someone who was about to inflict great damage on the general public? In this case, it was a matter of letting a bad man escape in order to stop one of his associates from gouging out the eye of a federal official's wife. The official chose the wife over the public, and it was clear that he did it because the immediacy of the gouging outweighed, at least for the moment, any harm the villains might do in the future. I suspect it's the same choice most of us would make. It teaches us that the love of humanity is an abstraction which we may honor in ordinary circumstances but which has far less power than our bond to the individual people we really care about. Is this a bad thing? I think not. Though dramatists can concoct situations in which rationality says we should sacrifice our own for the good of the many, the truth is, without the tie to individuals, concern for the good of the many becomes meaningless and would quickly fade away. There are strengths we should not expect anyone to have, and watching a wife's eye be gouged out when one could stop it is one of them.

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Last fall, I thought that the third season of 24 had run out of steam. All the machinations of Mexican drug lords trying to buy a killer disease from mysterious Europeans seemed derivative and contrived. But now that the series has reached its stretch run, it's achieving genuine drama.The deadly virus is now in the hands of a maddened idealist who has decided that the United States is oppressing people all round the globe and deserves to have its own citizens feel the consequences of its imperialist ambitions. Some of the virus has been released and is already killing people. An entire hotel has been infected and the seven hundred people there are on the way to a horrible death. The tension felt by those who are supposed to be stopping this attack, and especially by the hero Jack Bauer, is reaching levels such that they are prepared to do things no heroes in a television melodrama have ever done before. The plot conveys enough realism that it causes us to wonder how we would respond if someone, with the means to do it, was threatening to kill not thousands, but tens of millions of Americans.  In other words, what would we do on the edge of the apocalypse? It's  an entertaining supposition, but it may cause people to think that we are, in fact. close to a situation similar to the one depicted. And, that, in turn, makes many feel there should be no limits on our own actions. If we reach the point when televised fiction echoes the reality of our belief, nothing in our political heritage is likely to save us from nationalistic insanity.

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