Tuesday, March 08, 2005

To Be Continued ... Next Week

Monday night is "must tape TV" night around my house. From September to April I'm out of the house on Monday nights, bowling, but so many of the shows I like are on that two VCRs and a time shifting feed on one of the TVs is just barely enough to catch everything I want to see. Take last night. VCR #1 - the mono JVC that I bought from my ex-sister-in-law when she and my brother got married and didn't need two VCRs - was taping Medium on CTV (an episode I hadn't seen otherwise I wouldn't have bothered) and CSI: Miami. VCR #2 - the Panasonic with Stereo and Commercial Advance and connected to the digital box - was taping Celebrity Poker Showdown and then, later 24 on the time shift feed. I also caught the last half hour of The Contender, but that wasn't enough to really evaluate the show. Today I'm writing about 24.

24 is a serial in the best sense of the word. Serials are a form that television has never really gotten, which is really surprising since as a form it would seem to be ideally suited for TV. To be clear about what I mean we need to define terms, or at least I need to define what I mean by some terms. In my book a serial is episodic, has continuity, has a definite beginning and ending, and at no point becomes episodic. The main storyline is the storyline. Episodes must connect with each other in an easily comprehensible manner and to hold audiences there should be a hook at the end of an episode in the form of a cliffhanger to get viewers to come back for the next one. There may be sequels but although the sequels may have references to the previous installment in the series but the end of a storyline is definitive. There are series that have had continuity over the years, many that have had ongoing story arc some of which have lasted a whole season, but in the case of most such shows - Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a good example - have submerged the season long story arc to do one-off episodes or even mini arcs within the year. There have been plenty of series to use cliffhangers, usually at the end of a season to pull fans back for the start of the next season. Soap operas, daytime or nighttime, are not examples of the serial using my definition because they don't have definitive ends even though storylines do. In a Soap one major story arc may be building to a dramatic climax while the next major story arc is starting to develop.

The serial is designed to bring people back each week, and they have a long and proud tradition. The novels of Charles Dickens were written as serials in magazines, as were the Sherlock Holmes novels. The adventure comic strips were serials. In radio the serial was a staple, primarily for juvenile audiences. In the movies the serial reached its high point. They were there at the beginnings of the movies with The Perils of Pauline and other films being made for mainstream audiences. The first Flash Gordon serial was the only serial reviewed by the New York Times. The form carried on, weakening gradually until the last serial was produced in the mid-1950s. In all cases the reasoning was simple - to get people coming back, whether coming back meant buying the magazine, the newspaper, Kellogg's cereal, or tickets to the movies. Strangely TV has never done much with the serial format. The last "real" serial (using my definition) on TV was probably the first season of Murder One, the season with Daniel Benzali as the lead actor. It treated the form seriously. An earlier series, Cliff Hanger (1979) didn't; it treated the entire genre with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Now there is 24.

24 works mainly because of its star, Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer. He's a brooding presence, someone of whom you'd expect anything, if you know him. If you don't he might seem ordinary. In a recent episode a character (who Jack has been torturing) describes Jack as a "common thug". Thug perhaps, but scarcely common. In the past he's killed a man and cut off his head with a hacksaw in order to reestablish his cover, set up a situation where it appeared that the children of a terrorist were being killed on his orders, become a heroin addict, and cut off the hand of his daughter's lover so that a deadly pathogen wouldn't be released in a school. Bauer is dedicated, even single minded, about his job and his job is protecting his country. He'd willingly die for his country - in fact he already has once.

Surrounding Sutherland is an ever changing cast of supporting characters. Only one other actor has been in all four seasons of 24 - Carlos Bernard as Tony Almeida although in the fourth season his character has appeared in fewer than half the episodes (there's also a promise that Dennis Haysbaert will make a guest appearance in the show). This doesn't mean that the supporting characters aren't engaging. Some are, some aren't but at best what they do is support Sutherland and at worst are somewhat annoying scenery for him to work with. An example this season is CTU office head Erin Driscoll, played by Alberta Watson, who spends most of here time second guessing Jack and part of her time obsessing about her mentally ill daughter. More interesting are the villains, but then villains usually are more interesting.

This season has featured a family of Arab terrorists, played by Nestor Serrano, Shohreh Agdashloo and Jonathon Ahdout. The portrayal has caused a protests against the show, notably in Britain, as portraying all Arabs as terrorists. There's a certain justification for this, although not all of the Arab characters that we've seen, even in this season, have been terrorists and in previous seasons there have been many more sympathetic Arabic characters than there have been terrorists. On the other hand, government agencies haven't exactly been portrayed as "nice guys" either. Although there have been occasional examples of torture in previous seasons, this season has seen three or four cases of characters being interrogated by a US government agency in methods that would be more suited to Argentina during the Dirty War. In three of those cases the characters who were tortured (Richard Heller, Sarah Gavin, and Paul Raines) have not only been American citizens, but non-Arab American citizens.

Direction and the visual look of the series are first rate. It is in the area of writing that it falls a little short of the mark it tries to hit. The plotlines at times seem a bit formulaic from season to season. A season usually starts with what seems like the "big threat" and the "big villain. As events proceed it turns out that the "big villain" is merely a cog in a bigger organization and the "big plot" is merely a prelude for something even bigger and deadlier. In addition viewers are asked to swallow various absurdities in a challenge to the concept of willing suspension of disbelief. In order to carry the storyline as whole you have to be willing to accept something like Jack dying of a heart attack, being revived and then an hour later literally being almost as good as new ... at least until the plot needs for him to suffer complications from the heart attack. You also have to endure poorly refined sub-plots for supporting characters. The series of stories surrounding the character of Kim Bauer are legendary - of Kim's three boyfriends in the series, one died, one lost his leg, and one had his hand cut off (although at least he got his hand sewn back on unlike the other guy's leg). And yet, accepting the absurdity of the situations is part of what makes the show worth watching. About the only thing we can be sure of in the continuing story of 24 is that each week is going to bring a big plot twist and another tense cliffhanger. And after all, isn't that what serials are all about?

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