Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Time to call it a day for 24

Call it a lucky co-incidence, fate or serendipity, but when Fox picked up '24' for its Fall 2001 season, they had no idea just how prescient its 'terrorists attacking the US' plotline would be. The pilot ended up being hurriedly re-edited to remove shots of a passenger airline exploding, since it aired just weeks after September 11. But despite the initial upset, the show managed to, not only capture, but actually define the zeitgeist of a wounded nation.

During the course of its first year, the show managed to juggle soap opera plotting (amnesia made a fantastic comeback), extreme violence and the kind of relentless cliff-hangers that would have Penelope Pitstop chewing her nails down to the knuckle. Perhaps more importantly, in its depiction of a bold, noble and unimpeachable African-American presidential candidate, the show arguably paved the way for Barack Obama's own bid for the White House.

Emboldened by a new wave of fans who discovered the show on DVD, 24 somehow managed to stretch out its implausable concept year-on-year, increasing in popularity with each successive season. Unfortunately, as the show evolved, and its leading man became increasingly indestructable (he's been brought back from the dead more times than Kenny on South Park), the politics of '24' began to take precedence. Self-proclaimed "right-wing nutjob" Joel Surnow, who created the show, started to make his influence felt and the tone began to change quite noticably.

Out went the ingenious plotting and smart characterisation, and in its place came a depressingly samey parade of torture scenes until the show started to look like one of Lynndie England's home movies.

Interestingly, in 2007, the military even waded into the debate, arguing that the depiction of torture as a fool-proof interrogation technique was having a detrimental effect on young soldiers. This shit never happened to the A-Team. Of course, the right-wingers were keen to have their say, with clueless, venom-spitting pundit Laura Ingraham arguing that the popularity of 24 was effectively a national referendum on the use of torture.

So when 24 returned after a year out, caused by the writers' strike, everyone was watching closely to see how the show would handle its responsibility to air both sides of the torture argument. However, this was not the subtle exploration that we might have hoped for. Jack's by-the-book counterpart looked as though she was itching to force a wet towel down a suspect's throat by the end of the third episode. So much for a fair and balanced analysis of the issues.

So now as the US reels from the latest season-ending cliff-hanger (the UK gets it this week) the whole format is starting to feel a little tired and repetitive. There's a saying in TV that when a show passes its prime it has 'jumped the shark'. I think '24' has dragged the shark out of its tank, shot its wife, electocuted its genitals and glued its gills together. After single-handedly killing 230 people, maybe Jack Bauer has finally earned a day off.

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