Thursday, July 12, 2007

Dead blogging "24"

Live blogging is the rage. At FireDogLake their live blogging coverage of the Scooter Libby trial helped redefine the relationship of blogs to the mainstream media. (They're live blogging the Wilson and Taylor testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week.) And Lance Mannion and guests live blogged the scarcely lamented "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," rising far above the level of material they were finally given to work with.

The essence of live blogging is that you update the post while the event is going on in real time.

Not to be contrary, but I'm dead blogging the latest season of "24."

A friend TiVoed it for me (guessing where things were headed, I was watching "Heroes" instead) and I only got around to finishing it up a few days ago. The disadvantage of dead blogging, compared to its live counterpart, is that the real-time suspense is gone. The advantages are that you're absorbing the episodes in one big fire-hose burst rather than in a drawn-out trickle, which sometimes makes patterns more apparent. And of course, with dead blogging, the show's already over, the web sites and celebrity news TV shows have already dissected it, and so you can move forward in a world without the fear of spoilers.

And besides, for a show where the weekly body count regularly tops the last act of Hamlet, dead blogging seems the way to go.

One last advantage dead blogging: Freed from tracking the event in real time, you are no longer a slave to the unforgiving minute. Live blogging must be chronologically ordered. Dead blogging, not so much. In fact, you can just string your ideas together with headers like this one:

Why "24" was great, back in the day:

"24" premiered a week or two after the 9/11 attacks, when everyone was still plenty rattled. (A scene in the opening minutes of Hour 1 showed a commercial airliner blown up in mid-air. The story point was kept, but the depiction was softened, to the extent that you can soften an airline explosion. The fact that anyone even thought of such a thing as "softening an airline" explosion back in 2001 tells us how far the series has come.

The first season (or, in the nomenclature of the series, Day 1) of "24" had a couple of things going for it. First, the "events occur in real time" gimmick was new, and the story adhered to it much more closely.

Second, the ultraviolence wasn't laid on as thick as now, but it was certainly different from what we were used to in other action/adventure shows. (Can anyone, to this day, explain to me why the interrogators in Singapore in the opening seconds of Day 1, just after midnight, put their subject's bare feet in plastic bags with some kind of greenish liquid as they were wresting information from him?)

Third--and this was what hooked me good after I basically stumbled onto the series--the overall plot was fiendishly complicated, not desperately confused. A single plot, headed always to a single point, had been set in motion by the bad guys, and as each hour wrapped up (especially for the first five or six hours, by which time I was reeled in and boated) we realized not just that we had a new problem, but that the original problem was much, much bigger than we thought, that it had been launched far earlier in time, and with far more daring ends, than we realized. Not just that Jack now had to race across LA and shoot somebody over there, but that the whole concept of the problem had to be re-thought. With the exception of parts of the Kim Bauer arc--and the over-the-top moment when Terri Bauer suddenly had amnesia--the story was smart. (Not necessarily the writing of individual episodes, which could be a tad uneven and silly, but the overall story.)

If all you know about the Constitution is from watching "24," you don't know Jack:

On "24," the Constitution only has two amendments: the Second and the Twenty-fifth.

Habeas corpus, free speech, trial by jury, and presumption of innocence are non-existent. Torture, as even non-viewers know, is casual and quotidian.

All of these things make it a movement conservative's wet dream, of course, but they're merely side-effects to the fundamental point, which the conservatives are drawn to like sharks to chum: On "24," if the president orders it, it must be right. What's shocking is that most of the violence and mayhem and the trampling of Constitutional principles is not merely known to the President du jour, but affirmatively signed off on, if not indeed ordered, by him.

The only character I can recall ever actually going to jail for his crimes committed in pursuit of national security was Tony Alameda, a poor schlub operating five times farther from the president than Scooter Libby did, who helped a terrorist to slip through a dragnet to save the life of his co-worker/wife who was being held hostage by the terrorist. Tony was pretty bitter when he was finally released from prison the following season--and can you blame him? The only other character in the series who even remotely submitted to justice for his actions was the excruciatingly weaselly President Charles Logan--he of the distinctly Nixonian profile--and even he, after ordering the assassination of a former President, assisting Russian terrorists to bring nuclear weapons onto American soil, and plotting to assassinate the President of Russia and his wife, never saw the inside of a prison cell: He plea-bargained his way down to house arrest on a horse ranch in southern California. (It's hardly cruel, but it's certainly unusual.)

If all you know about the birds and the bees is from watching "24," you're in trouble:

On "24," like many action/adventure shows, when a female character faints during a long crisis, it always means she's pregnant. Always. In the last hour of the latest season of "24," beloved character Chloe O'Brian faints. The father, apparently, is her ex-husband, the alcoholic, PTSD-suffering, supremely annoying (and not in an endearing way like Chloe is) Morris O'Brian. This, one gathers, is meant to provide an "up" note for the end of an otherwise-extraordinarily depressing season.

(Side note: Morris was captured and forced by terrorists to complete the programming for a triggering device for a suitcase nuclear bomb. They beat him with baseball bats, but it wasn't until they drilled into his shoulder with a Matsushita cordless drill and what looked like a 5/8" masonry bit that he gave in. It's a race to see which show more often depicts cordless Matsushitas drilling into human flesh: "24" or "House M.D.")

The Jack Bauer Drinking Game:

Jack hisses "Damn it!" - sip.
Jack rasps "Right now he's our only lead." - sip.
Jack snarls "Sonofabitch!" - chug.

Has Jack jumped the shark?

By a narrow margin, voters at say he has--and interestingly, almost all of those jumped-the-shark verdicts point to this season, and specifically to the idea that Jack's brother and father have been behind much of the terrorism in America of the past few years, not to mention consigning Jack to two years being tortured in a Chinese prison, as the reason for their verdict.

"24" is also showing signs of running out of imagination. Too many specific plot gimmicks keep reappearing: nuclear explosions in southern California, staffers inveigled into bedding the terrorist for whom they had unwittingly been an information conduit, the one White House staffer (always a woman) who's blackmailed or kidnapped to prevent her from warning the president that he's surrounded by plotters. And so on.

And the most recent season fell down badly on the thing that was once its greatest strength: A fiendishly clever and intricate plot by the bad guys that carries us through twists and turns all the way to the last minute of the last hour. This season, the main story arc fell flat about 18 hours into Jack's day, and a different arc (albeit with some overlapping characters and MacGuffins) abruptly appeared. Suddenly the terrorists with five suitcase nukes were no longer a problem, and we were dealing with Jack's ex-girlfriend in the hands of Chinese agents and his father kidnapping his grandson (Jack's nephew, an "I am your father" plot gimmick waiting to be played out next season, I imagine).

Recycling plot gimmicks is never a good sign. Discovering never-before-mentioned family of the main characters is not good, either. The only thing worse is a "very special episode" in London.

So yes. My verdict is: Jack, meet shark.

The "24" ringtone disappointment:

Looking for a new ringtone for my cell phone, I found a web site that offered the "Theme from '24'." My curiosity aroused, I downloaded it and found it was the 5-second noise from the start of each episode when the trademark LEDs burn the number 24 onto the screen: "pink! pink! pink-pink-pink-pink-pink-pink-pink! shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!"


Tribute episodes of "24:"

After a generally downward spiral from the first season, I thought "Day 5," the season before last, was still at least somewhat interesting for two reasons: It took the potentially interesting step of giving us an evil president (the anti-David Palmer), a heroic first lady (the anti-Sherri Palmer), and an evil crack CTU agent (the anti-Jack Bauer).

But even better, it cast the show with several actors from Robocop: Peter Weller, Ray Wise, and Paul McCrane. A friend and I had fun imagining theme seasons for the future: A season of "24" cast with former stars of "The Love Boat?" "Bull Durham?" "American Idol" finalists?

Why do conservatives love Jack Bauer?

Back in 1988, the Bush-Quayle campaign expressed interest in making Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" their official campaign rally song. You can see how they might get led to that error: It's got a strong beat and the chorus is about as easy to learn as you can get.

Of course, once you get past the chorus, you have to really wonder what the Bush/Quayle campaign was thinking: It's the story of a Vietnam war vet, ten years later unable to find work, having trouble with his VA benefits, with "nowhere to run" and "nowhere to go." Typical conservatives, they loved the patriotic-sounding chorus, but missed the irony by a country mile.

As Springsteen was said to have remarked when he declined to make the song available to them, "I don't think Mr. Bush has listened to the whole song."

So, comes the question: Why do conservatives have such a big ol' mancrush on Jack Bauer? Sure, they love the torture--and more generally, that he kills people, blows things up, and curses. But I think the main reason he's a conservative darling is that Jack breaks the law constantly and yet never goes to prison (at least not to American prison) for it. Even when he's placed under arrest, we know it's nothing more than a few minutes in the time-out chair before he's needed for more derring-do, often with his Get Out Of Jail Free Card handed to him directly from the White House.

He's the ultimate symbol of power without accountability. He's the conservative's America made flesh.

But let's look at that a little closer. As Springsteen said, I don't think they've watched the whole show. This is not really the sort of fellow you want to use to calibrate your moral compass.

Yes, Jack's a terrorist-killin', President servin', America lovin' patriot. Or at least he was.

When the series began, Jack was working on the middle class American dream. He had a wife and a daughter and a bungalow in the hills. His marriage was a little rocky, but they were working on it. His daughter was rebellious but we knew she'd been raised with the right values and would pull through it.

Now, six seasons later, he's a homicidal, suicidal, self-loathing, widowed, emotionally stunted, PTSD-afflicted, on-the-run heroin addict. As one former friend and ally told him this season, he brings death to just about everyone he touches. He tortured his brother to death and shot his father, leaving him for dead. He's deliberately killed one former boss, one former partner, and countless government agents because the ends justified it or they were momentarily in his way. He's threatened the life of a former Secretary of Defense and a former President.

This, I have to say, is a very peculiar choice for a symbol of American might. He is not the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being you've ever known in your life. He's a sick piece of work. He's Raymond Shaw, except his political violence is still at least arguably a matter of his own choice.

But the violence (including torture) is not what makes him the conservatives' darling. It's this: No matter how much damage or harm Jack causes, Jack never, never, ever doubts that he is right. Even when he's not (Damn it! That was our only lead! Sonofabitch!).

Will Jack be back?

Oh, you bet. One of the things that the series producers like to do is dangle the prospect that This Time Jack Won't Make It Out Alive. At the end of the most recent season, he was standing on a cliff, staring down at the rocks and surf below, apparently conflicted only as to the proper method of killing himself: Jump? Or eat a bullet?

And of course for a while there was the rumor-juicy possibility of Ricky Schroeder's character--another CTU agent, and a man as determined, self-righteous, and violent as Jack, only even less likable--might take over the starring role. But his character was partially blinded in an explosion near the end of last season, so he's probably out, although I suppose it's possible he could always come gunning his way back with an eyepatch, like Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. (Spin-off, anyone?)

So yeah, Jack'll be back. But he'll be back without me. He's been dead blogged.

1 comment:

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