The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The following was blogged from 8pm to 9pm...

Full post behind the jump

By the end of the fourth hour of
24’s sixth and latest season, a series regular is dead. This is 24’s version of dignified restraint, as last season’s first fifteen minutes saw two stars capped and a third crippled and only a couple good hours’ worth of angst away from death himself.

But the pleasure of this show is not in its attempts to top itself – it’s pretty hard to hit a mayhem ceiling when by Season Two you were already doing everything from throwing a mountain lion at your ingénue to nuking great swaths of the California desert. Heck, in Season Four, terrorist/discotheque regular/professional escape artist Habib Marwan (Arnold Vosloo) arranged to have Air Force One shot down, and the
killing of the President was simply a happy side effect of his real, even more dastardly scheme. No, by now we know the 24 bag of tricks – shocking betrayals and revelations, weapons of mass destruction hidden in practically every warehouse, thousands of innocent lives snuffed out, a deeply unstable Executive Branch, and characters forced to choose between doing horrible deeds or allowing even more horrible deeds to continue unheeded.

Season One (especially its first 13 episodes) told a tight, slow-boiling conspiracy story that can now be justly looked on as a sea change in American prime time television – one that ties in with the explosion of DVD as a viable medium for people to really take in shows that they love. Instead of the one-off same-widget-every-week franchises like the fifteen different Law & Order series, 24 took the long-arcing sub-story threads that helped define the worlds of younger-skewing shows like The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and promoted them to raison d'être. No single episode told its own story, and so the compulsive need to see…just…a bit…more defined it.

More than once I’ve sat a friend down just to watch that ominous first hour, where Jack learns of the conspiracy to assassinate a presidential candidate, shoots his own boss with a tranq dart, and finds out his daughter has snuck out on a date with an unsavory character. And inevitably it would renew the cycle of me lending out all my box sets, one by one, the addicted speed-dialing me whenever their supply had run out until they were finally caught up to the present.

But the writers could never really repeat that scenario on such an intimate, character-centric scale without inviting the diminishing returns of, say, the Die Hard franchise. Instead, by setting the show free of practical plausibility while maintaining a fig leaf of their real time premise (and that leaf gets flimsier by the season), the show has become a high-horsepower machine for the maintenance of perpetual anxiety and doubt. It’s like the best drum solo you’ve ever heard – you know there’s a limited number of beats to choose from, it’s how they mix and cascade them while never losing the underlying tempo that makes the thing rock. A 24 fan will often find him/herself cheering at the most appalling things, like here in the end of hour one, where Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) kills a terrorist by tearing his throat out with his teeth, simply because the dizzying collision of timing and audacity hits you right in your evil sweet spot.

But what the show also does is provide a thresher for straw men – an opportunity to take our contemporary dialogue about terrorism, torture, The Bill of Rights and just what makes America America out of the abstract and throw it into bloody Thunderdome. The show has been accused of being right-wing, left-wing, fascist, racist, apologist, and as many other “-ists” as people can find to get cranked up about.

It’s got to be a unique television program for both Rush Limbaugh and I to love it. And apparently, like me, he’s got the deviant hotsies for Chloe O’Brian (the misfit computer genius played, as always, with a passionate sulkiness by Mary Lynn Rajskub), going so far as to lay a fat smooch on her at a convention. And that filled me with jealous grief, but hey, Rush, if I ever got her to “open up a network socket” for me, I know my equipment would work.


Chloe has (so far) survived the writers’ sadistic streak, she’s the longest-running character besides Jack’s daughter Kim (Elisha Cuthbert) not to get bumped off yet. I think it’s because the writers realize that keeping her around provides a sadism all its own for the fans who don’t like her. But she’s an irreplaceable antidote to the constant glowering panic – every office needs someone to bitch about your tone of voice and point out that you should try a new deodorant, and always choose the worst possible time to do it.

This year she’s giving romance a try once more, signing up for a second go-‘round with her ex-husband Morris (Carlo Rota) – who knows how to both be more irritating than her in the workplace, and give her bum a timely squeeze without getting his face chewed off. A formidable man, he. She’s looking more polished, more willing to go-along-to-get-along, it’s almost as if Morris has allowed her to enjoy the process of monkey wrenching by proxy and devote more time to typing.

But the moment she hears word that Jack Bauer is on his way back to LA after two years in a Chinese prison, the look on her face tells all. I knew immediately that on her home PC she has a whole folder full of audio clips of Jack saying “Chloe, I don’t have time for this…”, and on lonely nights she’ll dim the lights, pour a glass of wine and say “No, Jack…tonight we do…

Chloe’s not the only one to find lurv around the Counter Terrorist Unit – rugged branch chief Bill Buchanan (James Morrison) is sporting a new rock on his finger, with a matching one on Secretary of Defense Karen Hayes (Jayne Atkinson). When Jack arrives – “bought” from the Chinese at heavy price – his staggered and scarred condition seems to haunt all of them. He’s the visible representation of the cost paid so each of them can enjoy their coupled bliss. And all he gets in return for his sacrifice is the request to give even more – he’s here to be traded over to a terrorist (Adoni Maropis) who wants to torture him to death for revenge, and is willing to sell out one of his comrades for the chance.

But, this being 24, everything’s gone topsy-turvy by the end of the first hour, and Jack transforms from a man willingly walking to the gallows to a soldier back from the dead – marveling a little that his body still knows what to do even if his consciousness is frail. The body’s dinged up, to be sure, he can’t even win straight fisticuffs with one sweaty would-be suicide bomber; but the man heals faster than Wolverine – and if he gets a good meal in him, enemies of freedom everywhere are on notice.

Jack is both the show’s engine, always with just enough strength left to breach another hideout, and its heart. He loves America, believes in its ideals and the rights of its citizens, and most of all he knows the importance of the laws and rules in maintaining that freedom. And so when America needs protecting from its enemies, and the need is so immediate that desperate measures seem to be the only way to prevent disaster, Jack has two rules about rule-breaking:

1) It’s better if as few people as possible break them. In fact, preferably only him, plus Chloe if he needs something computer-y done.

2) There is a steep price to pay, and he is prepared to pay it.

And oh, has he paid by now. Beneath those lash marks, those “who’s going to hit me next?” worried rodent eyes, and whatever the hell that thing is the Chinese did to his hand, he looks like a cross between a wraith and a Navy SEAL, no longer sure how to soul-search because he’s not convinced there’s much left in there. But he does not know how to stop – and if that sounds like a death wish, I think it’s just a natural extension of where he thinks People Like Him belong. He longs for the day when America won’t need people to Become what he’s Become.

At his peak Jack was the best, but this Jack is no longer positive he’s making the right choices. This Jack is constantly at the verge of collapse – when new President Wayne Palmer (DB Woodside), lesser brother of the late, great David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), asks Jack (in that way Presidents ask) to take charge of the effort to smoke out the latest Threat to Our Way of Life, Jack practically crumbles in tears. Because already he’s failed to protect so many – America is under siege by suicide bombers, buses and hotels and malls getting blow’d up all over the place – and by the second hour of this latest escapade he’s already been forced into partnership with a major terrorist (Alexander Siddig). Think about that – Jack Bauer is a man who has to shoot his friends and car pool with Bin Laden (albeit a slick, handsome Bin Laden who has decided to renounce war on the West with only a few hundred corpses to his name) to get the job done. This not a life to envy.

But more than ever 24 is trafficking in the eerily-probable picture of what America could become under siege, and how there’s no simple answer to it. A ferret-like White House Chief of Staff (Peter MacNicol) is gleefully setting up “temporary” detention centers at schools and sporting facilities around the country, and dispatching FBI agents to fill them with Muslims and, well, anyone who annoys them in the process of gathering said Muslims. One of the ones who obstructs them is the President’s sister (Regina King) – and when you can speed dial the White House and call the Most Powerful Man in the World “Wayne”, you can become quite the troublemaker.

But there do seem to be some legitimate suspects in there, as obtusely Orwellian as the legal status of it all is. And when, on a quiet suburban street, an angry man kicks in the door of his Muslim neighbor (Kal Penn), what his blind rage never understands is that the man he is trying to pummel is actually a terrorist.

This is the sort of pinwheeling sympathy genius that 24 excels at. Mr. Terrorist is distraught because his innocent father has been dragged away in handcuffs (because of the bombings his compatriots are executing) and angry white neighbors are trying to beat him up. And a family across the street came to protect him and offer him shelter, and it’s very hard to wish Death to their whole civilization when the teenage son is trying to give you a good luck necklace out of pure friendship. But he has an urgent mission that’s going to get us to whatever Big Thing is going to happen today – so in a sense we want him to succeed. And we certainly don’t like Mr. Half-Cocked and Belligerent throwing him through the furniture, even though he could be unwittingly saving lives.

Are we relieved when he shoots his attacker dead? Wait a minute – did we just find ourself rooting for a would-be-mass murderer? Well, in a few minutes he’s taken that nice family across the street hostage and turned the father into a courier for a suitcase nuke trigger, so we’re not kindly disposed to him for long.

But that’s the humanity of 24 – everyone is someone’s son. Even the most evil people have stupid delays and incompetent underlings and LA traffic to deal with, and sooner or later you catch yourself understanding their situation. And characters who you admire for some heroic quality screw up, get carried away, or die pointlessly. Sometimes (like in ballsy, tragic hour four) Jack Bauer kills them – and he’s supposed to be the good guy. The two-night kickoff of 24’s sixth season ends with Jack Bauer in tears, finished with the whole lousy marathon of self-annihilation. And then there is a sight that, for all the gore and violence we’ve seen, is still ghastly enough to touch any living person’s core, and Jack Bauer realizes that his day will not end here.


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