Sunday, January 14, 2007

24 Turns 6

By Libby Hellmann

The Secretary of Defense is kidnapped. Suicide bombers are running amok in the subways. A nuclear bomb is set to explode over Los Angeles. Never fear. Somewhere in the bowels of the city, a grim band of anti-terrorists is working feverishly to prevent disaster.Yes, quicker than you can say C-T-U, the sixth season of 24 is here.

Once again Jack Bauer – now that he’s been freed by the Chinese -- will attempt to save us from the worst terrorist threats ever hatched on American soil. In so doing over the past few years, Jack and 24 have become not just must-see TV but a huge and growing franchise, spawning message boards, its own talk show, as well as specially produced prequels and video games.

So, why is 24 such a success? The plot machinations are often over the top. Some of the dialogue and characterizations are so lame they’re dead-to-rights funny. And we pretty much know the end of every season before it begins.

Part of it is the show’s production values. As a former filmmaker, I appreciate the eye candy: The lavish sets, the staging-- particularly in action scenes -- the razor sharp editing, the special effects, and dramatic cinematography are more than equal to most feature films.

As a writer, though, what I love most about 24 is the way it uses suspense. Before I became a writer, I read thrillers. I still do. I love the nail-biting scenes, the emotional roller-coaster, the utter inability to put a book down. I build suspense into my own work. And whether it’s in prose or on the screen, I admire when others do it well.

24 does.

First there’s the construct of the show itself: the ticking clock. 24 uses it relentlessly, book-ending each scene to create urgency and tension so it’s impossible to turn away. The countdown reminds us that some kind of deadline is always approaching, and there’s usually a sting or cliffhanger before each break. That’s suspense.

Another technique that 24 does well is shifting points of view. Cutting between Jack, other CTU workers, family members, and, most important, the villain builds momentum, keeps interest from waning, and allows viewers to invest in the characters’ motivations. Four way split screens at the beginning and end of scenes heighten that investment.

Yet another hallmark of suspense is to continually raise the stakes by creating complications for the characters. Again, 24 does it well. The CTU team is constantly faced with impossible tasks, risks, and decisions that keep mounting. Split second timing is often required. Take Season Four: a train explosion is followed by the kidnapping of the Secretary of Defense. No sooner does Jack rescue him, narrowly avoiding a retaliatory missile strike, when terrorists take control of the country’s nuclear power plants and threaten to cause meltdowns. High tech problems, such as the inability to get a satellite feed or the lack of internet access, complicate matters more. Every episode milks the opportunity for a worst-case scenario, and then it gets even worse. While some of the plot twists strain credibility, it sure makes for edge-of-your-seat viewing.

To its credit, the show does try to maintain some authenticity. Bad things happen to good people. The fate of Jack’s wife in Season One. The deaths of David Palmer, Tony, and Michelle. The warhead that slams into Air Force One. In addition, the deliberations at the very highest level of government (ie the Oval Office) are often thought-provoking. So is the debate over torture and – this season – internment camps for Muslim-Americans. These issues help balance some of the more fantastic plot points.

In any good thriller, the protagonists are faced with Hobbesian choices and dilemmas. Those choices not only define their character but add suspense. 24 is rife with them. Does Erin Driscoll, Jack’s boss, attend to her mentally ill daughter, or does she save the country from nuclear meltdowns? Does Jack track the terrorists or rescue his kidnapped wife? Even the villains have their own dilemmas: does Nina play along with Jack, even though it means delaying her own agenda?

Similarly, a good thriller isolates the protagonist, stripping away his allies, weapons, and tools until he faces the enemy alone. Whether it’s Jack dealing with Nina or Marwan, or President David Palmer confronting his political enemies, we feel their isolation, and we hold our breath to see what they’ll do. I could go on, but I’d love to hear your comments. Why do you love 24? Now that we’re in Season 6, can the suspense be maintained for another 24 episodes? I’m guessing it can…

Oh… btw… if anyone has an extra set of Season Five… let’s talk.

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