Tuesday, May 20, 2008

24: If 6 Was 16:9

Streeting today is a metal box "Special Edition" of the first season of the acclaimed TV-series 24, starring Kiefer Sutherland. The seven-disc set includes new audio commentaries for the first and last episodes, and an entire disc of new supplementary materials, including deleted and alternative scenes.

Donna and I watch as little commercial television as possible these days, so, while we were vaguely aware of the 24 phenomenon, we didn't actually give the show a spin until this box set came into our hands. I don't know how well the subsequent seasons hold up, but the first season episodes are fairly addicting and seem tailor-made for marathon viewing sessions. I think we've done as many as seven in a day, which is, of course, nothing compared to what Jack Bauer (Sutherland) and company are going through. However, watching a show this suspenseful, actionful and unpredictable can take a certain toll on one's psychological health; I personally hit a bump a little more than halfway through the season where I was feeling so emotionally exhausted by the whole thing that I had to take a break. Your mileage may differ, but I would recommend maybe a few episodes a night, tops. Beyond that, believe it or not, it can begin to tear at you.

The series was photographed by Rodney Charters (whose name I first noticed on the old FRIDAY THE 13th series, when he shot David Cronenberg's "Faith Healer" episode) and other Canadian cameramen in a widescreen format, and is presented here in mostly handsome 16:9 with semi-muted color. However, it appears that the series was shot wide in consideration of its future DVD release and domestic/overseas HD broadcasts, and initially shown (and indeed framed) in standard ratio. In the course of viewing, I noticed a couple of glaring camera gaffes that turn the old "boom mike" shots we used to see in unmatted VHS releases topsy-turvy; 24 ushers in a new era of unmatted widescreen transfers that expose area not meant to be seen in the periphery of the image.

Example #1: Here's an image from episode "7:00am to 8:00am," found at 12:40 on Disc 2. Here, Counter Terrorist Unit agent Nina Meyers (Sarah Clarke) finds an abandoned building and phones headquarters, and the silhouette of a camera operator edges not once, not twice, but three times into frame. I've brightened the image slightly to better accentuate the little red bead on the camera, which was very noticeable on my TV display.

Example #2: In the Disc 3 episode "11:00am to 12:00pm" at 21:59, acting CTU chief Alberta Green (Tamara Tunie) questions her subordinate Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) in a supposedly empty interrogation room. However, as we see from this shot, the CTU apparently uses the room to store camera dollies. The scene is cut in such a way as to keep the camera looming into frame offscreen as much as possible, but it does appear twice -- this time, the second time, actually edging further into frame than it did at first glimpse. In essence, here we have an example of a show that has been released in widescreen because 16:9 transfers now have a certain consumer cachet, though it was clearly not framed to be viewed in this format.
As wrapped up as we've become in the show, 24's Season One is not without its little annoyances. It sends some very mixed messages, the major one being that it's okay to break rules where country and national security are concerned as long as it's for the good of one's own family. The (teenage) kids in this show, for whom their parents act so dangerously and unselfishly, comport themselves smugly and insolently because they have grown this way from years of parental neglect. There is not a single character in the program who seems entirely above-ground in a moral sense; everyone is compromised by their work, their ambition, their arrogance, their selfishness, or their own ignorance. The role of family so central to the character arcs of Jack Bauer, Senator David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) and Victor Drazin (Dennis Hopper!) gets to seem like a cheap ploy to excuse their questionable behavior, especially when each little victory scored for family seems to do nothing to bring them closer together. The tired issue of family is even dragged into issues between minor characters, like the stoner sociopath kidnapper Dan (Matthew Carey) and his "he's worse than the other one was" drug dealer brother Frank (Eduoardo Ballerini).
Another thing we've noticed about the show is that there are certain catch-phrases that become worn out with overuse. For example, it would make a fun (if potentially toxic) drinking game to toss back a shot every time someone began a sentence with "I need..." -- "I need back-up," "I need you to do this for me," "I need you to do what I tell you," "I need you to do this one thing for me," "I need to speak to Jack" (this one's heard several times per episode), "I need this number traced," "I need you to back me up on this." (If this is how these adults talk, with everything so predicated on prioritized personal need, it's no wonder their kids turned out the way they did.) There is also a lot of "we'll get through this if we just stick together" blather, always spoken without a hint of irony by those characters best described as free agents or loose cannons. Finally, there's no shortage of (mostly empty) promises being made -- "I promise you, we will get out of this," "I promise I will kill you" -- all spoken solemnly for dramatic effect. Another frequent line is "I'll explain later." I'm presently three episodes from the end and no one has, yet.
Yes, I'm critical, but I'm also firmly in this show's grip and don't deny it. 24 is a classic example of why "enervating" rhymes with "entertaining."

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