Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Last Three Hours of 24:1

Dennis Hopper and Kiefer Sutherland in 24: SEASON ONE.

We finished watching the first season of 24 last night, which was very exciting if also somewhat disappointing. The finale brings to mind all the reasons why most drama doesn't go the "real time" route. As Alfred Hitchcock realized after making ROPE (1948), cutting is necessary to drama; I would add to this that, while real time is an engaging complement to suspense, a certain degree of time manipulation is necessary for drama to achieve its fullest potential, and suspense cannot exist without dramatic content. The real challenge of drama is not to subvert its rules, as this show does quite brazenly, but to find ways in which to innovate within their perimeters without being so crass as to break them.

In 24 SEASON ONE's final couple of hours, we discover who the second mole at CTU is (the truth is actually tipped-off in the opening montage of every episode). As the commentaries confess, the answer was improvised pretty much as that episode was being prepared, which meant that the actor had no idea that he/she had been playing a traitor for the bulk of his/her performance. This upset the actor, and it does result in a performance that doesn't work quite so well in hindsight as it did when it was in progress, through no fault of the performer's own.

A major character also dies just minutes before the end, an infuriating death that was dealt into the game for -- the creators admit -- no better purpose than to inform the viewer that all bets were off where future seasons were concerned. Anything could happen here, and they had better learn to expect the unexpected. Apparently the actors had no idea how the show was going to end either, because an alternative version was shot (included in this set as a bonus), in which this character survived. Oddly enough, this alternate version isn't particularly satisfying either, for the simple reason that the preceding wrap-up took so much screen time that both endings had to be rushed through. So one is left with the feeling that the storyline simply stops, in keeping with its internal clock, rather than draws to a satisfying conclusion.

My friend Michael Schlesinger wrote in response to yesterday's blog, and his engaging remarks warrant sharing in full:

You're absolutely right about the repetition of certain phrases (my favorite, which came in later seasons: "Chloe, I'll upload the data from my PDA and explain everything when I get back to CTU!"), but you danced around the more telling point: to paraphrase FDR, Bauer is an SOB, but he's our SOB. The right-wingers who make this show clearly see him as a hero, but most of us at home see Bauer as basically a bad guy who just happens to be working for us, and much of 24's brilliance is getting us to root for him instead of booing him.

Season #1 is rather uneven--they don't really understand the cliff-hanger concept, often ending the show with the take-out instead of delaying it till next week. But it greatly improved as it went along, reaching its pinnacle in the absolutely remarkable fifth season. So stick with it.

And most importantly: you're exhausted from watching several episdoes in a row? You're not supposed to watch several episodes in a row!! It's a goddamn serial! One chapter a week--just like the good old days. Where's the delicious tingle of suspense if you see the resolution two minutes later? I'm allowing you one episode a day, no more. I have spoken.

Unfortunately. watching one episode per day from a boxed set release is a luxury beyond the means of DVD reviewers, who are obliged to jump into the deep end and gulp down almost as much water as they swim in. Also, if the real viewing mandate is one episode per day, what's with the "Play All" option on each disc, which indicates a covert encouragement from the show's producers to watch as many as four episodes in a sitting? It doesn't really matter: any progress I make with subsequent episodes now will probably have to be limited to one episode per evening, if I intend to get anything else done. But Mike's endorsement of Season Five is tantalizing indeed.

As my comments have shown, we agree that Season One is uneven; a number of plot threads are dropped without closure (for example, Kim never learns about the fate of her girlfriend) and I also noticed that a couple of episodes cheated themselves of better cliffhangers, which sometimes appeared at the end of the first act in the next episode. But real time is a hugely difficult challenge for any dramatist (Beckett excepted, perhaps), and this group of episodes meet that challenge far better than most. It's one of the most impressive feats of construction I've seen in a TV show, maybe the most impressive; I also find myself looking fondly back at some of the throwaway characters, like the woman cop who takes a bullet in the alley or the fed-up, due-in-court-on-a-DIY-charge waitress whose car Jack commandeers, the latter played by Kathleen Wilhoite (a welcome return by a likably quirky actress I used to see often in 1980s television).

I have my quibbles, but I can't argue with the commonly held belief that 24 SEASON ONE is riveting television.

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