“IN WHICH AN UNSTOPPABLE FORCE MEETS AN IMPLAUSIBLE OBJECT”
24 is a groundbreaking and important television series. Beyond the thrills, kills, twists and tragedies is a show that reached a new level of serialized storytelling and set the bar for action and suspense on network television. Lasting for 8 full seasons–192 Episodes plus a TV movie–24 is one of the longest-running shows of the past 15 years. Others, like Grey’s Anatomy, NCIS, Smallville, all three CSIs and three of four Law & Orders, may have run longer, but the argument can be made that none of those shows are equally as worthy of contributing to the debatably labeled and vaguely-defined “Third Golden Age of Television Drama” that began with The Sopranos in 1999 and is now fading with the end of Breaking Bad and the impending finale of Mad Men. Perhaps 24 doesn’t quite reach the dramatic heights of those shows, or others like The Wire and Deadwood, or even The Shield, Lost or Battlestar Galactica, but it was always a strong awards and ratings contender and it was just so addicting and fun to watch.
Please join us—Patches, Zach, Jeff and MegaMix—as we take a look back at this series, discussing one season every month until the premiere of the new 12-episode miniseries 24: Live Another Day in May 2014.
This month’s discussion is focused on season four of 24, which premiered in January of 2005.
It contains SPOILERS for the entire series of 24 and strong language. Parental discretion is advised. Discussion occurs in real time.
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Whew! Season three was good. Like, REALLY good. So, what now? Where do we go from here?
From the start of 24’s fourth season, there is the sense of a radical shift in the style of storytelling the producers are utilizing. Instead of using three season-long arcs as they had for the previous days, they chose to adopt the “barrel-through-a-series-of-disasters” method that creates a relentless pace of intensity not seen before on the show. “Hold onto your butts!”
In some ways, this was a pretty interesting way to tell the new developments in Jack Bauer’s life, but not so much in others. This approach allowed the show to become the “action” series for which it would become most well-known, however, it ultimately takes away from the show’s ability to connect with new characters and create relationships like it had for three years. For me, this season comes off as an ultraviolent step in a direction counter to that which made the show great to this point. (One small step for the producers, one giant leap for the audience.)
The producers thought it was “a break-through” in dynamic to create a story in which the baddies steal a stealth fighter in order to shoot down Air Force One; then somehow get their hands on the Nuclear Football and use it as leverage to steal a cruise missile; to then put a nuclear weapon on that missile and fire it toward a major US city. (WHAT A DAY!) The producers assumption was that as long as they kept it interesting the audience would buy it. Season four is the point when the writers of the show begin to understand that they can get away with a higher suspension of disbelief because their audience will get the information on a week-to-week basis. This distance from episode to episode allows the audience to forget most of the details from last week by the time the new episode airs. (What season are we on anyway?)
The mentality of “as long as it’s neat, the audience won’t mind” is one of my biggest pet peeves in visual storytelling. Basically, they are taking advantage of us as viewers and saying that we’re too stupid to get it while hoping that we won’t even try. For 24, this makes absolutely no sense to me. They have gotten to season four riding the coattails of several classic narrative tropes that have created a cult following of people wanting to know what is going to happen next to Jack, Tony, Michelle, Chloe, and Palmer. Unfortunately for us, the producers don’t think we care as much as we do. (But, I love Chloe!)
Beyond that, as I did my research on what all took place during the fourth day I found myself being quite bored with the story. It just came down to one big thing (usually someone being tortured) after another and there simply wasn’t the character growth that I had become accustomed to witnessing with 24. Don’t worry though, because I probably wasn’t paying strong enough attention. (Who said that?)
Along side the lack of character growth is the overwhelming jump in violence from the previous three seasons. Season four saw the highest death count of all seasons to date (by far). According to one source, by the 24th hour of the season, 225 people were dead and Jack Bauer alone killed over 40 of them. But hey, I didn’t notice, did you? (Tough crowd…)
Was day four fun? Hell yeah! Did it keep your heart rate up for 24 hours of television? Absolutely! But, was it worth it? I’m not sure, and I think my above reasoning explains why.
As I said in the season three DSD, the show would never be the same after the third day, but this change in stylistic focus, lack of character growth, and ultraviolence puts the final nails in that coffin. (Potentially literally for Jack…)
I’ll always remember season four as the year that 24 jumped a shark. Not The Fonz’s Shark. Season four is one of my favorites. Rather, this is the season that jumped the shark of believability. It’s the season that got ridiculous.
Check out this general outline of the season: “Terrorists launch random bombings in order to kidnap the Secretary of Defense and threaten to broadcast his execution in order to distract everyone from their attempt to melt down numerous nuclear power plants, which is done in order to keep Air Force One airborne so a mysteriously motiveless mercenary can shoot it down so that terrorists can recover the nuclear football so that they can destroy an American city with one of its own missiles.”
Seriously, this is the story for season four. And remember, all of this happens over the course of one day.
Let’s be real here. Every season had their “yeah, right” moments. Teri might not remember her convenient bout with dissociative amnesia, but I sure as hell do. Season two had a president’s cabinet, the people Palmer himself nominated, turning on him. And lost in all of our season three praise was Michelle’s magical Cordilla Virus immunity. Still, Habib Marwan’s Batman Gambit was so ridiculous that even The Joker’s like, “Fuck that noise.”
The fact is, however, if you can suspend disbelief long enough to set aside the applicability of Occam’s Razor to terrorist attacks (the gist being that terrorist groups are FAR more likely to expend their limited resources on creative, cost-effective plots rather than expensive, complicated ones that could go wrong in a million ways), the season totally worked. It abandoned the small, focused, personal storytelling of the first three seasons and went all out to concoct a ridiculous, albeit epic, global threat.
I don’t think it insulted viewers or treated us like idiots. I just think they tried to tell a very different style of story. Where I would agree with MegaMix, however, is that that decision hurt season four’s storytelling, and ultimately, its overall quality.
Thankfully, it didn’t diminish its entertainment or suspense in the slightest. Season four may have been a mess, but it was the hottest mess this side of season eight Renee Walker.
Like it or not, there is something to be said for distracting the audience with explosions. Season four reached new ratings highs for the show (11.9 million average). Without the aid of reruns or Netflix binging, new viewers were getting their first taste of 24, now action-oriented. Apparently, they liked what they saw as viewers would average above 12 million until season eight.
I agree with much of the above criticism of this season and the direction it takes. I also dislike the poor use of Erin Driscoll. We knew she was going to be a hard-ass, but over the course of her 12 episodes the writers made her a blatantly incompetent, insecure and conniving head of CTU. Plus, they saddled her with this season’s CTU Baby: her troubled daughter, Maya. It seems like a missed opportunity to introduce another strong female character, particularly with Nina, Michelle and Sherry gone and Chloe absent for eight episodes (thankfully Dina Araz was somewhat complex).
Another criticism is the show’s “torture first, ask questions later” policy. The treatment of Richard Heller is problematic all around, despite its season-spanning importance. The worst for me is Jack zapping Paul Raines with a lamp cord rather than simply talking to him. Audrey is married to this guy for God’s sake, talk it out first! Also, unbelievably Paul forgives Jack, “the other man,” in about one episode.
While I don’t find season four to be quite as “quality” as the previous year(s), there is a lot to enjoy here, not the least of which is the return of Tony Almeida, my favorite character. It’s Tony’s return that allows (and adds weight to) the following exchange. Audrey, who has just talked to her father about her changing view of Jack after Paul’s torture, talks to Tony who has “come alive” since being called in by Jack:
TONY: So, how are you and Jack faring with him out in the field today?
AUDREY: It’s different—a lot different than Washington.
TONY: Yeah, it is different. To tell you the truth, I couldn’t believe it when I heard that Jack had taken a desk job in D.C.
AUDREY: He said he was happier this way.
TONY: Uh-huh. Well, you’ve gotten a chance to see him in both worlds today. You think he’ll go back to wearing a suit?
AUDREY: After the hell Jack’s been through today, you think he’d want to come back to this?
TONY: Some people are more comfortable in hell.
That just might be the single best line for defining Jack Bauer. Of course, Audrey follows it up by asking Tony “are you talking about Jack or yourself?” These men are more alike than ever before, and the series will tell us exactly how each man responds to life in hell.
I didn’t then — and don’t now — give one god damn about the ridiculous over-the-top-ness of this season. I loved it.
I usually refer to the Jack of season one and season two as the Human Jacks, and the others — but particularly two and four — as SuperBauers. The writers seem to stop giving a damn about the subtle nuances of the show (which, let’s face it, aren’t the hallmark of the series) and instead focus on the steely diamond core of awesome that is Jack’s ability to just plain whoop ass. I suppose I could feel cheated by the writers for their abandonment of the pieces that led, even perhaps on accident, to season three, but I just can’t.
In any case, one thing I distinctly remember being happy about was the villain. Marwan seemed to be the first villain who didn’t just have a leg up on Jack by virtue of having planned it all ahead, but who could adapt and react in a Jack-like capacity (Ramon Salazar should have planned ahead, I guess). Perhaps it was just the ridiculousness of the terrorist plot that required he appear so faultless, or perhaps it was the dedication to a single terrorist threat that meant he was just the first baddie not to bungle it all in 5 hours. Whatever the reason, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Marwan is the only villain (that I can remember) that Jack didn’t bring to justice. The only guy who can kill Marwan is Marwan. That’s some Hemingway shit, folks.
Also interesting in season four is the development of the idea of sleeper-cell networks and coordinated homegrown (foreign) terrorism — a first for 24. America had a long history of what I’ll call “internal” homegrown terrorism, but the topic of middle-eastern and Islamic “defector” terrorists conspiring on a national scale speaks to the growing fear (and associated rising xenophobia) that was a hallmark of many of the seasons of 24. Fear of Arab-Americans had been portrayed negatively in previous seasons, but it’s worth giving the writers credit for broaching the obvious but easily controversial subject so fully.
I mean, credit for bravery at least. I haven’t watched it in years and they probably botched the hell out of it, right?
“This is probably the last time we’ll ever speak. Jack, you do understand, when you hang up, for all intents and purposes, Jack Bauer’s dead.” – Former President David Palmer
I’m a sucker for good beginnings and good endings (especially cliffhanger-ish ones), and I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced a show that did these as effortlessly as 24 has in the past. For all the flack I gave this season in my introduction, I’ll be the first to admit (and agree with my comrades) that season four had some wicked awesome moments. One of those, and possibly one of the best ever for 24 (in my opinion), is the end scene quoted above. In season three, I touched on its final moments and how much I liked them. I’ll do the same here, but for different reasons.
The end of season four shows Jack Bauer walking away from the life he has known to begin a completely new chapter amongst the anonymity of his ‘death.’ The show couldn’t have asked for a more symbolic image for the end of this day, as Jack walks off into the sunrise (a new beginning in itself) with his aviators on and his messenger bag packed (with who knows what). As he crosses the tracks to nowhere, the audience is left wondering if this is the truly the end.
For everyone else on the show, they were losing something. A father. A friend. A good agent. However, for Jack, he was gaining, at least, the potential for something he hasn’t really had in a very long time. Freedom. After all the shit he’s done, but also the shit he’s endured over the years, he gets to walk away. Who wouldn’t want that after his experiences?
One of the things I find interesting about this ending is that the actor behind Bauer, Kiefer Sutherland, was quoted throughout the series in saying that the show could easily go on without Jack. I wonder if the writers were wondering the same thing at the end of season four. Would the show last longer with new main characters, or was the show really about Jack Bauer? I think the series ultimately proved that the show was about him and that people tuned in week-to-week mostly for him. But, what if? Damn, I love a good ending.
So season four was ridiculously epic, ridiculously entertaining, and ended ridiculously well. At the end of the day, that’s all a series needs in order to get a big thumbs up from most people, including the four of us. Although we’ve thrown shade at season four for its lack of character development, it introduced two excellent characters and (sorta) sent out two others on a high note.
In season four, Curtis Manning made his debut. He was first introduced as a former flame of season four’s requisite mole and then re-introduced as Jack’s neck-snappingly badass sidekick for the next season and a half. As a general fan of underappreciated athletes and historical figures (Go, Jason Belser and Hugo Black!), it should come as no surprise that Curtis is my favorite 24 character. His badassery and penchant for doing the right thing claimed my affection until his tragic, out-of-character demise.
Season four also introduced Bill Buchanan. His role as “competent boss CTU didn’t know they could employ” was sorely needed after a revolving door of Division stooges and half a season of Erin Driscoll. Not only was he great at his job, but he somehow seemed to avoid the shittiest subplots of each season. Even if season six made us bust out our Zoidberg impressions, Bill and Karen Hayes managed to make compelling television. I think “Made Season Six Suck Less” is the highest compliment one can give an actor.
Lastly, the characters Bill and Curtis ended up replacing would have a fitting last hurrah in season four. In season three, Stephen Saunders captured Michelle, forcing Tony to choose between his country and the woman he loved. In the end, his decision to let Saunders escape cost him both. Season four turned the tables when Mandy captured Tony and tried to leverage Michelle into letting her escape. Sad day for Mandy that Michelle is a stone-cold badass. It was a fascinating character study to see Michelle face the same choice as Tony, but refuse to betray her nation.
In the end, Michelle and Tony brought a human touch to season four’s version of SuperBauer.
Zach noted above that subtlety is not the hallmark of this series. The more I think about it, he’s absolutely right. Seasons one and three are kind of the anomalies in the run of the series. Considering how much less I care for seasons 5-8 compared to 1-4, maybe I was watching the show for the wrong reasons. I needed to embrace the crazy and not think so much about logic and plausibility. Unfortunately, at a certain point I just couldn’t get past the silliness.
Fortunately, that happened sometime after season four. Although this season leaned heavily on the SuperBauer button, it often produced great results. Also, it balanced the action out with character moments involving old friends and new, like Bill Buchanan awesomely diagnosing Chloe’s “personality disorder.”
Here’s a good example of something that’s up and down, but is ultimately satisfying: blowing up Air Force One. What’s not to like?
First, Mitch Anderson has got to be the worst terrorist name ever.
Second, introducing President Keeler’s son, Kevin, and then having him bond with his pops just in time for him to die in flames is a quarter-assed attempt to make us care. It doesn’t work.
Third, the entire Behrooz-for-Jack exchange episode is pretty awful because it’s all an elaborate way to prevent Edgar from looking at the LAPD missing persons report on the pilot Mitch is impersonating. The two or three moments when Edgar picks up the CD with the info, only to put it back down when something else comes up are not tense, they’re stupid. Also: poor Behrooz. He’s never seen again, and 24 has since left my thirst for his shovel-swinging vengeance unquenched.
What does work is the slow-burn buildup and feeling of efficiency to this entire plot. The writers hint that the attack is coming for a few episodes, but to have it succeed with zero chance to prevent it? That’s big. It’s not ridiculous-big on a Valencia-nuking scale, but it’s just-right-big. Marwan knew exactly what he was doing when he hired Mitch Anderson. We don’t spend a lot of time watching Mitch at work, but he’s meticulous, lethal and dammit, he does his job. His final “conversation” with Jack is chilling. Mitch doesn’t say a word in response to Jack’s pleas. He decides he’s heard enough, jams Jack’s communication and goes in for the kill. No emotion. The good guys fail. The bad guys win.
I agree with everything said above, or:
How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.
In reflection, it’s somewhat obvious to me that season three, my favorite season, is so in spite of its “weak” (i.e. ridiculous/over the top) moments that would later define the show — and not in a way that would consistently upset me (a la cougars and Bradys), but rather made the show. Basically, while season three is my favorite season, it is a bit of an aberration. I tend to think that 24 as a series is really more of a cliff-hanger junkie’s epic binge. season four (or maybe five) are the seasons which perfect this. Like Jeff said above, perhaps the love for season three clouds my vision of season four. Which show did I actually want to watch, back in the day? Which did I like, then? For both I think the answer was season four. It just rocked.
For what it’s worth, I think season four was also the only series that managed to introduce new characters that I actually liked. Edgar Stiles (Julia’s older brother) provided a touch of I-guess-I-don’t-hate-you comedic relief that was previously only possible from Chloe and her various personality disorders. To me, Edgar is the epitome of the “yeah, but he’s our idiot” characters. Bill Buchanan, as mentioned above, was the director we always wanted. Follow the rules, unless Jack says otherwise. He was like the coach of the team with the true star player — run the show, but always remember to give your guy the slack he needs. And finally, the Whiner in Chief, the smarmiest TV villain of them all, President Charles Shithead Logan. While not his truest self yet in season four, I think we can all agree that Logan filled the gap (at least eventually) left by the recently deceased of season three. The queen is dead; long live the king.
Perhaps I’ll summarize it like this: if someone asked me for a season on TV to watch that was part of 24, I’d point them to season three. If someone asked me for a season of 24 to watch, I think I would point them to four.
It’s a blast.
Jack Bauer’s Season Four Kill Count: 43 (this includes Jack’s stopping Paul Raines’ surgery)
Jack’s Overall Kill Count: 97
Favorite Moment: I have two versions to this answer. 1) While watching the show live, I remember loving the moment when Tony saves the day. I already loved him as a character and having him back felt oh-so-right. 2) In hindsight, the introduction of Bill Buchanan may have been the single most important addition to the series in season four.
Parting Shot: Kiefer Sutherland admitted in an interview that while filming the scene where he climbs the Chinese Consulate, his gun accidentally fell out of his pocket and discharged, shooting a blank directly into his ass. Now THAT, is a parting shot! Nailed it.
Favorite Moment: This.
Parting Shot: (Pushes up glasses) Umm, Mitch Anderson could not have shot down Air Force One, as the F-117 he was piloting does not have air-to air capabilities. Also, how sad would it be if that ruined season four for somebody? Like they could suspend disbelief for everything else in season four but that?
Favorite Moment: The Terminator-like assault on Chloe and Sabir’s girlfriend in episode 19, which involves a Walter Sobchak-like pulverizing of Chloe’s car (and the hilarious death of a curious neighbor) and culminates in Chloe O’Brian unloading an assault rifle into the bad guy. The look on her face afterward is priceless, and a perfect way to end the episode.
Parting Shot: Just a mention of Charles Logan, introduced here as a sniveling coward who was so afraid to “go upstairs” and handle the crisis like a man that he invited David Palmer, a former president from the opposing political party, to do it for him. At least it was all secret and Logan could take credit. Also, the season opens in darkness with a train crash in Santa Clarita just after 7AM. It closes with the sun rising in LA just before 7AM. Santa Clarita isn’t that far west of LA proper. Hmmmmmmm.
Favorite Moment: The first time Edgar opened his mouth and the sweet, dulcet sounds of laugh-a-minute social anxiety disorder trickled out. Additionally great: the scenes of absolute pathetic helplessness and petulance in which Logan asked for — and received — help from the Paragon of Presidentiality. Both repaired Palmer’s somewhat damaged honor and established Logan as a spineless and self-interested manipulator.
Parting Shot: The series could have ended here. Maybe it should have ended here. season five was okay, but opened the door for a deep and shameful abomination… In any case, season eight, when it finally ended, tried to end in almost exactly this same way — a nation turning its back on its hero, and its hero searching out a new life. Season four did it so, so much better. Shame.