Thursday, March 5, 2009

Time's up

If I was trapped in a dangerous situation, surrounded by death and horror, and I could only call on one person to save me, I wouldn’t beg for the help of Superman or Spider-Man or the Green Hornet. I would ask for Jack Bauer.

I always forget how much I fucking adore 24. When a new season sparks up, I grudgingly watch the first couple of episodes, and then Jack does his thing, and I’m hooked for another year.

I have only ever missed one episode, the third one that ever screened. Apart from this early indiscretion, it’s a perfect viewing record. Towards the end of the season, the enthusiasm sags a little, but it’s worth hanging around to see how it goes. And then there is the break, and I start to miss the sight of Jack shooting people in the face, and the whole cycle starts up again.

Sure, on an ideological level, it’s pretty goddamn unsound, and it repeats the same plot tricks over and over again, but 24 also has some of the best action scenes I’ve ever seen on television, mixing it up with a level of intensity that is rarely seen anywhere.

After seven seasons, it has also become a fascinating study of the physiological depths a man can reach before he finally snaps. Jack Bauer has killed more people than cancer, and gets on with the job every single time. But sometimes, it just all gets a bit much for Jack and he starts to break down.

It’s usually towards the end of a season, or it could come randomly at any point. Jack will be sitting in his car, or waiting for somebody to get their shit together, and he will have a couple of minutes to really think about what he is going through.

And it hits him, all the shit he has gone through, all the horror his loved ones have had to suffer because of what he does. All the innocent people who have been slaughtered, and all the good people who have died trying to stop the horror of these long days.

And it all gets a bit much for him, and he breaks down and starts crying. He genuinely appears to be a man who just can’t take it any more, who just can’t do it. It’s too much.

And then somebody taps on his window and there is a job to do and he has to go kill somebody and he can get through it. For a few more hours at least.

It’s hard to hold a few tears against Jack. If anyone else went through what he goes through, they would be a gibbering wreck. It’s also hard to hold anything against him when he also happens to be the baddest motherfucker on the planet.

If you fuck with Jack, he will kill you. If you fuck with his friends and family, he will kill you. At one point in the show, he actually died, only to come back to life and kill the people who murdered him. If you are stopping him from completing a mission that will save innocent lives, you are dead if you get within reach of him.

Jack is the living embodiment of doing whatever it takes to get the job done. As improbably as his survival is, he is still the closest thing to a real-world Batman. For years now he has pushed himself to the limit for his job.

His propensity for torture is easily the most controversial aspect of the show, especially when it filters through into the real world as justification for a horrendous act. But in the context of the programme and the events it depicts, torture is the only option, and as horrible as it is, it’s never anywhere near as bad as the possible ramifications, usually involving a nuclear or biological weapon.

The interesting thing about Jack torturing somebody is that it’s become such a convenient plot point that even the characters are constantly commenting on it now. A torture scene might give up the information that Jack needs to get to the next level of the game, but it has also become a deeper metaphor for US policy, one that can be read in a variety of interesting ways. Jack has never enjoyed torturing people, but sometimes it’s his only option, and he has suffered mightily for it.

Sometimes the tables do get turned on him, and he is the one strapped to a table with metal sticking into his arm, fighting off electrical and chemical agonies. In the 24 universe, this is some justification for Jack’s actions, as people who clip jumper leads to somebody’s testicles can’t really complain when they face the same fate.

As hard as it is to see old Jack sizzle under torture, there is always the comfort that comes with the absolute assurance that he is going to escape and reap some righteous vengeance. All the bad guys have to do is turn their back on him for a second, or let their guard down for an instant, and he’ll have them. And his vengeance will be just and swift.

The same thing goes for any capture. Jack will always escape. Stuck on a plane heading for South America with a cabin full of heavily armed drug dealers, handcuffed and suffering a particularly nasty bout of heroin addiction? No worries, Jack will be out of the cuffs, take down a couple of bad guys using only his ankles and have a gun pointed at the head bad guy in a matter of minutes. Guaranteed.

It’s this predictability that can sour the experience of watching 24, but it’s also oddly comforting. Jack will always get the job done, even if it takes some huge sacrifice. There will always be a mole in CTU. Jack’s bosses will never understand that everything would be so much simple if they listened to Jack.

Anybody who has watched more than a couple of episodes will recognise these tricks, and the show’s insistence of slapping on crazy plot twists at the top of every hour does little to conceal them. In fact, it would be a twist if there were no twists.

But still, 24 hasn’t got by for seven seasons without shaking things up. The supporting characters have the life expectancy of a cancerous mayfly, and the status quo didn’t extend much further than Jack himself. The latest season has already dumped the high-tech impersonality of CTU headquarters, and I never realised how much I missed that distinctive ring tone of CTU until it was gone.

Every year, I am relieved to see Chloe or Kim or Audrey or somebody else Jack cares about make it to the end. It was also nice to see Tony resurrected. It’s easy to forget that when the series started Tony was the dick in the office, but his refusal to betray Jack to a bigger dick later in the first season redeemed him, and was the first indication that 24 had depths that went further than the gimmick concept promised.

The realtime thing might be a gimmick, but it’s been a massively effective one, that is still effectively used by the creators on a regular basis. Hear any sort of time limit come up in discussions and you can guarantee that there is a climax coming three episodes down the line. It does get a little weird that the characters don’t seem to notice that events seem to reach a head at the top of every hour, but when Jack tells CTU that he’s 20 minutes away from the terrorist headquarters halfway through the episode, the audience know they have been promised a kickass action scene in the last 10 minutes of the episode.

And there is no middle ground here. After seven years of bombs and guns and torture, everybody knows whether they like this shit or not. If the predictability got a bit too much, you would have bailed years ago. If the entire ideology of the show is repulsive, chances are you’ve never sat through an hour of it anyway.

But every year that 24 comes back, I sit down and start watching the show, and I never miss an episode. It’s just like reading my favourite stupid comic books. I know they’re not good for me and I know they are riddled with faults, but when it’s all this much fun, I have no cause for complaints.

Besides, I don’t want to piss off Jack.  Because that opens up a whole universe of pain.

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