How, in this post-modern metaworld where everything is a reference to and a comment upon itself, does a television show jump the shark twice? I ask because, last night, 24 did it again.
There's never been another show to compare to 24. Each season, one day, 24 episodes, each occurring in real-time, a massive conspiracy, and America survives because of one man. Jack Bauer. It shouldn't have worked the first time, not when the big event in the debut episode was a terrorist blowing an airliner with several hundred passengers aboard out of the sky. And she escaped. Not when that episode was delayed in the aftermath of 9/11.
As a reader primarily of science fiction, fantasy, and suspense thrillers, I long ago learned to bring a willing suspension of disbelief to my reading. It's a required tool, more so in these genres than in fiction at large, and it transfers to the medium of television quite well. Without it, I could never be a fan of such a show as 24, as I was for its first five seasons.
You see, 24 has always had large credibility gaps in its story lines. It also had the uncanny ability to take its lead character, put him in the most outrageously stressed situations, lead him up to the very edge of a gaping hole in credibility, and have him successfully cross it on a tightrope made from the tautest razor's edge of suspense. It worked, not only because of the always unbearably heightening tension, but because of the character of Jack Bauer.
Take a fundamentally decent man, one with a seemingly endless ability to love (especially something larger than himself), with a driving need to protect that which he loves, and with self-discipline to shame a centurion. Train him in the myriad uses of deadly force. You then have a warrior, whose one and only priority is his mission.
You have Jack Bauer.
That is why the first five seasons of 24 worked, because Jack Bauer was always a soldier, fighting to protect something worthy of his devotion. It helped that for the first four seasons, as well as his country and her people, he had a leader, in first Senator and then President David Palmer, who was worthy of the mission. And, of course, season five was about avenging the death of David Palmer, among other fallen comrades.
In season six, there was no tighter focus than the amorphous threat to the country. And, lacking that tighter focus, there was no way to anchor that tightrope of suspense, no way to make it over the widening craters of the plot holes. After five seasons in which missing an episode of 24 was a reason for a week-long depressive funk, I quit watching the show with a half dozen episodes left. I still don't know what happened in the season six finale, and I really don't care.
I had no intention of watching season seven, but a week before the season premier, Fox rebroadcast 24: Redemption, the movie from last November that set up a reboot of the series. It was a dead night for television otherwise, and it piqued my interest. So, I started season seven the next week. And was caught up in the old 24 fashion.
Until last night.
An attack on the White House by commandos under the personal leadership of an African warlord? A Secret Service force that doesn't at the first sign of a threat move the President to a completely secure location? A Secret Service force, where every man is a deadly marksman, that knows it's facing armed men, manages to set up a somewhat protected position, and doesn't take down at least as many men from the opposing force as it loses? The evil warlord finds a White House staffer alone in an office on the phone, tells her to hang up, she complies, he guns her down, and then takes as a hostage the first armed man his force compels to put down his pistol? The commandos have complete electronic control of the White House, including the combination to the armored door of the panic room? The commandos manage to capture the President's daughter, who refused to listen to the advice of a seasoned and trusted security agent, which might have kept her safe? The President, upon seeing her daughter in the warlord's power, telling the one person in the panic room with her -- Jack Bauer!!! -- to open the door so she can keep her daughter from being killed? Jack Bauer complying, without reminding the President of how many men have already died this night to keep her safe?
It doesn't work, not for me. 24 requires a complicated balancing act, dancing as it always does on the edge of a precipice. It's a tribute to a large number of creative people that it pulled it off for most of five seasons and that it succeeded in a series reboot after jumping the shark in season six. Last night, however, was a profound disappointment that has, once again, shattered my willingness to suspend disbelief.