I’ve spent more time with Jack Bauer–and the agents, moles, terrorists, government bureaucrats, and dysfunctional family members that populate the Fox television series 24–than perhaps most sensible viewers. Over the past ten years, I’ve seen all 188 hours (at least 144 of them twice) and I’ve whiled away innumerable hours browsing the series’ web content. I even hosted a 24-hours-of-24 party back in 2003 (for the record, Caryn Murphy and I alone made it all the way through). So for me, the recent news that the series would end with the current eighth season marks the end of an era.
Losing 24 at the same time as Lost, I’m struck by how different the swan songs of these two long-running, heavily serialized shows are. (At this point, I imagine Antenna‘s die-hard Lost contingent saying, “yeah, the difference is that 24 sucks!”–but bear with me). We’ve been anticipating Lost s finale literally for years, since the producers announced an “end date” in 2007. For 24, the official cancellation decision (more for growing production costs than abysmal ratings) comes only about six weeks before the final airdate. With only two hours reportedly left to produce, there’s scant time for producers to bring any closure or unity to the series beyond this single season. I’m not arguing that 24 needed more–the writing on the wall certainly permitted producers to plan for this possibility, and I’d argue that the series slid into a gravity well of mediocrity from which there could be no wholly satisfying escape years ago. Instead, I’d say this sudden finish tells us a lot about what kind of serialized show 24 was, and points to an alternative serialized aesthetic beside that which is privileged by Lost.
If the eighth season of 24 had been planned as its last, what would the producers have done differently? Uncover the German threat hinted at in seasons one and two? Bring back fallen Bauer BFF Tony Almeida for a shot at redemption? Wrap up the fates of characters like Behrooz, Wayne Palmer, or Lynn Kresge who abruptly disappeared from the screen? Hardly. The producers of 24 repeatedly claimed to resist long term outlooks, rarely planning beyond the next four episode arc and leaving the story open for organic development. Characters and narrative threads that didn’t pan out were dropped and retconned along the way as the producers explored other possibilities. I’m not saying the Lost producers don’t do that too, but in their promotional discourse, the Lost producers have also promised that their complex tale will cohere in the end. For ten years, 24 has implicitly promised the opposite. Very little will cohere as a unified tale; instead you’ll get a bunch of wild, sudden twists that won’t stand long-term scrutiny, but stand to pack a punch in the moment of delivery. My current criticism of 24‘s storytelling style is less that things don’t make sense, and more that the writers have deployed the same outlandish in-the-moment surprises so often that a friend-killed-resurrected-turned-enemy-then-friend-then-enemy (see Season 7) IS coherent in the context of the show’s history, and thus lacks any thrill. Had the writers more time to plan a series finale, I’m confident they’d provide no more sense of unity–perhaps only a few more good surprises to further thwart unity.
24 will be justly remembered for serving as a forum for deliberating and reimagining citizenship, governmentality, and national policy in an age of convergence fantasy and real world terror. But I think 24 also embodies the rise to primetime of another kind of viewing pleasure–one, perhaps more soaplike, obscured by the privilege accorded classical notions of unified closure. Gary Morson argues that serial narratives are best considered not in terms of poetics, but “tempics”–an in-the-moment aesthetic of contingency and possibility. By offering an ending on-the-fly, I expect that the producers will not provide unified, coherent closure, but a new set of contingent possibilities that hopefully have impact in the moment–even if they don’t make a lot of sense.