We’re Running Out of Time!

April 9, 2010
By | 6 Comments

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.


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6 Responses to “ We’re Running Out of Time! ”

  1. Sean C. Duncan on April 9, 2010 at 9:38 AM

    Yeah, the difference is that 24 sucks!

    (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

  2. Erin Copple Smith on April 9, 2010 at 10:20 AM

    Thanks for this, Derek. I admit that when I heard the final word (after weeks of speculation) that the series was being cancelled, my first thought was, “I want to know what Derek thinks about this!” I appreciate this loving and knowledgeable eulogy, as it were.

    I’m interested in what you know/think about the purported 24 movie that Keifer and the gang say is forthcoming. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Keifer says he’s excited about the fact that a movie won’t have the real-time constraints that the conceit of the TV series put upon issues like travel time, etc. As he notes, because of this issue, the drama has always had to come to them–in California–whereas in a film, they’ll be able to expand the scope. At the same time, though, I have to wonder if that, then, makes a film version less “24” and more “terrorist-based storyline featuring characters you know and love.” Which might be OK, of course, but is still different.

    Not only that, but the fact that there is likely a 24 movie on the horizon means that the series has additional narrative constraints as it wraps–they can’t exactly kill off Jack Bauer, etc.

    • Derek Johnson on April 9, 2010 at 11:09 AM

      Thanks, Erin! It’s as loving as a eulogy can be, i suppose, when you spend most monday nights yelling angrily at the TV!

      I’m equally ambivalent-to-negative about the purported film version. Yes, the real time conceit is a chore and is stretched to ridiculous degree every episode. But it’s that real time conceit that I think makes a lot of what 24 does pleasurable and tolerable. I recently read a blog entry that I can’t seem to find again right now that argued 24 would be great if it wasn’t 24. I couldn’t agree less. The fact that we can’t stop to ask a lot of questions and have to keep running with what the writers throw at us is what makes the show work (when it does). I’d be much more interested in seeing something more like the 2008 24 tv movie, “Redemption,” which took place in real time in just two hours, instead of 24.

      Add to the fact the lackluster history of TV franchises extended into film (X-Files, Firefly, ST: TNG), and I’m definitely skeptical.

      The beauty of 24, of course, is that they CAN kill Jack off in the finale, and then just resurrect him for the movie 🙂

      • Erin Copple Smith on April 9, 2010 at 11:25 AM

        I’m not a 24 viewer, but I tend to agree with you on this. Reading the article, I kept thinking, “Yeah, but…the real-time conceit is kind of the point and the beauty of the whole thing, no?” Plus, if the movie is still following the “crazy stuff happens over 24 hours” format, then the travel issue is still an issue, no? And if it’s stretched beyond 24 hours, then…what’s the point?

        And a hearty HA! to the resurrection of Jack Bauer…the EW article actually mentioned that, too. 🙂

      • Jonathan Gray on April 9, 2010 at 11:48 AM

        If it’s anything to judge by, the 24 videogame’s reviewers seemed to feel its lack of time-sensitivity was one of its great problems. I just finished a project in which I read all the reviews for this game, and while the script was universally praised, and the gameplay universally panned, a key problem seems to have been that it didn’t capture the show’s temporality. Which leads me to believe that said temporality is a huge part of the franchise.

        As you note, it’s also important for allowing suspension of disbelief, since we’re willing to allow the story a whole bunch of silliness due to it. Take that away, and for the game, it was just another game, and take it away, and a movie will be just another movie.

  3. Jason Mittell on April 10, 2010 at 4:20 PM

    My gut is with Sean, of course, but I do think we can point to 24 offering a different set of aesthetic pleasures than Lost, while highlighting how it frequently fails to meet those ambitions. For me, the promise of (pseudo-)”real time” storytelling would imply a degree of tightness in design – I find that the show is ‘taught’ but not ‘tight’ typically, if you catch the difference. Certainly not every serialized program should strive for Lost-like planning & complexity, but being different in approach isn’t an excuse for failing to live up to the promise of that approach.

    So given the unique “pleasures” of 24 (which I think include the yelling-at-the-screen frustration), what would be the most organically consistent ending?