How Jack Bauer Can Save Television

Fans of the television show 24 could be excused for taking a pass on the recent short season that brought Jack Bauer back to TV screens. The show was always hit or miss, but the last season in particular was essentially a repudiation of all that had gone before it. For seven seasons, Jack Bauer had dodged terrorists, nuclear bombs, deadly plagues, assassins, drug addiction, kidnappers, torturers, automatic weapons fire, spies, sleep, and normal relationships. He did all of this because it was a job that had to be done. He did it because he loved his country and wanted to defend it from the worst actors on the world stage. Even after the hardships he endured over those seven seasons, including the deaths of his wife, many friends (some by his reluctant hand), and himself (he got better), and despite 18 months of imprisonment and torture by the Chinese government, his estrangement from his annoying daughter, and countless other hardships that would make Job wince, Bauer kept on plugging away. He was the Energizer Bunny of national defense, single-minded in his determination to preserve the American way of life and protect the country.

At least until the last season when he became a killing machine, hell-bent on revenge for the murder of a borderline psychotic woman he’d known for less than two days. Maybe it was all cumulative, but it didn’t come across that way. At the time it seemed that Jack Bauer snapped and, in the process, nearly started World War III. I reviewed the entire season here.

That’s what made 24: Live Another Day such a welcome addition to the canon. It takes place four years after the events of the last full season. Jack is on the run, a wanted man hiding in London, pursued by the CIA. Chloë O’Brien is the oldest Goth in the world, spilling national security secrets with a Wikileaks-type organization because she believes the government killed her husband and child in an attempt to assassinate her. The President is James Heller, the former Secretary of Defense for whom Jack worked and the father of Audrey Heller, Jack’s love interest. We learn that Jack has spent the past four years working on his own, infiltrating crime rings and bringing them down from within. He’s been doing the work he was born to do, without any help or approval from the government. Essentially he’s Batman.

Live Another Day turned out to be one of the best seasons of the show and it accomplished this by scaling it all down. The gimmick of the show was also its Achilles heel. 24 took place in real time, over the course of a single day. That’s a lot of hours for the writers to fill, so the show always relied on subplots to fill the void. Invariably, the subplots were the weakest elements in the show. Whether it was Jack’s wife getting amnesia, Jack’s daughter being threatened by a cougar, or David Palmer’s son being accused of murder, the subplots took up hours of time and were rarely more than distractions from the plot. Frequently, they were ludicrous distractions. But Live Another Day was only 13 hours long. Subplots were mostly thrown overboard, and the few that remained (the Wikileaks story, a CIA agent who can’t forgive herself for missing her husband’s treason, and the awkward love triangle between Jack, Audrey, and Audrey’s husband) all tie in directly to the main plot. The viewer is gratefully spared from having to see Kim Bauer’s expressionless face as she confronts one danger after another.

There’s a lesson here for all of television. Short seasons work. The most compelling shows on television are the ones with seasons that run anywhere from 10-13 episodes. The BBC is even stingier. A season of Sherlock is only three 90-minute episodes, and Luther ranges from 4-6 episodes. Downton Abbey usually runs for about nine episodes. Consider all the cable shows, from the premium channel shows like Game of Thrones to the basic cable of The Walking Dead and Justified. Shorter seasons for all.

The problem with the old paradigm of a 22-24 show season is the demand it puts on the writers. How do you write 24 episodes of a show like Elementary, Bones, NCIS, or CSI? You create a formula and stick to it. Some of the character names may change, but each of these shows is presenting essentially identical episodes week after week. There may be only three episodes of Sherlock in a season, but each of those episodes is better written, smarter, funnier, and better acted than a full season’s worth of Elementary. Elementary, a show I do enjoy as mindless fluff, is really nothing more than CSI without the forensics. Or compare FX’s Justified to any network cop show that features one main character. There’s simply no comparison in terms of quality. On Justified the writers can stretch out, telling one main story over the course of 13 hours. They’re not concerned with setting up this week’s victim and this week’s twist and this week’s happy resolution. The actors, most notably Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins, and International Film and Television Star Nick Searcy dive into their roles and get an opportunity to truly act because they’re not repeating the same formula from last week’s episode. Shows like Justified or HBO’s brilliant The Wire unspool like novels, deep in characterization and complex in plot. Ironically, the shorter seasons give the writers more time to play with, and allow them to create more subtlety and nuance. They’re not under pressure to crank out 24 scripts a year, so they don’t have to fall back on formulaic situations.

24: Live Another Day is proof again that the old network system of September–May seasons are no longer necessary. Give Agent Seely Booth and Dr. Temperance Brennan one victim and let them investigate for ten episodes of Bones. Give the profilers of Criminal Minds one serial killer per season and thirteen episodes to catch him. It will give the writers more of an opportunity to do something different and allow the actors a chance to add some more dimension to their roles.

When the original run of 24 ended, I was glad to see it go. The new, short season reboot/sequel left me wanting more. As I look at the network schedules I can’t help but wonder how many shows, having sailed over the shark long ago, could be saved from total banality by ditching the formulas and following the path laid out for them by shows like Breaking Bad or Mad Men. There is some sense that the networks are catching on. Shows like Under the Dome (before it outlived its plot device), The Following (before the producers forgot what the show was about), and Hannibal are unlike any before on network television. They take their time and let the audience lose themselves in the plot, the atmosphere, the writing, and the acting. 24 proved that one plot stretched over 24 hours is far too much. Most of the shows on network TV prove that self-contained episodes stretched over 24 episodes engenders lazy writing and by-the-numbers acting. There will always be a place for episodic television. Comedy works particularly well in that format. I wouldn’t trade a single half hour of Seinfeld for the complete series of Mad Men. For dramas, the networks would improve the quality of their shows by cutting down the episodes, letting the writers tell real stories, and giving the actors the chance to portray real characters.

The producers of 24 took a dead property and breathed new life into it by streamlining it. Jack Bauer showed that he can not only save the world, but he knows how to save television, too.

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Heroes Or Victims? The Pacific

As an avid devotee of Band of Brothers, probably the greatest war movie ever made, I was looking forward to The Pacific, which promised to do for the Pacific theater of operations what Band of Brothers did for the European theater. The Pacific was made by the same team (Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, in particular), and the coming attractions looked great.

Then, shortly before it aired, Tom Hanks had to open his mouth and spew some of the most mindless drivel anyone in Hollywood has ever vomited forth.

Suddenly, The Pacific was mired in controversy. I grit my teeth, but set my DVR to record the whole thing. In honor of Memorial Day, I watched all ten hours this past week.

Much of The Pacific is excellent, riveting film making. The characters were rich and deep, the suspense at times nearly unbearable, and the choice to over saturate the film to lighten everything and thus bring out the brightness of the tropical setting was inspired (and a direct contrast to Band of Brothers, which was desaturated to the point of nearly being black and white). It was also, unfortunately, disjointed and appeared like it was trying to do too much. What made Band of Brothers work was the unifying elements that tied together all ten episodes. Based on the true story of Easy Company, Band of Brothers followed the same group of men throughout their triumphs and tragedies as they made their inexorable way from the beaches of Normandy to Adolf Hitler’s mountaintop hideaway, the Eagle’s Nest. Because the war in the Pacific was fought so differently, it was not possible for the filmmakers to take the same approach.

The Pacific, instead, focuses on three individuals (Robert Leckie, Eugene Sledge, and John Basilone) who between them saw action in most of the major hot spots of the war: Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. The producers’ reasons for doing it this way are valid, but the result was having major characters appear and disappear for hours at a time. In essence, it was like watching three films about the Pacific, rather than one cohesive story.

The major difference between Brothers and The Pacific did come down to a certain political slant. Brothers first aired in September 2001 and in the intervening years America has become war-weary and Hollywood has been particularly strident in their view of all things war-related. There have been a plethora of movies released about the War in Iraq and almost all of them have been poorly disguised political broadsides. This mentality takes a toll on The Pacific, as well.

One of the most emotional lines in Band of Brothers is when one of the surviving veterans says, “I wasn’t a hero. But I served in a company of heroes.” After seeing what those men went through on D-Day, in Operation Market Garden, and most especially in The Battle of the Bulge, it’s almost impossible to hear that line and not weep with gratitude for these men and their incredible heroism. The sense that we are watching heroes who fought and died for our freedom is what was missing from The Pacific.

It’s not as if there are no battlefield heroics on display. The courage of Medal of Honor winner John Basilone is amazing to watch, and seeing how these men coped with the nightmarish conditions that they lived through day after day is awe-inspiring. What was missing from The Pacific was context.

In the ninth episode of Band of Brothers, Easy Company came upon a Nazi work camp, filled with emaciated Jews who had managed to escape death but were subjected to beatings and starvation and forced slave labor. The horror on the faces of the soldiers at finding this camp, soldiers who had been through the worst of the combat, told the story. The episode was called, simply, “Why We Fight,” and it put all the earlier episodes and the horrific battles into perspective. The war in Europe was not a series of disjointed battles, it was a large campaign to end the reign of one of the world’s worst monsters.

The War in the Pacific was fought for similar reasons. The military dictatorship in Japan was just as bloodthirsty and eugenicist as the Nazis, maybe even more so.

True to the idiotic statements by Tom Hanks, there was an accent on the racism of the American troops in The Pacific. Eugene Sledge, in particular, becomes increasingly hateful of his Japanese enemies. He wants to see them all dead and at one point wishes that he could strangle them rather than shoot them, presumably because strangling is more personal. The problem with The Pacific is not that it shows the American troops saying things about “yellow, slant-eyed monkeys” or wishing for the deaths of the entire Japanese race. The problem is that there is no explanation for why American troops might have felt this way.

By the time of Peleliu and Okinawa, American troops were all too familiar with the incredible brutality of the Japanese troops. American troops had seen the way the Japanese military treated native islanders throughout the Pacific, and had at least heard stories about what the Japanese did to American POWs. This brutal side of the Japanese, which was endemic to their code of warfare, is hinted at in The Pacific, most notably in a scene where an Okinawan woman with a baby is strapped with dynamite and sent to the American front line as a walking bomb. But all too often the Japanese military is portrayed as merely being brave fighters who don’t believe in surrender. While there’s no denying the bravery of the Japanese military, it was not their tenacity and strength that caused the Americans to hate them so much. It was their unbelievable cruelty towards anyone who was not Japanese, not to mention that it was the Japanese military that successfully, and sneakily, attacked America at Pearl Harbor. For many of the fighting men in the Pacific, the war against Japan was personal in a way that it was not for the men in Europe.

Racism in times of war is regrettable, but it is a very understandable human tendency to think of the enemy, whomever they may be, as monsters. The problem with the comments made by Tom Hanks, aside from the profound historical mistakes, is that it assumes that racism was the cause of the war and not a part of the result. For the Japanese, this is partially true. They did view other races as subhuman. For the Americans, the war was a defense of our freedoms. In the end, this idea of what we were fighting for is what The Pacific was missing. It was a crucial mistake on the part of the producers, because the reason the Americans fought, more so than just battlefield bravery, was what made them heroes. Without that context, the Marines in The Pacific often come across as mere victims of geopolitical war games.

The battle scenes were truly terrifying, and I was glad to see the largely forgotten battle of Peleliu get some overdue recognition. The acting was uniformly excellent, especially Joseph Mazzello as Eugene Sledge, James Badge Dale as Robert Leckie, and Jon Seda as John Basilone. It is unquestionably worth watching and a valuable addition to the canon of films about the war for its unflinching portrayal of the horrors of the Pacific campaign. But without a unifying thread, and without the context of the larger reason for the war, The Pacific was a series of set pieces and not a unified whole. What was shown on the screen was often extraordinary; what was left out was the difference between a great miniseries and a work of cinematic art.

In The End, They Didn’t Know Jack

Now that 24 has ended its run, it seems obvious that the man who truly knew the character of Jack Bauer was the series co-creator Joel Surnow. There’s no denying that 24 has always been a spotty show, but in the two seasons (or, on the show, days) that Surnow has been gone, the main character has evolved into someone entirely different from what he had been.

Some critics have blasted Jack’s “conversion” to Islam at the end of Day 7, but that’s wildly overstated. Yes, it was a blatant genuflection to the gods of Political Correctness to have the wise Imam provide the spiritual counseling to the terrorist hunter Bauer, but there’s no actual evidence that Jack “converted” or that he had any religious beliefs before meeting the Imam or after. In eight seasons I’ve never seen Jack so much as whisper, “Please God, get me out of this situation.”

What offended me more was the standard gimmick of revealing that the real threat was not the Middle Eastern terrorists blowing up bomb, but the American corporation that was financing the whole situation. On Day 7, after African guerrillas managed to take over the White House (!), it was revealed that the villain was really American fatcat Jon Voight and his Blackwater-style military mercenaries. Their plan was to explode warheads in America in order to prove how necessary they were to the nation’s safety. Gotcha.

But throughout the first seven seasons one thing remained rock steady: Jack Bauer. As played (brilliantly) by Kiefer Sutherland, Jack was the man who was never afraid to get his hands dirty, to play (very) rough, and to do whatever was necessary to get the job done. The job was to protect the United States from some type of serious threat. To meet his ends, Jack worked in tandem with several U.S. presidents, the fictional Counter-Terrorist Unit (CTU), the Secret Service, local police departments, and the FBI. He did what those others may have been unwilling to do, frequently breaking the law, but always doing it because the law was a hindrance to the greater good: saving the lives of thousands, or even millions, of Americans.

Well, I guess that the Imam at the end of Season 7 didn’t give very good spiritual advice. For the last quarter of this final season viewers were introduced to a brand new character, an evil twin of Jack Bauer. Physically he looked the same and sounded the same. He continued to say things like “Damn it, Chloe!” and “We are running out of time!” But that was where the resemblance ended.

The Jack Bauer at the end of Season 8 was an out-of-control killing machine. Far from being the tortured soul who agonized over his actions, this Jack was like a cross between the Terminator and John Rambo. Like the former he was unstoppable, killing nearly everyone in his path. Like the latter, he seemed less interested in doing the right thing than in exacting revenge for wrongs that had been done to him.

For those shocked by Jack’s casual murder of the single silliest villain in 24 history, Dana Walsh, this action was not isolated. Jack murdered Nina Meyers in cold blood as she lay defenseless on the floor, but Nina was the one who murdered Jack’s wife and created enormous trouble for both the United States and Jack personally. Jack also murdered an in-custody thug as a way of gaining admittance back into a terrorist cell at the beginning of Season 2. But the murder of Dana Walsh was different. He had what he needed from her, and shot her for no reason other than that she was a pain-in-the-butt who was the main focus of the worst subplot since Kim met the cougar. I wanted to kill her, too, but it still seemed out of character for Jack.

The following hours were a bloodbath, instigated by the assassination of former FBI agent Renee Walker. The writers of 24 tried to pass off Renee as the great love of Jack’s life, and her murder was the catalyst for the new Jack Bauer. But the relationship angle between Jack and Renee was weak at best.

In Season 7, Jack partnered with Renee who spent the first half of the season accusing Jack of being over-the-top and cruel. Impressed by results, she eventually came round to doing things Jack’s way and she ended up as a good partner. They parted at the end of Season 7 and were reunited a few hours into Season 8. This time around, Renee was the loose cannon. She was using Jack’s methods but didn’t understand that Jack would do these things only if there was no alternative. So for several hours Jack was accusing Renee of being insane (she clearly was not playing with a full deck). Finally he got her taken off the case, though she gathered her wits and made peace with herself in time to save Jack one final time.

With the situation seemingly resolved, Jack took Renee home and they had sex. Still basking in the afterglow, Renee was killed.

So what happened is Jack’s entire homicidal rage…right down to kidnapping a former President of the United States and threatening to kill him and nearly assassinating the President of Russia…was sparked by the murder of a woman he had known for less than 48 hours and hadn’t seen in the 18 months since the events of Season 7. A woman he spent several hours rightfully accusing of being crazy and suicidal.

I’m just not buying it. Jack Bauer would use torture to save lives. He would not assassinate a world leader, and likely spark a war, no matter how much he enjoyed his time in the sack with Renee Walker. It would go against everything that motivated him for Seasons 1-7.

The series finale was not without merit. The final showdown between Jack and Chloe O’Brien was worth its weight in gold. These two characters have always had a really interesting relationship, and Chloe’s final “Shut it down” was an appropriate conclusion. In the end, though, the show was Jack Bauer and the character who could always be counted on to do whatever was necessary for the greater good had become a merciless monster, slaughtering people and risking global war in the name of a woman he barely knew. The Jack Bauer I knew deserved better.