e. magill's                        

The Unapologetic Geek


Top 10 Clichés that Shouldn't Be in the Next Season of 24

Fox's 24 will be entering its eighth season next month, and like any show that age, it runs the risk of becoming a parody of itself. The producers realized this before the most recent season and made valiant efforts to change up the show's predictable formula. Unfortunately, even though the changes were successful, the show quickly pulled out plot devices from a stale bag of tricks. By the end, it all felt a little too cliché.

24 season 8 promotional image
Jack Bauer in New York
For most television shows out there, this wouldn't be too much of a problem, but 24 used to be the most original show on the mainstream networks. The very first season was daring and unpredictable, with an ending that was brilliantly unexpected. Now, though, it feels like the writers and producers are playing it safe by sticking to their tried-and-true formula, even as the show becomes more and more mediocre. If the eighth--and possibly final--season of 24 is to reclaim the title of most original drama on television, there are several landmines the writers would be wise to avoid.

I'm not writing this to rag on the show. I truly love 24, but I feel like it could be so much better if the writers would dare to go outside their comfort zone again. Of course, in the end, the show belongs to those who created it. It's their baby--not mine--and my suggestions are just the ramblings of one potentially deranged fanboy.

***WARNING! This list contains spoilers for the first seven seasons of 24!***

Who's really really really behind President Palmer's assassination?
24 screenshot
Maybe it was Jack all along...

Former President David Palmer was shot in the neck by a sniper three seasons ago. Within an hour of the event, Jack Bauer killed the man who pulled the trigger. However, the increasingly convoluted reasons why the sniper was hired was a major plot thread throughout that season, and the shocking twist near the end revealed that the sitting president at the time, Charles Logan, was in on it.

There was a room of weird executive-looking guys who were on the phone with the president talking cover-up strategy, so the head of that group, Graem, wound up being a major player in the following season. Graem, it turned out, was Jack's brother, but he wasn't really pulling the strings; it was actually Philip Bauer, Jack's father! The reasoning for it all is so ridiculously complicated that you're better off not thinking about it.

But wait, there's more! In the seventh season, we find out the miraculously resurrected Tony Almeida has been spending the last few years pseudo-undercover in an effort to track down the guy who's really really behind it all. When this is revealed to be Tony's motive at the end of the season, one can't help but roll one's eyes.

Seriously, at this point, the writers have implicated so many people in the conspiracy to assassinate David Palmer that there are probably fewer people who weren't in on it. It has gotten beyond ludicrous, so if they even mention David Palmer's assassination in season 8, they'll have jumped over the shark, killed it, cooked it, eaten it, and burned the motorcycle. We get that David Palmer was the second most important character in the show until his sudden death, and we get that his assassination was a big deal, but the show has got to move on.

Oh, the melodrama!
24 screenshot
Love can't possibly last more than three seasons

In season 1, there was plenty of relationship drama. Jack was trying to get back together with his wife, Teri, after a brief separation that resulted from his cheating on her with his co-worker, Nina Meyers. Nina, on the other hand, had moved on to Tony, and the two of them were getting it on when there wasn't a looming terrorist threat to deal with. Throughout the harrowing events of those first twenty-four hours, all four characters were forced to interact with one another and maintained a highly unprofessional level of awkwardness throughout. Then Nina turned out to be a terrorist and murdered a pregnant Teri in cold blood.

Every season since has continued the tradition of that legendary love rectangle by having lots of secretive inter-office romances, at least three a season. Rarely do these romances end well; usually one of them finds out the other is actually a terrorist and then has to confront their lover while wearing a wire. Or, if Jack's involved in a relationship, he'll probably have to torture his girlfriend's husband. Oh, the melodrama!

I understand that this soap opera stuff is important in the writer's room. It adds filler, for one thing, and can add a touch of extra umph to a dramatic moment. The problem isn't that there is relationship drama on the show--there is a cacophonous amount of it in real life--but that the relationships on the show all seem to follow similar lines. When one of the good guys is involved, he or she always has to make difficult choices that strain the relationship. When one of the bad guys is involved, he or she always either unceremoniously kills or winds up getting betrayed by the other. In the end (with the only exception being Chloe and Morris, so far), no matter what, the relationships end badly, even if the writers have to kill somebody. Here's hoping they're brave enough to try something new next season.

What's the president doing right this second?
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Answer: getting ready to be assassinated, just like every president in the 24 universe

There actually was a time on 24 when the audience didn't know anything about the president. In season 1, he is never even seen or heard from. However, since David Palmer became the president between seasons 1 and 2, it made sense that we would be included in the presidential politics of seasons 2 and 3. However, despite a brief respite at the start of season 4, the writers can't seem to keep the president out of the story, even if there is nothing going on at the White House. Sometimes, they have to invent pointless drama to keep the president in the show, and most of the time, the politics at the highest level have pretty much nothing to do with what Jack Bauer is doing. This was especially noticeable in seasons 3 and 6, where it felt like there were two completely unrelated shows airing simultaneously.

The problem here has a lot to do with the insistence that the stakes be ridiculously high, with the entire nation in jeopardy (more on that a little further down). When the United States itself is on the line, it's pretty hard to ignore the president. Still, with a few notable exceptions, Jack Bauer's story rarely ever intersects. In some seasons (seasons 5 and 6, for instance), there might actually have been more dramatic tension if the president's motives were left unclear. The current president on the show has fantastically written grey areas, so not being privy to her deliberations in season 8 might make her decisions more shocking and problematic for Jack.

Whatever you do, don't think about all that stuff that happened to Jack earlier.
24: Jack screaming
Hopefully it won't all hit him at once

Jack Bauer lost his pregnant wife to a terrorist, has been tortured to death, was addicted to heroin, faked his own death, has been abducted by the Chinese government and endured years of intense torture, has wandered the globe, has survived an African genocide, was put on trial for his actions, and contracted a fatal disease that had to have done permanent damage to his brain. However, no matter how much he's been through, his character never seems to change. The years of torture by the Chinese is the hardest to ignore, especially since, at the start of the sixth season, he was weak and useless but had to recover in record time in order to be the Jack Bauer we all know and love. This is how it is in every season; at the start, we see a somewhat broken Jack, but after only a few hours (four, at most), he is clean shaven, completely fine, and back in action.

While it is fun to imagine that Jack Bauer is some kind of superhuman force of nature that can take whatever is thrown at him, it does start to get tiring after a while. If season 8 is indeed the final season of 24, the writers need to spend a lot of time figuring out how to show us what all of this has done to the guy. I'm not talking about a few lines of incidental dialogue or a handful of exasperated breaths, but actual, dynamic character motivations that push the narrative. Of course we all want to see Jack Bauer being a badass and torturing everybody who looks funny, but in this case, it might be more interesting if the writers give us something we don't think we want.

Before this day is over, a major character will die!
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And another one gone, and another one gone, another one bites the dust

Teri's death at the very end of the first season remains the single most shocking moment in 24. It was a tough blow, but it gave the show an edge and, in the context of the show's larger themes, it made sense.

Ever since then, they've been killing off major characters with such regularity that it is nearly impossible now to invest in anybody other than Jack. Some deaths have been appropriate, heroic, and oddly beautiful at times, while others seem to just be thrown in to remind you that the stakes are really high. Some viewers still haven't forgiven them for killing off President Palmer, and by the time Bill Buchanan sacrificed himself in season 7, the reaction from most of us was to just shrug our shoulders and sigh. We expect these things now.

It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment when the show went from edgy to pointlessly bloodthirsty, but the fact remains that, somewhere in the last six seasons, we stopped hoping that things would end well for anybody. For example, most fans continue to assume that the show can only end with Jack's death. How good can a story be if the only moral you can take away from it is that good guys lose all their loved ones before dying violent deaths? Can a story like that really maintain its popularity after that moral has been repeated a thousand times without a single contradictory example?

I'm just going to say it outright: I don't want any major characters--including Jack--to die in season 8. Not one.

...Okay, maybe Kim.

Hey guys, remember me?
24 screenshot
Agh! It's zombie Tony!

Quick: in the last twenty-four hours, have you managed to interact with every important person in your life for the last ten years? Unless you live a very, very lonely existence, the answer is obviously no. Yet the writers of 24 can't seem to let go of any character from previous seasons. On rare occasion, it'll make sense to bring back an old favorite for narrative reasons, but most of the time, the writers have to really strain to come up with reasons for old characters to be on the show.

In season 4, for example, President Logan inexplicably brought former President Palmer--a political rival--to his bunker to give him advice on how to run the country in a time of crisis. For a few hours, it seemed like Palmer was president again, and President Logan got very little screen time. Other good examples include Nina Meyers showing up in seasons 2 and 3, Kim being an analyst with CTU in season 3 (um, yeah), former President Logan showing up in season 6, Aaron Pierce's shoe-horned inclusions in seasons 6 and 7, and of course, Tony Almeida being around for season 7. Yeah, I loved Tony and thought his death in season 5 was unwarranted too, but the explanation for his resurrection was laughably nonsensical.

As much as I loved certain characters who have been written off the show, I don't want to see them come back for no good reason. The writing usually has to be so sloppy to justify bringing somebody back that it is hard to forgive (for example, how come everybody always happens to be in the same city at the same time?). We actually can go a whole season without seeing old characters come through for convoluted extended cameos, and the season would probably be better for it.

What a twist!
24 screenshot
Oh snap! She's been a superspy evil traitor all along! That... makes absolutely no sense, actually.

Every single season has, usually near the end, that one twist that defies expectations and doesn't make much sense if you go back and watch the season over again. Nina Meyers being a terrorist, President Logan being a mastermind, and Tony Almeida being evil--no, good--no, evil--are all good examples. I've written about this before, but I truly believe that the most effective narrative twists only occur when the writer has the twist in mind from page one. The writers of 24 are incapable of doing this.

Any lingering doubts you might have about whether or not the writers knew about these wild twists before they wrote the first episode will be answered if you listen to the audio commentaries on the DVD sets. They admit that they write the characters in such an ambiguous way that they believe they can get away with the biggest leaps of narrative logic that they might invent later on. Nina being a mole, Logan being evil, etc., were all plot twists they thought of only an episode or two before the reveal. Therefore, they have no protection against somebody going back to an earlier episode and finding glaring inconsistencies that render the plot twist incongruous with what we know. After a few seasons of this, even the most blissfully ignorant viewer shouldn't be surprised when some completely impossible revelation pops up in the show.

Part of the fun in a good plot twist is whether or not you see it coming. But when you can't trust narrative logic, you can't predict where the show is going. The sad truth is that the writers don't always know where they're going either; they freely admit that they make this stuff up as they go. That is the single most disappointing fact about 24, and in my dreams, I would hope that the writers would have fleshed out at least a basic outline of the show long before they started writing the first episode. But this is too much to expect for season 8. After all, not all shows can be Lost.

There's a mole!
24 screenshot
Then again, if Gael really had been a mole, he probably would have killed Kim

One unbelievably overused plot device in the 24 bag of tricks is the mole. I can understand why the lure of the mole is so irresistable to the writers of the show, because it gives Jack a handy-dandy excuse to work outside the system and it sets up a situation where it winds up being Jack vs. the law vs. terrorists. Granted, this is a much more dynamic and thrilling situation than Jack along with everybody else vs. terrorists, but it's been done so much in the last seven seasons of the show that it no longer has any meaning. Season 7 took it to the most ridiculous extreme by having moles everywhere, in every law enforcement agency and in every branch of the federal government. If that's not a silly parody of 24, I don't know what is.

The writers, in short, need to find a new dynamic. The one and only time they've pulled the mole card in an ingenius way was in the beginning of season 3, in which we were lead to believe that there was yet another mole in CTU (Gael) who later turned out to be a triple agent working with both Jack and Tony in an overly complex sting operation. However, that one flash of brilliance was the only time the writers seemed to acknowledge that the mole thing has been overdone, and it was four seasons ago!

There are plenty of other reasons for Jack to work outside the system, and it would be interesting to be dropped into a universe where the authorities can actually be trusted but Jack is unable to do so because of years and years of bad experiences trusting other human beings.

But that's not the really real threat!
24 screenshot
"He thwarted my third evil plot for today?! Oh well, good thing I have three more evil plots lined up."

24, like most shows, was initially only ordered for twelve episodes in the first season. After the first few episodes aired and turned out to be a wild success, the bigwigs at Fox decided to order twelve more to make a complete, twenty-four-episode season. The upshot of this is that the writers wrote a mini-ending at the twelve hour mark, just in case the show didn't do well enough to warrant the full season. It worked, narratively, and the second half of the first season seems like a logical follow-up to the first half, even though they definitely feel like two disparate parts of the whole.

Unfortunately, season 1 is the only season that can use that excuse. Every season has done something similar, in that the first part of the season is devoted to one problem while another problem crops up immediately afterwards. Some seasons did this relatively well (seasons 2 and 5 come to mind), while other seasons did it in such a hamfisted way that it is hard to swallow (seasons 6 and 7).

Season 4 is the worst offender here, because the main villain, Habib Marwan, had an endless series of increasingly silly contingency plans should his first evil terrorist plot be thwarted. By the end, Marwan had kidnapped the Secretary of Defense, had attempted to detonate all of the country's nuclear power plants, had shot down Air Force One, had stolen the nuclear football, and had attempted to fire a nuclear missile at Los Angeles. I sincerely doubt there are any terrorists in the world who are so ambitious to plan that much for a single day. Season 7 was pretty bad too, because while Colonel Dubaku was failing to cause mass havoc with the C.I.P. device (also known as the ultimate MacGuffin), General Juma was working on a simultaneous contingency plan to abduct the president, all while a private defense contractor was planning to disperse a biological weapon on United States soil. Watching these multiple scenarios happening all within the same twenty-four hours requires a suspension of disbelief that borders on the impossible.

It would be something if the writers could come up with a story that doesn't require such sudden and proposterous changes of direction. It's made difficult, though, because they always try to make the initial threat so grandiose that anything that follows is bound to seem tame in comparison. Which finally brings us to...

OMG! The stakes have never been higher!
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This has already happened, so we have to come up with something even bigger!

Jack Bauer's actions in the last six seasons--even his most extreme--are easily forgivable because he was trying to save the lives of thousands, if not millions, of people. If Jack hadn't done whatever it took, nuclear bombs would have gone off, biological and chemical weapons would have been released all over the place, and the entire country would no doubt be a steaming pile of rubble.

Season 7 asked us to consider the ethical side of Jack Bauer, but the fact that he was willing to sacrifice absolutely everything about himself in order to essentially save the world meant that we were unable to think of him with any shades of grey. Wouldn't it be interesting, then, if Jack Bauer had to weigh his actions more carefully because the stakes are smaller and more personal? Anybody else remember how well that worked back in season 1, when only a couple of people were in any real danger?

Season 2 had a nuclear bomb in the hands of terrorists, so season 3 had to up the ante by having a weaponized übervirus in the hands of terrorists. Season 4 had to up the stakes even more by putting all the nation's nuclear power plants in the hands of terrorists, followed by a stealth bomber and another nuclear weapon (this time on a missile!). Season 5 had nerve gas, an EMP device, and an evil president, so season 6 had to take that extra step and make America a country paralyzed by suicide bombers and the constant barrage of terrorism (at least for the first hour or two, before everything became a little less surreal so that the writers could write more comfortably). Season 7, in an attempt to up the stakes even more, created the C.I.P. device, had the president abducted, and then resorted to biological weapons again. If the writers try to keep this trend up, season 8 will probably deal with a super-sized nuclear bomb that could potentially tear the world in half.

At some point, you have to wonder how the 24 universe continues to operate in a way that approximates reality. If terrorism were going on at the rate it goes on in the show, and with the crazy threats getting progressively worse all the time, we'd probably be living in a police state and people like Jack Bauer would be roaming the streets interrogating everyone who blinked too often. The writers should seriously consider having the stakes considerably lower--and more personal--in season 8. It would simply be more interesting, more provocative, and more original.

-e. magill 12/08/2009


Copyright 2009 e. magill. All rights reserved.