Monday, October 7, 2013

24 @ 24: Day One, 12:00 AM - 5:00 AM

The most striking thing about these first five hours of 24 is how completely of-their-time they are. Sure, there are the obvious hallmarks that this is the year 2001: the cell phones, the home phones (they're not the same thing!), Kim Bauer's (Elisha Cuthbert) kidnappers drive a van decked out in blacklights and listen to Nine Inch Nails-type alternative metal. Our hero, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), works for the Counter-Terrorism Unit; the Department of Homeland Security hadn't been formed yet. And, of course, the idea that a black man - in this case, Senator David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) - could become president was still decidedly far-fetched.

But more so than those narrative elements is that fact that 24 as we know it and its subsequent success could not have occurred at any other point in television history. The pilot aired a little less than two months after 9/11, at a time when terrorism was the national buzzword and everyone worried about when the next attack would come. FOX and the show's creators, Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran, had  a program that provided the perfect catharsis: Bauer would defeat the terrorists and save American lives. The show began as a modest hit, and though it never reached the Nielsen top 10 seasonally, it did average more than 10 million viewers over the course of its run. It would also become a critical hit, winning raves and awards, included the Best Drama Series Emmy in 2006 (to date, it's the last non-cable drama to win) and the Best Drama Series Golden Globe in 2003. 

The first five hours of season (day) one, though, are all about setting up the show's premise and characters. Most people, even those who have never seen the show, are at least familiar with the show's main gimmick: each hour of the show equals one hour of "real time," and the entire season takes place over a single day. It's a clever trick, even if the show doesn't exactly pull it off in the most believable fashion. Luckily, the emphasis here isn't really on the gimmick as much as it is on crafting an action-packed narrative. There's a plot to assassinate Palmer on the day of the California Primary, which, if Palmer were to win, would secure him the nomination for president. At this stage, there's no explanation for who's actually behind the plot, how many are involved, or what kidnapping Jack's daughter Kim has to do with any of it.

There are, essentially, five different narratives playing out. Jack is attempting to find the terrorist responsible from blowing up a passenger flight, who is also likely the hitman hired to carry out the assassination. Jack's wife, Teri (Leslie Hope), is searching for their estranged daughter. Some time is spent with the young people involved in the assassination plot, though their role has mostly been ambiguous for now. Palmer is holed up in his hotel room with his family, with a story about to leak about how his son murdered his daughter's alleged rapist. And then there's Kim's storyline, as she desperately tries to escape from her kidnappers. At this point, only Jack's plot is actually interesting, while the others are just getting warmed up.

But while there's mostly just table-setting going on, the show does offer us a few glimpses of the Jack that became a pop culture lightning rod in the debate on the War on Terror. Jack is mostly presented as a tough agent with sharp instincts; in other words, a man who's very good at his job. However, Jack's skills sometimes fall into extralegal practices. After a building shootout with unknown gunmen, Jack cuts the finger off one of the shooters to take back to CTU and get a positive identification. In another shootout, he explains to a police officer (who is eventually killed thanks to him) that when keeping America safe, you have to operate outside of the law. I'm sure as we get further into the series, these themes will come up again and again, but for now, these few mentions are all we really get.

There's not a whole lot happening in these early episodes: the plots are vague but exciting, and we haven't spent enough time with these characters to really understand them just yet. But there's reason to be optimistic going forward: we're only just beginning.

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