Monday, March 2, 2009

24 Day 7 - 6:00 - 8:00

After six and a half seasons of harrowing twists and countless surprises I can say with absolute certainty that episodes 10 and 11 of this seventh and latest season of 24 are the best two hours of 24 ever.  When I started this blog I had one rule and one rule only: to write about movies exclusively.  Nobody can therefore be more surprised than me that a program on the "boob tube" has inspired me -- like Jack Bauer -- to break my rule.  Sorry dear reader.  If you're disappointed, all I can say in my defense is that the show has always looked more like a movie than anything else on TV and I have been vehemently trying to recruit viewers ever since it started.   

To bring you up to speed on this season: America has been under attack from African militants who hope to prevent US intervention in their civil war.  CTU (for all you newbies this means Counter-Terrorist Unit) has been disbanded and super spy Jack Bauer is stuck in the Senate's crosshairs after years of breaking protocol and employing inhumane tactics to interrogate prisoners in the war on terror.  But Bauer is pardoned by the President herself -- yes her, Tony-winner Cherry Jones -- and asked to lead a covert task force to root out a fleet of traitors who are working within the highest government agencies. Last week, Jack succeeded in unearthing a list of all the government conspirators.  

This is where the spoiler thickens...

Tonight's double-header centered on a mind-blowing incident: an invasion of the white house.  Is this strictly plausible?  No, and that's precisely why I felt compelled to say a few words.  Sometimes the most improbable situations give rise to the most entertaining results.  24 has never been a show that can be categorized as strictly "plausible," but this was an hour for those of us who are willing to indulge in the question: "what if?"  What would happen if a militant group were actually able to infiltrate the White House?  Those viewers like me who are able to suspend their disbelief to get onboard with an occasionally ludicrous premise will witness the unimaginable efficiently imagined.  

Sometimes cleverness and daring are more rewarding than safe adherence to the facts and this week's back-to-back episodes succeeded on the basis of this principle.  They succeeded because the writers have carefully drawn us into the life of a female President who is confronted with an attack on her country her husband and ultimately her estranged daughter, all on the same day.  The writers have drawn us into the life of Jack Bauer, the most doggedly determined hero in the history of television, who persists in ignoring the orders of his superiors and the maxims of his government in order to do what is necessary.

Here Jack is sanctioned by the President herself, while torturing a terror suspect within the very walls of the White House.  Moments later, the terrorist attack takes place and the show asks us to consider the shortcomings of a system that would value human rights over homeland security.  All of this is wrapped up in a package of exhilarating gun fights and white knuckle, sweaty-palm, suspense as the terrorists close in on the President and her daughter.  It works for a variety of reasons.  Subliminally we find ourselves responding to a shift in story structure.  Whereas every episode up to this point has engaged us with multiple alternating plotlines, this week's final hour from 7:00 - 8:00 pm traps us inside the siege without any reprieve.   For the first time I can ever remember seeing on this show, time stands still.  The White House is the show and the intensity is non-stop.  

In the final breathless moments, the President and Jack Bauer are trapped inside a panic room together, as the terrorists capture her daughter and try to leverage her out.  Despite Jack's protests, the President surrenders and Jack becomes a hostage along with many others.  TV was invented so we could occasionally enjoy writing like this.  There's a word for it in every culture.  For now, let's just call it compelling.