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News around the Net and 24 Returns!

January 13th, 2009
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Not to distract anyone’s attention from MotionPicturesComics.com, but I wanted to point out to y’all that Drew McWeeny, one of my favorite writers over the years at Aintitcoolnews.com, is now writing for HitFix.com and his blog (about movies, DVD, and lots of other fun, related stuff) is definitely worth checking out.  I’ve always enjoyed Drew’s writing over the years (he was known as “Moriarty” over on AICN), particularly his articles on all of the many many DVDs that he watches.  Those DVD pieces, in particular, were among my inspirations when I started this blog.  

McWeeny’s new blog attracted a lot of attention last week when he posted a lengthy open letter from one of the producers of Watchmen about the on-going litigation between Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox over the film (and Fox’s attempts to stop Warners from opening the film as scheduled in March).  If you are at all interested in this story, you should click on that link and read this fascinating letter.  Another recent post of interest drew my attention to a phenomenal evisceration of Ben Stein’s recent “documentary” Expelled (if you haven’t heard about this film, it’s a defense of creationism and an attack on the theory of evolution) by none other than famous film critic Roger Ebert.  This is an older article (Expelled was released last year), but it is a terrific read.

But enough of all that — let’s talk about the first four hours of 24‘s much-delayed seventh season (it was supposed to have launched LAST YEAR at this time, but was scuttled by the writers’ strike), which premiered on Sunday and Monday nights.

I have made no secret of my opinion that, for some time now (since, oh, I’d say about season four) 24 has been crying out for a total reinvention.  Keep Jack, keep the adrenaline-pumping real-time format, but start telling some entirely different types of adventures.  For too long now, 24 has been telling the same types of stories over and over and over again, usually involving some variation on the following themes:  a terrorist captures someone and forces them to help with a nefarious plan… Jack tortures someone for information… there’s a lot of technical talk about access codes and opening sockets and someone gaining access to a weapon or a code or a piece of equipment that they can use to menace the United States… Jack winds up on his own with no one to trust, because there’s a mole or multiple moles in the government agencies trying to stop the bad guys… and meanwhile there’s a lot of intrigue in Washington involving the President trying to make some big decisions about important world affairs but getting undermined by personal business and/or the machinations of his various staff members.  Any of this sound familiar?

Upon viewing the made-for-DVD 24 movie Redemption a few months ago, I was at once encouraged to see Jack in a new locale in some new situations (involved in a brutal conflict over in Africa) and disappointed to see the reappearance of too many old 24 tropes (torture, moles in Washington DC, etc.).

So how were these first four hours of 24: season seven?

Well, as with Redemption, it’s quite a mixed bag.  Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to like.  There are some interesting new faces, such as Annie Wersching as FBI Agent Walker, Colm Feore as first-man Henry Taylor, and Bob Gunton as White House Chief-of-Staff Ethan Kanin.  In particular, I thought Cherry Jones acquitted herself very well as the new President, creating a very different type of chief executive from the ones we’ve seen on 24 in previous years (even though she’s confronted with a lot of the same plot developments).  John Billingsley was one of my favorite things about the rather mediocre Star Trek: Enterprise, and I enjoyed seeing him as the hapless sucker kidnapped in the exciting opening moments of hour one.  I hope we see more of him.  

I am intrigued by some of the mysteries raised in these early episodes, and I was pleasantly surprised by some nice connections with Redemption — in particular, after getting to know the President’s likable son in that DVD-movie, I was much more engaged than I might otherwise have been in the story of the circumstances surrounding his mysterious “suicide.”  Best of all, I am thrilled to see Tony (“soulpatch”) Almeida back on the show.  As ridiculous as his resurrection might be, he is a dynamic and beloved character, and his presence brings a lot more oomph to all of the standard bad-guys-make-threats-and-do-menacing-things-using computers-in-small-dark-rooms scenes that might otherwise be rather boring.  I was pleased at how early on the writers got Jack and Tony face-to-face — their scenes together were a ton of fun. 

I also enjoyed the number of nods to events in previous seasons.  From the questions asked of Jack before the Senate committee to Tony’s reference in an argument with Jack to the death of Teri from way back in season 1, I really enjoyed that attention to detail.  While I think 24 needs to abandon the story-lines that have characterized all of the previous seasons, that doesn’t mean I want the show to ignore their existence.  I like it when there is some sense of continuity to Jack’s adventures.

So what’s not so good?

Primarily I am disappointed that, in just these first 4 hours, the show has already fallen back too often on the old, familiar story crutches of the type discussed above.  OK, we’re not in CTU anymore, but the set-up in the FBI office seems to re-create almost exactly the same dynamic.  We have all the same computer monitors and ringing phones and “quirky” (read: annoying) agents.  (I guess Janeane Garofalo really studied the acting of Mary Lynn Rajskub when they both appeared on The Larry Sanders Show, because Garofalo portrays quite a Chloe-clone here.)  And yes, there’s apparently yet another mole.  Jack wasn’t back in the field for five minutes before he was convinced that he and the newly-introduced Agent Walker had to do everything on their own because NONE OF HER SUPERVISORS COULD BE TRUSTED.  I have seen this story a billion times on this show so far, and I am beyond bored with it.  Give me something new, please!

I was also disappointed by how quickly the story of Jack on trial for his crimes was jettisoned.  OK, I know he wasn’t really on trial, he was just appearing for questioning, but I was intrigued by the idea of some of Jack’s actions finally coming to light, and in seeing how he would defend himself.  But we only got 2-3 minutes of this in the first hour, before Jack got pressed into service to help the FBI.  What a waste of a great story idea.  Obviously Jack is going to get back into action sooner or later, but I would have really liked to have seen that pushed back a bit so that we could have spent more time with the Senate interrogation.

Frankly, for several years now 24 has been exhibiting what I can only term storytelling-attention-deficit-disorder, and the quick abandonment of the Jack-on-trial idea is just one example of this.  The show has become so pre-occupied with being fast-paced and twisty that it can’t seem to stick with any given storyline for more than a few minutes.  (BIG SPOILER ALERT now, so proceed at your peril.)  Here’s another example: after the first night, I was starting to get excited by the idea of Tony Almeida as a terrorist.  24 lives or dies, in my opinion, on the quality of its villain, and I was enthusiastic about the idea of Tony being Jack’s nemesis this year.  But only a short time into night two we found out that, surprise surprise, he’s not really evil he’s just undercover.  What a letdown!  Why couldn’t we have let Jack and Tony face off for a few more episodes before getting this reveal?  Bigger question: why couldn’t the show have displayed some guts and let Tony ACTUALLY BE EVIL?  Wouldn’t that have been a much bigger twist than the “revelation” that he’s really a good guy after all?

I must also note that, while I praised some of the nice connections with Redemption, there were also a lot of inconsistencies.  For example, hour one’s opening Senate scene didn’t flow at all from the end of that movie.  In Redemption, Jack seems to be consumed by guilt over all that he has done over the years.  Yet, in the opening minutes of this season, when he’s testifying, we’re back with the old familiar I-am-right-and-you’re-a-fool-for-daring-to-question-me Jack Bauer.  I had thought, after Redemption, that maybe we were finally seeing a little depth in Jack, that at last he was beginning to wonder whether the ends really do ALWAYS justify the means.  But there was none of that questioning, none of that complexity, in the Jack Bauer we were reintroduced to in season seven.  This Jack Bauer doesn’t seem all that different, frankly, from the Jack we met back in season one — tough, stubborn, and willing to do whatever it takes to get things done.  Maybe that’s what makes the character so popular, but I for one would prefer to see some additional colors added into that characterization, here in the seventh season of his show.  

Finally, there’s Tony’s plan to smash up some airplanes by fooling them into thinking that he’s air traffic control and then directing them to make course corrections that put them on course to crash.  I might think that was a clever, ingeniously evil plot if I hadn’t already seen it in Die Hard 2 back in 1990.  Sheesh.  (They should have gone full-out and just hired Colm Meany as one of the airplane pilots!!)

Bottom line — these first four hours were four hours of reasonably well-executed 24 adventures.  There is a lot of excitement to be had, but there’s no denying that we’re seeing just more of the same familiar 24 stories that we’ve been seeing for six seasons now.  Without the major re-invention that I’d been hoping for, I am concerned at just how long the show can sustain the energy of the stories currently being told, no matter how interesting things might seem in the season’s opening hours.  (Finding a way to sustain the excitement throughout all 24 episodes of the season has always been the show’s greatest challenge.)  For now, I’m still on board  — let’s see where things go.

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