Sunday, September 11, 2011
WHO ARE YOU WORKING FOR?
Ten years ago today, a bunch of assholes hijacked planes and destroyed the World Trade Center towers, while a bunch of their friends set their sights on Washington DC. With that, any brief uncertainty about how the American 21st century would be defined was gone. That would be the thing. But this is not every 9/11 story, this is just one.
I was a couple months out of college and was fortunate enough to have made the arbitrary decision to take a temp job handing out campaign flyers—that Tuesday was going to be the primaries for a bunch of city- and state-wide shit—and to schedule my interview at the Borders in the World Trade Center for Wednesday, so I could have some cash in my pocket for breakfast before that interview. They had asked me if I could come in Tuesday morning at 10 or so in the morning, or Wednesday a little later, so there was that consideration as well. As it happened, the primaries were called off, so I was out that $50-60, and judging from the fact that I could see the smoke from where my interview the next day was for a fucking month I made the judgment call that that interview had been at the very least postponed. But that was the extent of the immediate personal effect that day had on me. I woke up (incongruously early) and picked up The Hunt For Red October where I'd left off the night before, which any tenuous “whoa, that's deep” connections to warfare and such aside was just like any hundred other Tuesdays in my life. Until the movie ended and the TV was showing the news.
The effect on the entertainment business, under which broad definition the subject of this blog falls, was pretty huge. Any project at any stage of its development that had anything at all to do with terrorism immediately became a huge locus of potential controversy. Some pictures, like the Matt Damon vehicle The Bourne Identity, saw their release dates postponed several months, others, like the Arnold picture Collateral Damage, had the living shit cut out of them. Perhaps the most affected, though, was Fox's new TV show 24.
Now that its run is over, especially with the hideously fucking retarded last season of the show, it's easy to forget that once upon a time, 24 was the most highly anticipated TV show like ever. Critics were lining up in droves to hail it as the most ambitious show of all time, second coming of sliced bread, so on and so forth. All summer I'd been reading shit from people who normally kept pretty buttoned up about how 24 was going to change the entire medium of television. Its real-time conceit, that each of its 24 episodes would be one hour in the day of protagonist Jack “Kiefer Sutherland” Bauer, and that the bulk of those hours would consist of people getting their asses handed to them by the bad guy from Stand By Me, appealed to me greatly, so I was looking forward to it.
Although clearly not the most pressing matter on my mind on 9/11/01, once it was collectively decided that we could talk about shit again, and I got back to paying what attention I did to entertainment media, I read a thing about how Fox was uncertain they could even air the pilot to 24, as it featured a shot of a plane blowing up (oh yeah, that was the other thing, anything even remotely relating to airplanes got the fine-toothed-comb treatment by “unofficial” censors). It was later decided to simply remove the footage of the plane blowing up.
So they hyped the living motherfuck out of 24 the rest of that fall, including so many goddamn ads during the World Series that I had time to refuse to watch the show in disgust at the overhype, decide after a while to steel myself resolutely against that hype and watch it anyway, refuse again because it was starting to look like the show might suck, then finally decide “Fuck it, I'll watch the pilot and take it from there.” In November, I watched the pilot, and at the end of it after the explosion-less ending actually worked better artistically than an explosion would have, I was like “FUCK YES WHEN CAN IT BE NEXT WEEK???”
Because the first season of 24, when it first aired, was an extraordinary, exhilarating experience. I had never seen a TV that “felt like a movie” before, due in large part to movie director Stephen Hopkins (who directed eleven episodes season 1, including all the important ones) setting the tone by incorporating then-rare elements like handheld camera—which still worked back then as a means of establishing a more realistic tone—and valuing editing more highly than anything I'd ever seen on TV. The tension, built from both the top-notch cinematics and some tight scripting, was almost unbearable at times. Jack Bauer, that first year, was an enormously sympathetic hero, a fiercely competent and dedicated straight-arrow trying to make things right with his wife, who although kind of a dingbat was all right, and his daughter Kim, who although an annoying teenager was nonetheless an acceptably smart and resourceful one. The presidential aspirant, whose threatened assassination formed the bulk of the main plot's drama for the season, David Palmer, was a truly great man, magnificently portrayed by Dennis Haysbert. The show was almost thoroughly apolitical, though Palmer was openly identified as a Democrat and the fact that he was black was definitely mentioned, important, and dealt with well.
I mention all of this, as well as the fact that Jack did eat lunch and get extremely tired at a couple places, and people did take a piss every few episodes, and sometimes characters would disappear for an episode or so because they were driving through Los Angeles traffic, to highlight the fact that the first season of 24 was a different animal from the ones that followed. The writers stuck to their original storyline rather than abruptly having Jack take off after Osama Bin Laden mid-season, keeping the magnificent Zeljko Ivanek the main heavy until Dennis motherfucking Hopper turned up for the last couple episodes as basically Voldemort with the worst fake accent in the history of bad villain accents, and was AWESOME.
I've revisited the first season of 24 three times since. The first two were three-or-four day marathons in preparation for subsequent season openers, and the last was earlier this year. That last rewatch revealed a couple blemishes I'd previously overlooked and a couple get-the-fuck-outta-here writing moments (this is partly attributable to my having seen superior television since then), but I'll nonetheless hold that season up against the debut seasons of just about anything else in the history of television. It gets smoked by The Wire—the king stay the king—but it's better than the first season of Lost, which seriously drags in the middle fifteen episodes or so, it's more consistently exciting than the first season of The Sopranos, so on and so forth. Well, shit, it's not as good as the first season of Twin Peaks. But the point stands, it was a damn fine season of television.
But it's one that, at the time, I couldn't conceive of anything other than a stand-alone without seriously dipping in quality. The sheer balls of the way the season ends, with Jack killing the bad guys, but not before the mole Nina Myers kills his wife in her panicked escape attempt, precluded any kind of continuation, to my mind, of Jack's career as a counter-terrorism agent. At least in any official capacity. The way I saw it, the most important thing about 24 was always the real-time conceit, and when the announcement was made that 24 would have a second season, I wondered momentarily if Jack would wander the country in grief, with the day perhaps being a “stranger comes to town” scenario where Jack would get enmeshed in some smaller-scale but still compelling intrigue over the course of the day. I thought, with the naivete of someone with a soul, that it would be artistically interesting to explore the real-time thing and the character of Jack Bauer, rather than just winding him up and sending him out to go whomp on some Osama lookalikes.
That, of course, is what season 2 of 24 was about: a bunch of A-rabs with a nuke-ya-ler bomb. The production values and editing carried the show through a whole bunch of retarded shit, like keeping Kim around just to keep her around (and because Elisha Cuthbert was and is an extremely attractive young woman), which resulted in her getting lost in the desert and almost getting eaten by a cougar. (Ed. Note: this is not a euphemism for an attractive older woman trying to perform cunnilingus on her, which needless to say would have been a fascinating four-episode story arc, this is a literal reference to a four-legged furry creature with claws). There was a late-season bait-and-switch where it was revealed that the real bad guys were evil white guys in suits, but since we only met them like the episode we found out they were the bad guys it didn't really mean anything.
Then season 3, the writers really fucked the dog. They gave Jack a partner, a heroin habit he incurred while infiltrating a bunch of Mexican drug dealers, Kim as a co-worker at CTU (the increasingly ridiculous fictional government agency that employs Jack and every single mole who ever attempted to infiltrate the United States), and a fucking ricockulous plot revolving around one of those instantaneously lethal nerve gases that would kill the entire population of Earth if they were as powerful as they're said to be. There was a bait-and-switch toward the middle where the writers killed the stupid Mexican drug dealer baddies and introduced an English guy (as subtle a fix for inadequately villainous bad guys as railing heroin to cure a headache), which didn't make the nerve gas thing any less dumb, but it nonetheless ended the season on a high enough note that I came back for season 4.
Now, season 4 of 24 was awesome. It had the uneasy borderline racist shit about Middle Easterners, but kept it pretty much in check, and it was another “Los Angeles is menaced by nuke-ya-ler weapons” plotline—establishing the pattern that would last the remainder of the series, wherein even-numbered seasons were nuke seasons and odd-numbered seasons were nerve-gas seasons—but it was tight, there wasn't any fuckin bullshit with Kim and Nina was finally dead, Tony Almeida had magnificent swag, and at the end of the season, Jack officially didn't exist anymore, having faked his own death, and he walked off into the sunset. 24 had long ceased to have any artistic value, but it was a wildly entertaining season with a great fucking ending.
Season 5 was erratic in terms of quality, though it had great bad guys in wackadoo president Logan (Gregory Itzin) and Peter Weller as the guy who “taught Jack everything he knows,” a great archetype in retarded action stories, and tremendously rad with someone as dope as Peter Weller at the controls. The season was all over the place, and Jack was a total cartoon character by this point, though a lot of the dumbness was counterbalanced by a genuinely surprising ending where Jack was kidnapped by the Chinese (whose enmity Jack incurred by breaking into their embassy to kill a guy or something like that the previous season).
The way Jack was brought back season 6 almost made me completely give up on the show forever, because it was just fucking stupid and Jack was indistinguishable from the way he'd been seasons 2-5 after a shave. Maybe Jack went nuts because he hadn't taken a shit in about 10 years, but considering he hadn't eaten in about 10 years since that lunch middle of season 1 maybe he didn't need to. Either way, season 6 was fucking bullshit and inalienable proof that the show as currently constituted was untenable.
To my great surprise, 24's writers actually did what I'd been wanting them to do since season 2 and move the show out of Los Angeles. Season 7, prologued by a not-half-bad stand-alone two-hour episode set in Africa, was rock solid up until the very end, in spite of it being an odd-numbered season and thus a nerve gas season. It made a very, very bad decision at the end of the season, with regards to longtime fan favorite Tony Almeida. From the very beginning of the show, Tony's purpose was to provide an alternate-universe Jack, who over time managed to get past his vastly different methodology to become a loyal and respected comrade of Jack's (who, early in season 4, Jack calls “the only man I can completely trust,” and follows the fuck through on one of 24's finest non-Jack-related ownage sequences), only to have his world completely shattered when, early season 5, the bad guys kill his wife (as well as David Palmer, about which, more later), and then Peter Weller kills him season 5. Kills him as in dead. Like, no longer alive and walking around and giving forth with ownage.
So. Tony's reintroduced season 7 as a bad guy. Okay. Wrong, but strong. He's then revealed to be a deeeeeeeeeeep deep cover agent infiltrating the baddies for some radically covert, extremely off-the-radar, so hardcore Jack Bauer doesn't even know about them, government group (that injected him with something to make him look dead so they could get his body out of CTU's infirmary and revive him in bad guy Narnia). 24 had gotten just retarded enough by this point that this was an acceptable reason for Tony to still be alive. He then resumes being a good guy alongside Jack, and not an uninteresting one either, as his ragged, dead-eyed “fuck the world, everyone I love is dead” worldview more or less resembles Jack's. But then they upfuck the entire business by having Tony really be bad again at the end of the season, which concluded with a fart.
Season 8 I never made all the way through. Anil Kapoor even showed up as the president of Middle-Eastistan and it didn't help. (Ed. Note: when Anil Kapoor can't save your movie or show, you're in a special level of fucked the CDC classifies by crossing themselves and leaving the room.) Starbuck from Battlestar showed up and—OH MY FUCKING GOD! A MOLE IN CTU????? WHAT ARE THE ODDS????—ended up being a mole. That was the point when I decided to check out and catch up with my backlog of research for my Unified Field Theory of Gina Gershon, which was far more pressing business than seeing 24 and all its fucking ridiculous bullshit to its bitter end.
Where, oh where did it all go wrong? It'd be tempting to say, “after season 1” but that's utopian. 24 was fucked irrevocably from 9/11/01 onward. Obviously this was not the biggest tragedy of that day, I'd be a goddamn fool to suggest so. But this is not every 9/11 story, this is just one. There is a slim possibility that 24 would have gone in a different direction were it not for the sea change in the American popular consciousness after 9/11. More likely, if there'd been no 9/11 on 9/11, 24 would have gone through its first season as a critics' darling, an obscure footnote in the history of ownage, and quietly not been renewed for a second season due to shitty ratings. It'd have been as quickly forgotten as the Ed Zwick/Denzel/Bruce Willis picture The Siege in '98, but if The Siege had been good. But there's no way of knowing that now.
Instead, with many Americans turning to whatever avatar they could to live out their desire for revenge for the 9/11 attacks, Jack Bauer's “fuck the rules, I'm goin H.A.M.” attitude became enormously popular, and for some reason a show that got its start with a season about protecting a Democratic presidential campaign became right-wing porn, with Republican politicians and media operatives—a more apt term for the Fox News shitheads than “journalists,” for damn sure—lovingly, glowingly, masturbatorily name-checking Jack Bauer in a wistful “if only those damn liberals would let us” fashion whenever we started politely asking that they not rape Iraqi POWs or waterboard “suspected terrorists.”
This all culminated with the assassination of David Palmer at the beginning of season 5, which is the point where 24 ceased to have any value whatsoever beyond filmmaking (which stayed fairly solid, even if the last couple years they did a really bad job of hiding the fact that “Washington DC” and “New York City” were Los Angeles). Sure, the show began with the need to protect David Palmer and it didn't need to end with that as well, but they almost killed him and he pulled through so many fucking times by that point that to just ice him at the beginning of the season for a shock moment was a sign that no one involved with the show gave a fuck about it at all. I really hated that. I felt like a sucker for still having at least fractionally given a fuck for so many years after the show's creators ceased to.
Disillusioned as I was by the way the show played out, 24 deserves credit for resurrecting Kiefer Sutherland's career, and for good measure turning him into not only a badass, but one of the pre-eminent minds in ownage. I use the word “mind” deliberately, because Jack Bauer thought up more creative, insensitive, and occasionally disgusting ways to own bad guys than anyone this side of Tony Jaa. Still, even that rarefied achievement was undone by the dumbness of the show.
Like, how many fucking times could this elite counter-terrorism outfit get fucking infiltrated? At least Nina Myers, Aisha Tyler, and Starbuck were hot (I don't blame her being funny-looking on her being funny-looking, I blame it on the hair people for not supporting her by hiding the ears) but shit, that's the tip of the iceberg. Also, even if you give them a pass on that under the “evil is sexy” clause, CTU is fucking terrible at their job. They never find out the bad guys are smuggling a nuke into the United States until they fucking get it here, which is a serious lapse in intelligence work. Remember, even on 9/11, the only time terrorists actually pulled something off against us on our home turf that fucking worked, we knew it was going to happen at least a month ahead of time, Bush was just like “meh, fuggit, ah'm on vacation, and anyways mah daddy's old buddy wouldn't do that ta us.” Terrorists can't penetrate governments. That's why they have to resort to terrorism.
Was the ultimate fate of 24 even the worst entertainment-related repercussion caused by 9/11? Of course not. But this is not every 9/11 story, this is just one. Lest we forget, the normalization of the idea of a black president, to which 24 and David Palmer contributed greatly, led to the election of Barack Obama. And while that hasn't exactly all been sunshine and unicorns and shit, it at least gave us the first possibility of finally pressing play again, after Bush freeze-framed us on 9/11/01 for almost a decade. After ten years, it's time to move on. Maybe we can, maybe we can't. But it'll sure help that 24 is off the air.