The accused: 24, “Day 6: 9:00 a.m. — 10:00 a.m.”
The crime: Showing us what happens when good episodes mean bad things
Television’s failures are supposed to be obvious. From the overhyped non-starters that flop from the very beginning (hello, FlashForward, Lone Star) to the much-discussed clumsy conclusions of series we were convinced had it all planned out (nice to see you again, Battlestar Galactica), the medium’s big busts are right there in front of us. Whether because of low Nielsen ratings, terrible critical and fan response or something else entirely, the reaction to one episode often defines a series’ long-term legacy. But while we are often left wondering what it all means for the medium and for the industry when a series like Lone Star stumbles out of the gate or a series like Battlestar Galactica presents a controversial ending, those discourses tend to focus on disastrous beginnings and ill-conceived endings.
But what about those mishaps that are not so obvious, the catastrophes that happen somewhere in the middle? How much impact, both positive and negative, can one bad episode have on an entire series? How do long-running series continue onward in the aftermath of an episodic failure? Is it possible that individual, episodic failures of television’s most respected series tell us more than the failings of a much-hyped about pilot or series finale? And how do we really define “failure” anyway? These are just a few of the questions that I hope to answer with #TVFail. In each entry, I will be taking a look at an individual episode of television that is considered a disappointment and will talk about how and why these individual episodes came to represent “failure” and also discuss whether or not those definitions still apply today.
Before we get started today, I just wanted to take care of a few house-keeping things. First of all, I wanted to thank all of you for the positive support through tweets, comments and email about this feature. It is always nice to see people enjoy things you put a lot of effort into it, so thank you.
Secondly, as I mentioned in the last #TVFail entry, I unintentionally started this quasi format for the feature where the even-numbered pieces tend to take on larger frameworks, formats and questions about television, whereas the odd-numbered pieces have a slightly more intimate focus on the failures of a specific series. I’ve grown to like that toggling in my writing, so this little paragraph serves as an official acknowledgement of that structure moving forward, I guess. I could easily change my mind two entries from now, but I like using that structure.
Therefore, as an odd-numbered entry, today’s piece will take that more intimate look I just discussed. But I’m fairly confident you folks will like this one, because it raises an interesting question that fits perfectly into the #TVFail framework, even though I hadn’t thought of it before.
Reading over the introductory paragraph to this feature and thinking back on the first four posts within it, I was struck by something, something obvious: All of those episodes suck. Sure, they exist on a certain continuum of suck, wherein House’s “Simple Explanation” is at one end near the “Kind of OK” sign and The Office’s clip show is at the other end near “Downright terrible.” But in general, those four episodes of television would not be considered “good” by critics and probably even most fans of those specific series.
And that should be readily apparent, considering all four of them were on my initial list of episodes when I crafted this idea during a slightly boring lecture sometime in March. My desire to write about and re-evaluate terrible episodes spurred me to create this feature in the first place. And although I think I have done a solid job of meeting the goals I set out for this feature in the beginning, there is something that I haven’t yet considered in this space and it is what powers today’s entry of #TVFail:
What about good episodes?
It is easy to think about the reasons for why episodes already labeled with the “awful” marker serve as catalysts for larger problems in their respective series or in the medium as a whole. Drawing connections between the smaller awfuls and larger awfuls is a useful and fun process for me, but it’s not just the traditionally bad efforts that cause major problems for a series’ overall vitality. Sometimes, wonderful episodes that we love in the moment can be symptomatic of larger problems and perhaps we just don’t know it at first. Perhaps they plant the seeds for future downfalls, perhaps they reaffirm smaller problems that already exist and can only be identified as integral missteps in hindsight. Nevertheless, it is clear that it is not only the televisual bad eggs that spoil an entire batch.
Identifying good, but ultimately deadly episodes is a more difficult task, but I think today’s episode serves as a great example of this complicated phenomenon. This episode of FOX’s 24 was a tipping point for the series, a place and time where the series had gone so far and so fast down a specific road that there was really no way for it to turn back. And ultimately, the critically-acclaimed thriller was never the same after this early season six episode.
24 always toed the line between quality and insane stupidity, even dating all the way back to its first season. After those tremendous initial 13 episodes, the second half of the first season is full of goofy plot twists and stalling techniques – most notably Jack’s wife Teri experiencing amnesia for an hour or so just because the writers had really nowhere else to put here at that moment – and those kinds of things were present throughout the series’ early years.
I think most of us know that after 9/11, the series was tinkered with, becoming a narrative with larger and louder ambitions than those initial 13 episodes. It is truly unclear whether or not 24 would have developed the same sort of narrative ticks and tropes had the real-life terrorist attack occurred, and we will never know. But even in that first season, we can see how the series transitioned from a more intimate, personal story into a larger one about the never-ending scheming of government officials and the conspiracies that they create. There is nothing inherently wrong with that transition and I would argue that season one is still one of 24’s best.
In any event, by the end of the first season, 24 developed two major narrative devices that it used to keep the audience on their toes: The insane twist and the shocking character death. Oftentimes, these two things came together, like they did at the very end of season one when Nina kills Jack’s wife Teri before escaping CTU. These aren’t wholly original elements to enact, but the way that 24 used them always felt both raw and insane; it just worked.
General consensus is that those first two seasons of 24 were tremendous, but seasons three and four were dragged down by the fact that the tediousness of the formula. I like both of those seasons, especially the much-maligned season three, but I see where those critical of those seasons are coming from.
But by the time season five rolled around, things changed for 24. Or I guess sort of changed back. The fifth season was fervently praised by critics and fans alike, becoming the highest rated season yet. It also went on to win the Emmy award for Best Drama Series and Kiefer Sutherland was similarly recognized for his work as Jack Bauer that year.
So why, after a few down years, did consensus swing back in 24’s favor? In my recollection, a lot of it had to do with how visceral and personal this season was to Jack Bauer, and the primary way that the writers developed that conceit had nothing to do with his daughter being kidnapped or something lame like that. Nope, in the initial hour of season five, the series killed off both President David Palmer and Michelle Dessler, while critically wounding Tony Almedia (he was later killed and then brought back to life in season seven). In the first hour, 24 killed or injured three of the four most popular characters not named Jack Bauer. Later on, another fan favorite Edgar Stiles was also killed, because you know, why not?
Of course, at the time, these deaths seemed unbelievable, risky and important to the narrative. These were Jack’s closest allies in the world, and most of them were dead. The emotional gut-punch their deaths handed to Jack and us at home was unimaginable, but impressive at the same time. Throw in a tightly-plotted conspiracy plot that saw the President of the United States as the ultimate villain and season five of 24 served as a culmination of five years of insane twists and character deaths. All the awards and acclaimed that season received, it totally deserved.
But in retrospect, that should have been the end of 24. Even though the season ended with Jack captured by the Chinese, there was really nowhere compelling for the narrative to go. Unfortunately, the economics of television dictated that 24 return for more in a sixth season and by the time that season’s fourth episode rolled around, 24 was never, ever the same.
As you might imagine, when you build your narrative around insane twists and shocking deaths, you eventually reach a point where the usual insanity and shock doesn’t work anymore. That’s basically what happened to 24 in seasons three and four. So what’s the easiest way to fix those issues? Become even more insane and shockingly kill even more people. That was season five. What happens after that? Well, one major mess.
There are two primary byproducts of that kind of storytelling. First of all, the series gets stuck in a certain sort of pattern where it always has to top itself; things always have to be big, shocking, insane, etc. There’s really no way to go back to a more subtle form of storytelling. This applies to both general twists – OMG! The President did it! – to character deaths. At a certain point, the story twists and turns just for twist and turn’s sake. It’s sort of like a return to the middling, formulaic years, only with more obvious bombast.
Secondly, and more specifically related to the deaths: When you kill nearly all of the beloved, important characters in one big swipe, there is nobody left of consequence. New characters come in, but the audience doesn’t have the five years of experience with them. So when you eventually decide to kill them as well, the audience doesn’t care; they’re as immune and bored with it as Jack Bauer is. The emotional intensity and rawness that made all those deaths in season five so painful, yet great is completely gone when those remaining just don’t matter.
This brings us to the fourth episode of Day 6, “9:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.” Despite some obvious flaws – Wayne Palmer is now President of the United States? – the initial episodes of season six were pretty solid. Jack was sufficiently scarred from his time in China, as he totally vampire bit some terrorist in one of the initial episodes. But because of the way the episodes aired (two on Sunday, two on Monday), FOX and 24 realized that the fourth and final episode of the “two night event” had to really pull out all of the stops. In season four, Jack went crazy rogue in episode four. In season five, he helps end (i.e. kill) the terrorist taking hold of the airport. But none of that can top the craziness of season six, which features Jack being forced to shoot his one remaining ally at CTU, Curtis Manning, right in the head, and a sizable nuclear bomb being detonated in Los Angeles.
When this episode aired, I remember being completely flabbergasted at some of the wild stuff it pulled off. Season six had tons of new cast members, with Curtis being one of the few returning players. Well, so much for that, there’s another gut-punch. And the nuclear bomb! Holy crap, 12,000 people die. 24 had threatened those kinds of things for seasons, but this the deadliest event in the series’ history, by far. At that point, I distinctly remember thinking that there was a possibility that season six could top season five. I went back to watch this episode when I knew I’d be writing this feature and it still holds up. It’s well-paced, dramatic and intense in the way that all great 24 episodes should be. This is, without a doubt, a good, if not great, episode of 24.
Unfortunately, it is also the tipping point for a series that was never the same after it aired. The production team didn’t know it yet, but their five-plus year tightrope walk was over; they had fallen off. There’s no going back from detonating a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles that kills 12,000 people, especially when your narrative isn’t one that likes to stop and really dig into the consequences and emotional stability of anyone not named Jack Bauer. And there’s similarly no going back when you bring back a small number of recognizable characters and then kill one of them for really no reason at all four episodes into the season.
In the episodes following “9:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.,” 24 drifted along aimlessly, moving from one pointless new character and new twist to another, devoid of much emotional heft. Curtis’ death was barely mentioned moving forward and Jack didn’t seem especially torn up about it because the narrative dictated that he continue to do Jack Bauer things instead of mourn the death of yet another friend. Similarly, the aftermath of the detonation of the nuclear bomb was severely mishandled, almost as if it didn’t happen. In the following episode, the narrative shifted to Jack’s familial problems and a number other undercooked stories, all the while 12,000 PEOPLE JUST DIED.
Major events and shocking deaths no longer meant anything on 24, they were simply part of the entrenched formula. Instead of stopping for any sort of post-mortem or reflection, season six barreled forward like a vehicle with no one at the wheel. The series had killed too many important characters and wasn’t willing to deal with the consequences of the deaths of the thousands of faceless characters either. When one of your biggest narrative tools doesn’t work anymore, you’re sort of screwed, and 24 was definitely that.
In the two-and-a-half seasons following this episode, 24 was never the same, but it unfortunately thought it was. Season seven brought the INSANE TWIST of Tony’s return and a new, interesting love interest that was of course SHOCKINGLY killed in season eight for really no reason at all. Those seasons similarly continued the WILD episode four moment, with Jack and Tony raiding an embassy in season seven and Renee cutting a guy’s thumb off with a power saw in season eight. But most of it screamed of desperation and an attempt to one-up previous moments, without any of the importance or relevance of earlier seasons. The series limped to a finish, with those final three seasons feeling mostly like a waste. Who would have guessed the series’ best season caused all that to happen?
As they say, sometimes there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. 24’s production team never, ever learned that lesson and it played a major role in the series’ demise. Obviously this one “good” episode wasn’t the sole reason for the 24’s downfall – poor plotting and writing deserves a lot of the credit – but it played an interesting role in the deconstruction.