Test Pilot: File #58, 24

Test Pilot #58: 24
Debut date: November 6, 2001
Series legacy: One of the defining and most innovative series of the aughts

Afternoon folks. I apologize for the day delay with this post. My guest had his portion done on time, but I simply couldn’t make that deadline. It happens to all of us.

Anyway, we have reached the end of another Test Pilot theme. I’ve quite enjoyed the look back through War on Terror television and before we get into the final piece, I would just like to thank Kevin McFarland, Chris Becker, Julie Hammerle and today’s guest Eric Thurm for making this theme so successful. The pilots haven’t been especially interesting, but the conversation has been.

The War on Terror means a lot of different things to a lot of different people (and again, I hope that those different ideas or ideologies come out in these pieces) and for good reason: It’s a somewhat vague and blanket term for an expansive, complicated–and some would say convoluted–and expensive (both in finances and in life) string of events, actions, groups of people, etc. If we move forward with the assumption that the War on Terror began with the attacks on the World Trade Center in September of 2001, this thing, whatever it is, has been going on for more than a decade now and it has certainly had a dramatic impact on all of our lives in both the macro and micro sense.

And yet, despite the War on Terror’s influence on daily life, we haven’t seen much of that translate to the small screen of television. While a number of shows have used bits and pieces of War on Terror stories or headlines to power individual episodes, very few shows have been directly about the War on Terror, its place in our culture or the people wrapped up in it. Throughout this theme, I hope that we can highlight some of the series that actually did engage with the WoT and the rhetoric surrounding it, but also think about or discuss why so few did/do and what that has meant for the medium and even for viewers at home.

Batting clean-up in this theme is the series that, at least politically, gets grouped up with the War on Terror the most of the four: 24. In eight years on the air, Jack Bauer experienced multiple lifetime’s worth of hell in “just” eight looooooong days, overcoming a slew of barely-identifiable terrorists, an unfortunate amount of White House conspiracies, tons of heartbreak and even a pretty rough drug habit. And although 24 brought a slew of legitimate innovations to network television – the diegetic representation of time, the straight-through scheduling practice, cougars – the series will probably be most remembered for its ideology, its politics and its admittedly problematic representation of the post-9/11 climate. 24 became a nexus point for the real-world discussion of torture and took a lot of heat for its depiction of Muslims and those from the Middle East. Yet, 24 was also a massive hit, suggesting that its ideology, politics and representation appealed to a large number of viewers. Today, we explore that curious tension.

Joining me this lovely Thursday is Eric Thurm. Eric is a third year undergrad at the University of Chicago and interns at The A.V. Club, where he has the pleasure of moderating your comments. Follow him on Twitter and check out his work for This Was Television. Eric, take it away:

With the exception of a few diehard fans, it’s difficult to dispute that 24 ran too long. The concept, which was at best compelling for the first couple of “days,” wore out its welcome pretty quickly, and the show just kind of plodded along to the end. It became the punchline of a lot of jokes (at least the jokes I heard). That’s too bad, because the first two seasons (and much of the fifth) were pretty exciting.

When the pilot aired in 2001 I was nine, and I didn’t really become aware of the show for a couple of years. During its peak popularity, however, I was basically the target audience – teenage boys watching Jack Bauer kick ass. Catching up on the first season one summer was one of the first times I can remember having even vaguely discerning taste – it was obvious even to me that the first season was vastly superior to season six.

But I was also 13. I’m now probably pretty spoiled by TV, coming of age in a world where The Sopranos and The Wire already exist and the continuing runs of Breaking BadMad Men and Homeland are all taken more or less for granted. I expect a little more from a show that had so much hype (and managed to win so many awards). So “12:00 AM-1:00 AM,” which I’m led to believe was received quite well by critics in 2001, just doesn’t really do it for me anymore.

I can see how much of the basic structure of the show must have seemed clever and exciting, but at least in the pilot it just comes off as frustrating. The show’s habit of setting up events to occur by the end of the episode was already in place – Jack tells his wife Teri that he’ll be home from the office “within an hour” (which doesn’t make any sense, especially if he’s driving in LA) and his ex-lover and fellow agent Nina Myers that George Mason (who Jack has knocked out) will wake up “in half an hour or less” (at the midpoint of the episode!). These moments where the show calls attention to itself make it almost impossible for me to sink into the “just go with it” mindset that makes most of the rest of 24 enjoyable television.

At least “12:00 AM-1:00 AM” tries its best to thrust us right into the action. With the exception of a single scene of domestic bliss while Jack and his daughter Kim play chess, everything is Bush era tense and turned up to 11. Jack isn’t even in the first scene, which takes place in Kuala Lumpur and sees the transmission of the threat against Senator David Palmer (Dennis Haybert) to CTU.

From there, the story is split several ways: Jack is called in to CTU to deal with the threat, where he also encounters George Mason (Xander Berkeley), a potentially corrupt agent. His daughter Kim (Elisha Cuthbert) sneaks out of the house to party with one of her friends and two guys from San Diego State while Teri looks for her. Senator Palmer and his wife Sherry (Penny Johnson Jerald) plan an event for primary day. And a sleazy photographer who is set to photograph Palmer at the event chats up his neighbor on a 747 headed to Los Angeles.

Maintaining five concurrent storylines is a bit dizzying at times. It’s exciting, but it also means that a few of the stories don’t quite get off the ground. That’s especially true of Palmer’s story, which gets just enough to suggest a DARK SECRET without anything else actually happening, and Teri’s, which ends with her driving around LA with some guy (though we can already tell it’s not going to end well). The twist at the end (that Mandy, the photographer’s neighbor on the plane, is really the assassin) is pretty predictable, but I was actually impressed that the show still went there. That might say more about my expectations by the end of the episode, but oh well.

The politics of the show are not quite as extreme as they would later become, but “12:00 AM-1:00 AM” is pretty clearly a Bush-era relic from the get-go. Jack’s attack on George Mason isn’t really presented with any shades of gray at all. That’s partly because it’s so INTENSE, but really we don’t have much reason to question Jack’s actions at all. Though Senator Palmer holds up surprisingly well as a character, it’s impossible to watch the episode without remembering that in the time after the first season of 24 America has actually elected an African-American President. The oddness of the possibility makes the episode feel extraordinarily dated. Jack even gets told, “It’s a different world.”

The blend of Jack’s home and work life works pretty well (that balance certainly went downhill throughout the show’s run) and, at least in this episode, Elisha Cuthbert isn’t particularly annoying, even though I have no idea why she snuck out other than that it was important for the plot. I don’t even find the San Diego State guys who party with Kim and her friend threatening – until the end of the episode, they just kind of seem like normal guys, even though they’re supposed to be really sinister.

If “12:00 AM-1:00 AM” had aired as a pilot in the 2012-2013 season, it would probably still have an audience, though it would never have been nominated for nearly as many Emmys or have as much critical following. That’s largely because of 24’s slightly more than spiritual successor, Homeland.

The biggest difference between the two Howard Gordon series is that Homeland trusts the viewer completely. If you miss something on Homeland, it’s on you. The larger conflicts of surveillance and the War on Terror are mostly shown, not told with saws and extended torture scenes justified for the good of the nation. In the pilot of Homeland, Carrie begins wiretapping Brody and we as viewers struggle with whether or not it’s right. In the 24 pilot, a room filled with volunteers, Palmer for President posters, and Senator David Palmer is helpfully labeled “Palmer Presidential Headquarters.” It’s possible that you really couldn’t trust viewers that much, but I’d like to think that wasn’t the case.

In many ways, I think the 24 pilot will be much more interesting in 15 years, both as a time capsule of the War on Terror and as a stepping stone on the way to shows like Homeland. The narrative structure is interesting at least, and I can see why it was compelling at the time, even if the show wasn’t really sustainable. That maybe isn’t the best conclusion to come to after looking at the episode again, but at least it’ll soon lead me to re-watch Kiefer Sutherland blowing crap up.


And now, my thoughts on the 24 pilot:

It its pretty weird to return to the first episode–and really, much of the first season–of 24 now. Not because of the valid comparisons to the better Homeland but because so much of what is in this first episode(/season) is not entirely reflective of the kind of series that 24 became. Aesthetically and narratively, the formula is in place pretty much from the get-go, although the pace is a little slower here than it would eventually become, which reminds me of how impressive and innovative 24 was at the time of its debut. There hadn’t really been anything like this on television before. Not to this degree. And not this good. 

Nevertheless, the 24 most of us probably know and remember didn’t really come into life in the first episode – or really the first 13-24 episodes. Sure, this opening episode features an assassination plot and a legitimate terrorist act but there’s not the overwhelming sense of glossed-over malice and empty rhetoric about “right” and “wrong.” Jack isn’t an always-does-what’s-necessary super human that never ages and never falters. Here, he’s a man with real adult problems like trying to reconcile with his wife and make sure that his work life doesn’t interfere with that directive. And while the thrust of the episode’s plot this assassination attempt, the way 24 approaches it in the early going limits the amount of all-caps DANGER and CONSPIRACY nonsense that eventually grew to define the series’ narrative formula. Instead, the pilot’s handling of the hit on David Palmer is about as low-key and methodical as the show probably ever would be. I don’t want to say that it makes it feel typical but there’s a sense that CTU deals with the type of thing all the time without the overheated and overblown stakes that came later. 

Overall, this pilot episode is all about low stakes character beats amid the possibility of danger. The possibility. That’s the major key. As a viewer, we didn’t/don’t know how bad it could get from here. It’s easy to assume that the tension is going to get ratcheted up and the action is going to sprawl out into seemingly unassociated story levels. However, I can’t imagine that viewers watching this episode in 2001 would have considered that in the future, 24 would turn into the kind of show where nuclear bombs would go off in Los Angeles, only for the impact of that detonation to be mostly forgotten later (hey there, season six).

In future seasons, that possibility changed from probability and then to flat-out certainty. Terrible things were going to happen. Lots of people, including the characters that we grew to love, were going to die. There were too many evil people out there, somehow consistently armed with deadly weapons. And in that transition, 24 became a different — though not necessarily worse — series. It was no longer about stopping the terrible things from happening, it was about mitigating the overall damage. It was about revenge. It was about individual Americans (well, one) reasserting the country’s greatness despite lots of mistakes from those at the top. 

Of course, the big question with 24 is whether or not the series’ producers ever expected that kind of heightened progression either. The prevailing thought is that the series shifted directions a bit after the attacks on the World Trade Center. After a more personal (though still eventually unwieldy) (holy hell I just remembered Dennis Hopper) story in the first season, 24‘s second “day” jumped head-first into contemporary geopolitics with “Middle Eastern” terrorists trying to blow up Los Angeles and sketchy American businessmen trying to orchestrate various processes in hopes of benefiting from the skyrocketting oil prices. After season two, that type of storytelling just snowballed, eventually absorbing drug cartels, immigration, torture, arms races, race relations and a whole lot more. In many ways, 24 did become the platform for so many of that era’s issues to be addressed in some fashion. 

I’ve been trying to imagine a world where 9/11 doesn’t happen and 24 exists anyway. The first season was the most personal and yet the least popular. Now, 24 helped usher in the TV on DVD era and I’d argue that the series picked up steam in the second season at least partially because of home video viewing. If those attacks don’t happen and then the War on Terror doesn’t happen, I’m not sure whether or not 24 ends up being a massive success. It’s impossible to deny the connection between the series’ shifting topical concentration and the improved ratings. 

However, despite the low-key nature of this pilot, it’s ultimately difficult to imagine the series ever becoming anything different from what it did. Like I said a little earlier, much of the 24 formula is established from very early on, some in this pilot with other tropes introduced not too far down the road. So although this first episode and season were more personal to Jack (and to a lesser extent David Palmer), it makes logical sense that the producers would have escalated matters in future seasons. You start small but to keep the audience on their toes, you almost always have to keep expanding in some fashion. With the ticking clock in places, bombs were always going to involved. Terrorism was always going to be involved in some fashion, as were governmental conspiracies. 

It’s impossible to tell, but the relationship between 24 and the War on Terror ended up being more serendipitous than anything. It sure seems like, based on what we see in this pilot episode and what makes logical television writing and world-building, that 24 would probably, eventually go to the places that it went (okay, maybe it’s tough to see that it would become so repetitive after just the first season, but that danger was certainly there). It was, almost from the beginning, interested in shocking the audience and trying to make sure the next shocker was bigger than the next. The War on Terror gave the producers a tangible foundation to poke and prod at, and ultimately, to use to surprise the audience. 24 was always ridiculous, even in the first season, so for me, the series’ use of real world events or subjects never felt intentional past wanting to shock, and needing plot. 

But as Eric pointed out, that’s what makes 24 so different from a series like Homeland, which is much more interested in character, theme and engaging with reality instead of just using it. That doesn’t make 24 a bad series, not at all. Ultimately, 24 was probably the series that so many people needed in the post-9/11 era. Maybe it helped them work out some issues. Maybe it helped them remember how “great” America could (should?) be. Yet, it’s still unclear to me if the show itself was really ever interested in any of that. 


Conclusions on legacy: Perhaps even more silly in retrospect but still thrilling and entertaining


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