Sunday, May 26, 2002 by

Whilst the return of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet has confounded all expectations by being well acted, well produced (apart from some dodgy “high wire” special effects in the most recent episode), true to the characters, but ultimately listless and dull, immediately after on BBC2 comes the dramatic highlight of the TV week.

24‘s primary appeal is to those attracted by drawn out epics. Prior to the first episode, one knew that if it turned out to be good, here would be a guarantee of 23 further TV appointments. Whilst such a demand on viewer loyalty is perceived to be a significant risk in an age in which TV programmes (particularly American) have to engage an audience straight away, in truth there is a burgeoning tradition (at least in cinema) that suggests audiences are in fact predisposed to the occasional long, drawn out tale. The success of both the Star Wars trilogy, and the recent Lord of the Rings film (which confounded Hollywood convention by failing to provide any level of resolution at the end) attest to this. American television, too, has offered up similar attempts at a long-form narrative. However, neither Murder One nor Babylon 5 can be described as unqualified successes, and the demise of The X Files has been largely attributable to regular viewers’ increasing weariness and confusion with its unfolding arc.

24 then walks a high wire. Regular viewers return each week because of the distinctiveness of the narrative drive, yet what hope has the series of attracting new viewers over the course of its 24 episode life? 24 has, however, provisioned for this via an ingenious narrative structure that gives the illusion from the first minute of being locked on an inexorable course, but in truth is able to make last minute plot diversions in order to react to its changing relationship with the audience. The 12th episode, as well as representing the mid-point of the entire saga, serves to set the reset button on much of the story, thus enticing new viewers in to what will likely become an almost entirely self-contained second set of 12.

The primary focus of 24‘s first half has been Jack Bauer’s hunt for his kidnapped family. Appropriately for the “midday” episode, the arc concludes with a “high noon” (as Bauer lays siege upon the kidnappers). Always gripping, it is during such action scenes that the show’s conceit of playing out every minute of Bauer’s day comes into its own. We know that we will have to endure every second of Bauer’s infiltration into the kidnapper’s den, as well as witness in every detail his eventual escape. The action itself may be conventional, the reaction of the players predictable, but there is a strange compulsion to stick with it, watching as events unfold in “real time”.

Not that this narrative conceit doesn’t have its drawbacks. There is a reliance on telephone conversations to bring geographically dispersed characters together, and whilst necessary to progress the plot, this makes for visually uninteresting exchanges, losing much of the potential for interplay that face-to-face contact provides. Nevertheless, the advantages far outweigh the drawbacks, and there is an immense satisfaction in witnessing events put into motion, and then seeing the consequences turn up later on in the programme, right at the designated time.

With such a high concept though, something has to give and with 24 it’s characterisation. So far, 24 has relied upon our desire to see Bauer rescue his family. The compulsion of a husband wishing to save his family awakens something innate in all of us. The same cannot be said of the race to save a US Senator. Like many of 24‘s characters, Palmer remains underdeveloped, and apart from where his own storyline has intersected with Bauer’s, he has remained one of the least interesting elements of the programme. One suspects that the sub-plot involving the uncovering of a murder committed by his son will soon fall by the wayside, as he increasingly becomes the focus of Bauer’s attention. Whether or not this proves to be as engaging and nail-biting a story as that played out in the first half of the series remains to be seen, and will rely heavily on the performance of the principle actors.

Such anxiety as to how 24 will play out can only be a compliment. Having invested now half a day of our lives in this unfolding story, we deserve a dénouement befitting the tension, plot twists and performances we have seen so far. The series must be careful of not repeating the same trick too many times (so far both Tony Almeida and Alberta Green have been presented as “bad guys” only to be eventually revealed as on the side of the “just”), and one is fearful that the final plot twist (for there must be one) will reveal nothing more devastating then that one of Bauer’s other CTU colleagues is really working against him. The gradual disclosure of one of Bauer’s earlier missions though, hints at a more satisfying source for plot twists a little further down the line, and due to the craft and skill which one has seen applied across 24‘s first 12 episodes, one must remain optimistic that the most enthralling television drama in years will stay true to its course.


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