The Last Day

May 19, 2011

The surprising thing about the final cycle of 24 is just how low-key it was.  Evidently no one felt a need to top what had come before.

Given the vastness of the global and personal carnage wrought over the preceding seven seasons, maybe they figured it couldn’t be done.  Season Eight doled out the expected 24 cliches as generously as Jack Bauer gives hugs.  No First Family conspiracies, no jeopardy subplot for danger-magnet daughter Kim, no nuclear detonations, no jumper cable-powered torture sessions, no ACLU straw-men to absorb the writers’ japes at civil liberties, no sunbaked San Fernando Valley chase scenes (the locale shifted to New York), no cameos by fan faves Jude Ciccolella (the scheming Palmer-era kingmaker) or Glenn Morshower (the loyal secret service agent), a suspiciously paltry body count (did the actors wise up and demand run-of-show contracts?), only one measly CTU mole (albeit a pretty good one), and the most meager roster yet of slumming A-list character actors phoning in perfs as escalating “Big Bads.”

(The biggest name this season was Jurgen Prochnow, who’s starting to resemble Jackie Cooper.)

I don’t know how it played for week-to-week viewers, but in multiple-episode marathons Season Eight became less of a roller-coaster thrill ride than a documentary on the mundane work of government operatives.  Not totally routinized in its final cool-down lap, 24 by 2012 might yet have mimicked a Frederick Wiseman vision of intelligence agency operations: one thousand minutes of bored operatives parked in cubicles, running the world on their glowing LCD screens.

The politics of 24 – its xenophobia, its torturephilia – have already been hashed out ad nauseum.  After a couple of years of left-baiting, so-what-if-we-are-terrormongers storylines, Season Eight was content to sidestep anything inflammatory.  Except that it revived, more idiotically than ever, an underremarked failure of earlier seasons – a retrograde fetish for cross-racial casting.  The ghost of Vito Scotti (you know, the Italian-American who played buck-toothed Japanese kamikazes on Gilligan’s Island) has visited 24 before.  In Season Four, familiar Latino character actors Tony Plana and Nestor Serrano mingled with actual Middle Easterners (including Emmy-nominated discovery Shohreh Aghdashloo, from Iran) as members of a Muslim terrorist cell.

For Season Eight, the writers invented a fictitious-but-clearly-meant-to-be-Iran Middle Eastern country and cast as its president the Indian actor Anil Kapoor (a Bollywood star who played the TV host in Slumdog Millionaire).  The president’s family comprises a wife (Iranian-American Necar Zadegan), a daughter (Nazneen Contractor, a Canadian of Indian descent), and a brother (Akbar Kurtha, Indian); their associates are played by Mido Hamada (German-Egyptian) and T.J. Ramini (a half-Palestinian, half-caucasian Englishman).  I’m not suggesting that passport-checks should be required in Hollywood casting sessions, but none of these actors sound or look as if they hail from the same region, much less the same family.  The weirdest part is that Zadegan and Contractor, playing mother and daughter, are roughly the same age.  Are their looks supposed to be so “exotic” that we won’t notice?

Contractor (left) and Zadegan (right): Mother and daughter?

These days I sense that casting directors have a mandate for ethnic accuracy, both for the sake of creative credibility and because it means work for deserving non-white actors who might not have a whole lot of parts being written for them.  Maybe the producers of 24 are behind this curve just because they’re lazy.  But since strident us-vs-them rhetoric is so much a part of its DNA, 24 raises the suspicion that embodying the “them” in an ethnically imprecise or inaccurate form is a conscious political low-blow.  In other words, the jumble of accents and skin hues deliberately renders this phony Muslim nation (the “Islamic Republic of Kamistan,” or IRK, an acronym that turns any scene with a TV news crawl into a Mad Magazine panel) as an “other” as non-specific and cartoonized as Bush’s very 24-worthy axis of evil.

Or not: At one point Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland, whose Canadian accent still pokes through at times; may we see Jack’s birth certificate?) passes himself off as a German arms buyer, an impersonation so threadbare that awkward expressions of skepticism and rebuttal are required.  Then there are the Russian co-conspirators, played by a German (Prochnow), a Canadian (Callum Keith Rennie), and an American (Doug Hutchison), all of whom attempt accents that are not at all credible.  Hutchison, in fact, makes such a laughably unconvincing Russian that I wonder if he prepared for the role by studying Harrison Ford’s performance in K-19.  This season lists a dialect coach near the end of the credit roll, and that poor fellow (Joel Goldes) had the hardest job of anyone.

In a bizarre turn, 24 almost becomes good in its final six or seven episodes, as it shaves off extraneous characters and returns to its original structure of a parallel focus on our head of state and his (now her) chief enforcer.  The show achieves what it never quite pulled off during the first two seasons: a compelling crisis of conscience for a “good” president dragged into the muck of realpolitik.  The writing is as generic as it has always been – assassination! conspiracy! betrayal!  split-screen video conference call! – but the wily stage star Cherry Jones somehow gives it Shakespearean weight.  The story arc compresses what would be months’ worth of real-world reversals into a few real-time TV hours, as President Taylor tumbles into a rabbit-hole of ethical compromises to save a tattered peace accord, until by the end she’s ready to order Bauer’s execution (the ultimate evil in the 24 world).

(As an aside, the cock-eyed casting I questioned earlier pays dividends here.  Zadegan, as the crypto-Iranian first lady, escalates to a major player in this arc, and holds her own against Jones in key scenes; she will be an important actress.)

Double standards for (coded) liberals and conservatives: Even as they plunge their holier-than-thou president into ethical ignominy, the writers of 24 permit Jack Bauer to have his moral cake and eat it too.  Jack insists that he’s after “justice, not revenge,” convincing no one, but guess what: they’re the same thing.  Forced to make massive sacrifices for the cause in previous seasons – his wife, his freedom – Bauer in Season Eight finds the greater good aligning propitiously with his own personal vendetta.  “You people are so stupid.  Why don’t you just leave us alone?” Jack whines as he eviscerates his girlfriend’s murderer, in a scene of hard R-worthy torture that somehow surpasses in repugnance every earlier Bauerian excursion into violence.  Once canonized as a self-loathing arbiter of brutality, Bauer now tortures out of self-pity.  Groping towards a different cliff-dive of conservatism, end-stage 24 positions Bauer as a Howard Roark figure, petulantly blowing up a government that has failed to meet his exacting standards.  In a season of ineffectual villainy, 24 posits Jack as the final villain.  After Roark, Jack is rendered as Raymond Shaw, tragic/pathetic assassin of The Manchurian Candidate; the series stages its last climax with cheap allusions to the John Frankenheimer film.

Even as it feints further than before in the direction of depicting Jack as a deranged avenger, 24’s final season still won’t commit to a position on whether Bauer’s methods (and by extension those of our “war on terror”) are justified.  (Compare that to the endgame of The Shield, which makes it absolutely impossible to condone the choices of its seductive anti-hero Vic Mackey.)  Now the hemming and hawing about whether Jack has gone over the edge is provided not by liberal wimps but by his own Girl Friday Chloe (the marvelous Mary-Lynn Rajskub) and an operative (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) who is conspicuously the just-takes-orders type that Jack used to be.  There’s also a sequence in which Jack shoots a defenseless and relatively sympathetic villain (the aforementioned CTU mole) in cold blood, and I commend the producers for not introducing any kind of hedge that allows us to justify this execution as lawful, or heroic.

But in the final hour 24 contrives artfully to right Bauer’s moral compass and reinstate his holy martyr status, and in the meantime I was bemused (or amused) by just how entitled the late-model Bauer has become.  Once a humble soldier serving at the pleasure of the president, Bauer now invokes his personal privilege left and right.  Count the times now that Jack threatens to supersede some bureaucrat’s authority by going directly to the president, like a third-grade hall monitor taking names for the teacher.  Tired of playing competence and then nobility, Sutherland shifts to impatience: by this point Jack knows he’s superhuman, and he can barely control himself around all these fucking mortals who don’t get it.  The writers and Sutherland seem to be only partially in control of Jack’s shift from righteous badass to malevolent asshole.  The moral crux of 24 is the shocking moment in which Jack chokes his best friend (Chloe) into unconsciousness.  There’s no crossing back over that line, but I’m pretty sure – since there’s an expository backflip later on about how that act of betrayal was really for Chloe’s own good – that the show doesn’t grasp that.

When I wrote about 24 two years ago, I thought its politics were purely opportunistic and that cultural critics who tried to parse them were on a fool’s errand.  Now I guess I’ve taken the bait and engaged with 24 on its own terms, at least to a point.  The show remains ideologically incoherent (and indefensible), but perhaps incoherent and indefensible on the same level as those mid-period John Ford westerns that cheerlead simultaneously for individualism (the loner anti-hero) and institutional authority (the tradition of the cavalry).  The minds behind 24 share Ford’s knee-jerk scorn for pacifism: in the final moments their Madame President renounces a peace treaty in so confrontational a gesture that a Season Nine might have been set after the apocalypse.  (Mad Jack!)  Even though it’s altogether dumb compared to The West Wing or The Wire, 24 will probably retain its zeitgeist status in the history books.  Distorted, confused, insane, it reflects who we were during the era between September 11 and the assassination of Osama bin Laden.  Its repugnance is its legacy.

Sex and Violence

July 9, 2009

I have always intended to write in this space about new TV shows as well as old ones.  Since my blog debuted, though, the networks (and even the cable channels) have stymied that plan by offering up two of the most uninspired television seasons in history.  But my friend Stuart Galbraith’s recent review of the most recent season of 24 (the only one I haven’t yet seen), plus my own sideswipe at neo-con 24 writer-producer Manny Coto, have gotten me thinking about that series again.  So perhaps that’s a place to start.

Two years ago Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article cast a baleful eye upon the popular Fox action serial in which shady government operative Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) plows a lethal, annual real-time path through an array of terrorists bent on blowing up America.  (So far we have glimpsed only 168 hours of Bauer’s life, during which he has saved the world seven times – an impressive average.)  For anyone who has qualms about the moral implications of 24, it’s cathartic to see Mayer expose the show’s co-creator, Joel Surnow, as a cigar-smoking, Rush Limbaugh’s ass-kissing, John Milius-wannabe buffoon.  Memo to Mr. Surnow: John Milius wouldn’t be caught dead sporting a soul patch.

But Mayer is a political, not an entertainment, reporter.  The revelation of Surnow’s politics (and those of fellow 24 writer/producer Manny Coto) is her main “gotcha,” but the more substantial point Mayer makes is that the storytelling of 24 relies heavily upon torture and the trampling of civil rights.  That was hardly news to regular 24 viewers, but Mayer’s evidence that military and law enforcement recruits have begun to see the show as justification for brutality in their work gave many pause.  Just as the mafiosi of past generations copied their style from James Cagney or The Godfather, today’s real-life spooks may be aping Jack Bauer’s moves.

As a television historian, I’m intrigued by one idea which remains implicit in Mayer’s reporting.  I suspect that 24’s torture fetish is more practical than ideological.  This is borne out by the amusing quotes from actor Kiefer Sutherland and producer Howard Gordon, who tie themselves in knots trying to reconcile their own liberal or moderate opinions with the series’ hawkish reputation.

In 24, torture operates primarily as an expository device.  Mayer, and the experts she quotes, point out that violent coercion always works on 24.   It always provides reliable intelligence, always averts deadly disasters in time.  Joel Surnow would be happy to have you accept this aspect of his show as an aesthetic affirmation of Bush’s torture policies.  But I believe the real reason for all the torture in 24 is simply that it’s the only way to move the story from point A to point B.  24 functions as a succession of suspenseful set pieces, and in order to activate the next one, some new bit of exposition must be gleaned at the end of the previous arc.  There are interrogation methods other than torture – many of them mentioned by Mayer – but all of them take longer than a real-time drama can afford.  Ergo, lots and lots of busted kneecaps and electroshock.  24’s failures of compassion are secondary to its failures of imagination.

It’s easy for op-ed writers to opine about  the supposed politics of a television show when it happens to intersect with the zeitgeist.  But most of the time, television’s politics are just opportunistic.  Only a tiny handful of American series (The Defenders, M*A*S*H, The West Wing) have actually expressed a coherent political point of view, and I can’t think of any that you could call radical (either to the right or the left).  Law and Order is my favorite example: it’s often perceived as a right-leaning show, and in general its focus on cops and prosecutors leads to a knee-jerk pro-law and order stance.  But Dick Wolf has always shifted shrewdly with the political breeze – installing liberal district attorneys for the Clinton and Obama eras, a conservative one for the Bush years – and Law and Order nurses a streak of Dickensian, populist contempt for the wealthy and powerful that muddies its ideology.  Wherever the story goes, the politics follow.

What I enjoy about 24 are the tangential elements: the taut direction; the drab, sun-battered San Fernando Valley locations; and Sutherland’s sweaty, tamped-down portrayal Jack Bauer, a welcome relief from the Schwarzenegger/Willis model of over-the-top movie action hero.  But I suspect that most fans get pulled into the show by the storylines that I find silly and repetitive.

Mayer laid out how 24’s overuse of race-against-time threats that rarely, if ever, occur in real life represent a straw-man argument for the efficacy of torture.  Her argument complements a point articulated in Adam Curtis’s 2004 BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares, which can also be taken as an extended rebuke to 24.  Curtis makes a persuasive case that the idea of an organized global network of terrorism is a fiction maintained by fear-mongering politicians in order to command the allegiance of the public.  People who believe the lies cling to hawks like Bush and Cheney in order to feel safe, and I think that’s why 24 has found an audience, too.  Across its seven cycles, 24 exhibits a horrorshow of worst-case scenarios with unconcealed glee: political assassinations, dirty bombs, missing nukes, flesh-eating bioterror microbes on the rampage in downtown L.A.  Emotionally, 24 scores by eliciting a vicarious, tenuous sense of relief that looming real-world threats to our personal safety may come to pass tomorrow, but did not do so today.  What eludes me is why such a masochistic ritual appeals to so many people.

*

Meanwhile, I’ve been watching Swingtown, the show about wife-swapping during the Bicentennial summer that was already a lame duck when it aired last year.  Swingtown was a curious venture for CBS, not just because the network hasn’t successfully nurtured a serious drama in nearly a decade, but also because it covers such familiar territory.  What is there about suburban banality that hasn’t already been sliced and microscoped on Weeds or Desperate Housewives or Big Love or Mad Men or The Riches?

Not much, it turns out.  Swingtown has a solid B+ pedigree; it was created by writer Mike Kelley (ex-The O.C.) and executive produced by director Alan Poul (ex-Six Feet Under).  But Swingtown borrows a great deal from Ang Lee and James Schamus’s The Ice Storm, albeit ten years later and fatally watered down for prime-time.  Kelley’s creation, set in a Chicago commuter town, has a cul-de-sac full of stereotypes: prudish Stepford wife best friend; coke-whore single mom; precocious teen with a crush on her teacher.  But so far (I’m around the half-way point) there has been no single iconic image with the resonance of Christina Ricci’s teen nymphette in a Nixon mask.

There are two good reasons to watch Swingtown: its leading ladies.  (There are men in Swingtown too, but I’ve already forgotten them.)  Since I first noticed her on Boomtown, Lana Parrilla has passed through several series (including 24) without leaving much of an impression.  Here she finally has a chance to shine as Trina, the predatory swinger superwoman who is as at home in the kitchen, whipping up a perfect fondue,  as she is in bed with two men.  Parrilla is ravishingly sexy and confident, and more committed than the rest of the cast to the authentic seventies hairdos.

But the star here is Molly Parker, playing a thirtysomething housewife and mother who discovers an unexpected restlessness within herself after she’s exposed to Trina and her hedonistic circle.  The main thrust of Swingtown is Susan Decker’s awakening, to sexual experimentation and also to some of the ideas and practical applications of feminism.  I was afraid that Parker would offer just a caricature of female repression; it’s well within her range, and the early episodes don’t help her much with ridiculous scenes like the one where Susan gets flustered by all the sexy talk and drags the family straight off to church.  But Parker understands that we want to see her break through.  She has a natural languor, but also the ability to turn on a kind of inner radiance at just the right moments.  A fearless indie film star (see Wayne Wang’s The Center of the World, for one), Parker descended into television via Deadwood, and it’s especially exhilarating to see her freed from the straitjacket of David Milch’s pretentious pseudo-Shakespearean dialect.  Mostly she’s way ahead of the writing in Swingtown, but there’s a real joy in watching her light up any time the prospect of liberation presents itself.

The real test of a show about sexual freedom is probably whether or not it comes off as sex-positive, and this is where Swingtown may have suffered from being on CBS instead of cable.  For one thing, it can’t depict an actual orgy; instead there are quick cutaways to a shirtless extra with two (clothed) babes cooing in his ear, a scene so chaste it could be an outtake from a deodorant commercial.  At one point Trina’s husband entreats her to talk dirty to him, and the camera whoosh-pans away from Parrilla with her mouth hanging open, before she can get the first word out.

Not being able to show (or even talk about) the central subject is handicap enough, but even as pure plot Swingtown stalls on the wife-swapping.  Susan and her husband enjoy a polite gangbang with the neighbors at the climax of the pilot, but by the seventh episode, a second hookup remains conspicuous in its absence.  One particularly grating tactic for throwing cold water on everyone is the character of Susan’s straitlaced “old” best friend Janet (Miriam Shor, in a cripplingly weak performance that equates repression with a robotic speech pattern), who has a habit of showing up whenever Susan (or anyone else) starts to feel naughty.

Maybe this is just a conservative narrative strategy – once Susan and spouse go all the way, the show has shot its wad, as it were – but it smacks of another kind of conservatism, too.  There’s an aspect of class consciousness nestled at the base of Swingtown’s premise that remains revealingly underdeveloped.  Susan’s transformative odyssey begins only when she and her family move to a pointedly wealthier neighborhood.  Swingtown math: financial prosperity (Trina) equals decadence; relative poverty (Janet) equals inhibition and intolerance.  But surely there’s a happy, middlebrow, censor-appeasing, baby boomer-CBS-audience-satisfying compromise somewhere along that sliding scale, right?

I’m reminded of a Night Court episode from the eighties in which a guy has just awakened from a twenty-year coma.  “What about the sexual revolution – is it over?” he asks innocently.  Marsha Warfield’s no-nonsense bailiff looks at him pityingly and says, “Ohhhhh, yeah.”  (I’ve paraphrased that exchange from memory.)  Swingtown doesn’t treat the sexual revolution as a joke, but it doesn’t seem to know why we should take it seriously, either.  Are we meant to feel nostalgia for the bygone possibility of alternative sexuality in even the most staid of enclaves – of Harry Reems dropping in for cocktails at a midwestern house party, as happens in one enjoyable episode – or to shudder with relief that such scandalously unchecked libidinousness is as extinct as the Ford Pinto?  One thing you can say about all of the best TV shows, of any era: they take a position.

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