Our reviews of 24: Season One: Special Edition (published June 6th, 2008), 24: Season Three (published January 12th, 2005), 24: Season Four (published January 9th, 2006), 24: Season Five (published January 1st, 2007), 24: Season 6 (published December 4th, 2007), 24: Season 7 (Blu-Ray) (published June 26th, 2009), 24: Season Seven (published June 1st, 2009), and 24: Season Eight (Blu-Ray) (published December 29th, 2010) are also available.
"Let's skip the sound bytes and cut straight to the chase."—President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert)
8:00am. Within minutes of the news, the President (Dennis Haysbert) knew he had to act. There was a nuclear bomb hidden in Los Angeles. A Muslim extremist group known as Second Wave might be involved. Millions of lives were at stake.
But the only man capable of getting close to the heart of Second Wave is federal agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), and Bauer wants nothing to do with the spy business. Still brooding over the murder of his wife a year earlier at the hands of a ruthless double-agent, Bauer spends his time wandering the city, trying hopelessly to patch up his relationship with his daughter Kim (Elisha Cuthbert). Kim has her own problems to deal with, as nanny to an abused child with a murderous father.
Finally agreeing to help in the search for the bomb, Bauer rejoins his old team at the nation's elite Counter Terrorism Unit, although he is unsure he can still trust its leader, the brusque George Mason (Xander Berkeley) or his old rival Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard). Jack's first mission: infiltrate a domestic terrorist group that may have ties to the bomb. His cover story: he has come to deliver the severed head of a fellow criminal who betrayed the group.
Jack manages to join up with the terrorists just as they are loading their van with bombs. Their boss has ordered them to destroy a federal building, and they think it is all just part of a day's work fighting the Man. They have no clue that the building is a secondary target to distract authorities from the nuclear bomb that will destroy the city. And Jack cannot stop the attack without blowing his cover and losing his chance to get to the real masterminds behind the plot.
So the van rolls on, its bombs ticking away, heading to C.T.U…
The first season of 24 struck many viewers as a gimmick show, at least at the beginning. Story arcs in dramatic television were more often than not used as a means to simply keep viewers coming back week after week in hopes of resolving the cliffhangers. The better shows (Wiseguy, Murder One, Babylon 5) looked beyond mere Saturday-morning-serial continuity to actual character development and extended rising action, constructing their narratives in a more novelistic fashion. But 24 seemed as if it would push an audience's tolerance to an extreme. To build a show in real time, that is, one hour of screen time equals one hour in the story, is a real endurance test. Traditional cinematic conventions could not be relied upon to skip from one scene to the next. If a character had to travel from one end of town to another, the script needed to distract us with some other business until the character could arrive at that location. If a character got knocked unconscious for a couple of hours, or went into surgery, he or she could disappear for entire episodes.
Yet somehow, 24 worked. Maybe it was the show's breakneck pace: creators Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran decided to keep things moving, overloading the series with supporting characters, convoluted subplots, and overlapping scenes (courtesy of the show's now familiar splitscreens) in order to keep the audience busy. Hopefully, we would not notice that nobody in the show ever takes a bathroom break, eats a meal, or takes more than ten minutes to drive anywhere in Los Angeles (in remarkably deserted streets, even in the middle of the day), unless it creates a useful plot complication. Instead, characters, especially lead action hero Jack Bauer (played with grim intensity by Kiefer Sutherland, who seems to have found his niche with the show), always march around fiercely, even when they are stuck indoors for ten episodes in a row. Take for example President David Palmer: Dennis Haysbert constantly radiates power and integrity, even when his character is just sitting in a chair, brooding over how to solve some intractable political problem. In a presidential staring contest, he would win over Martin Sheen any day.
The first season of 24 revolved around Jack Bauer's attempt to stop the assassination of Palmer as a presidential candidate. Season 2 picks up about a year later. This Jack Bauer is more serious, more volatile, than before. Of course, he has good cause, having been betrayed and traumatized, and in no mood now to play nice with anybody. Indeed, one of his first acts upon his return to C.T.U. is to shoot a federal prisoner in the middle of an interrogation, then call for a hacksaw. From that point on, the gloves are off: characters are shot, tortured, and subjected to acts of violence that would make a viewer wonder if the network's Standards and Practices department was clubbed and tied up in the editing booth. And then you remember that this is Fox, the network where, as The Critic's Jay Sherman used to say, "you can say boobies."
Anyway, it is now a year after David Palmer's ascension to the White House and the death of Jack Bauer's wife. Most of the surviving characters from Season 1 are back, including a few that viewers thought were probably written out for good (but to say any more would spoil the fun). New faces include Michelle Forbes as stalwart (and frequently stonewalled) presidential advisor Lynne Kresge, Reiko Aylesworth as C.T.U agent Michelle Dressler and foil (much like Nina Meyers was first season) for the usually set-bound Tony Almeida, and Sarah Wynter as Kate Warner, whose subplot (her sister is marrying a possible terrorist) eventually merges with Jack's storyline, giving the suspicious agent a partner for the season's latter half. Over the course of 24 hours, starting at 8:00am (Los Angeles time), the cast races, sweats, fumes, and generally burns plenty of calories trying to save the world as we know it. Well, except for the bad guys, who are, in the spirit of action melodramas, suitably callous and destructive and liable to push little old ladies in front of moving buses.
As with the first season, Season 2 follows its initial storyline, the hunt for the nuclear bomb, for about half the season, then shifts gears toward a more Tom Clancy-style political thriller, as Bauer must hunt for the bomb's origin before Palmer is forced to declare war in the Middle East. Breaking the story in half during the first season made perfect sense: the producers could not be sure that 24 would be picked up for an entire season's run, and so they wrote the first part of the story into 13 mostly self-contained episodes, then padded out the season when they got a network pickup. The second season only seems to split its storyline's in half in order to keep the audience from getting too lost in all the subplots. The plot shift is more noticeable on DVD than it was on television, because our viewing window tends to be more compact, highlighting the show's structural weaknesses.
Which brings me to the cougar.
Ah, what do we do about Kim, Jack Bauer's pneumatic young daughter? In Season 1, Kim's presence was integral to the overall story, as her kidnapping and subsequent misadventures were meant to keep Jack distracted from his goal to save Palmer. But the producers could not have her kidnapped and similarly imperiled again, or 24 would start to look like an Edgar Rice Burroughs serial. Bad enough that the show occasionally relies on such melodramatic conventions as an amnesia subplot (perhaps the low point of Season 1) to keep things rolling, or that every suspect Jack interrogates seems to conveniently die just before revealing a great secret, only leaving a single clue that leads Jack to the next suspect. Unfortunately for those focused on concise storytelling, young, male fans of the show (highly desired by advertisers) frequently singled out Kim's tight outfits as a reason to keep tuning in. So, the producers thought, how do we work Kim into the second season?
Kim's story arc, as she runs from an overheated domestic situation to an escape from the police to a loony's basement bomb shelter—and worse (almost getting eaten by the aforementioned cougar)—operates almost as the comedy relief for an otherwise unrelentingly grim litany of violence and political turmoil that fills the other major plotlines. As silly as Kim's escapades are on their own, when placed in context, they are almost necessary to put Jack's solemn mission into sharp relief. Of course, you have to treat Kim's story as droll humor for this to work, which may not be the intentions of the producers. If you don't—well, my wife keeps insisting we fast forward past the Kim scenes, because she gets easily frustrated with the younger Bauer's cluelessness. So I'll leave it up to you to decide whether to laugh at Kim or wring your hands in frustration.
Fortunately, the rest of the story works pretty well without her. And occasional lapses in plot logic aside, 24 manages to hold up even better on DVD than television, since you can watch a bunch of episodes together as if this is one very, very long Hollywood action movie, with all the baggage that genre entails. Even Michelle Forbes and Carlos Bernard agree on their commentary track for episode 4 that the "heightened melodrama" of the writing works on screen due to skillful editing and acting.
After the bare-bones release of the first season, Fox has outdone itself with the Season 2 boxed set. Peppered throughout the half-dozen discs that comprise the season's episodes are over 40 deleted, extended, or alternate scenes (including two alternate endings) that can be reinserted into the show via branching. Each disc also includes a commentary track for one episode. Episode 4 gives Carlos Bernard, Sarah Wynter, and Michelle Forbes a chance to joke around and generally boost the egos of one another and their coworkers. Episode 6 (on Disc Two) features observations by co-creator Jon Cassar and a special guest performer whose involvement constitutes a major early plot twist (so I will keep this person's identity a secret). Episode 10 (Disc Three) also features a guest star who shall remain nameless, plus executive producer Joel Surnow. Both of these consist more of fond memories than detailed production information. Actually, all of these commentary tracks are pretty lightweight, even if it is fun to hear the cast and crew kidding one another. And, oddly, every commentary brings up the ubiquitous cell phone conversations in the show.
Disc Four spotlights co-creator Robert Cochrane and Xander Berkeley, as the George Mason character reaches a crossroad in his personal arc. Disc Five: Kiefer Sutherland and Joel Surnow (again). Disc Six: Dennis Haysbert and Howard Gordon. Disc Seven features all the deleted, extended, and alternate scenes gathered together (over an hour's worth) with optional commentary by Jon Cassar and Rodney Charter. There is also a 13 minute featurette cover episode 3's assault on C.T.U. headquarters, and how you destroy a major set on a television budget. You can watch a multi-angle scene study of a bit from episode 6 where Jack interrogates—what, you think I'm going to tell you? But the big bonus on Disc Seven is "24 Exposed," a 90 minute documentary (in 2 parts) which tracks the making of the final two episodes of the season, from pre-production script readings, where the producers discover that their original ending is a mess and needs a complete rewrite, to the shooting and editing. This is one of the most thorough behind-the-scenes documentaries I have ever seen for a television series. It covers everything from the cut-throat casting process (Hollywood is rough even for bit players) to the producer's efforts to keep secret the season's final scene by shooting a fake sequence to throw off the extras who might blab.
And all this for the same price as the Season 1 set.
Like a Jerry Bruckheimer or Arnold Schwarzenegger movie (or Schwarzenegger gubernatorial campaign), 24 is captivating nonsense. It keeps barreling forward, guns blazing, generating enough noise to keep you entertained without taxing your brain too much. Everyone involved, especially Kiefer Sutherland, is so committed to making the show work that you cannot help but get caught up in the action. 24 ain't art, but it is a hell of a ride. And Fox makes it worth your while with a reasonably priced boxed set (about $2.50 per episode, plus a ton of extras). Although it helps to have watched Season 1, 24: Season Two is sufficiently self-contained to work with newcomers as well as established fans.
Jack Bauer and President David Palmer are exonerated by this court for their actions in the service of this nation. Fox is commended for its fine effort with this DVD set. Kim Bauer is grounded, that naughty girl.
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