On FOX’s “24,” the serial drama that takes place in real time over one day, characters basically walk around wearing little stickers that say, “Hi, my name is Good Guy” or “Hi, my name is Evil Terrorist.” They craft improbable escape plans in seconds and regularly defy the laws of physics and geography.
Whether they’re counterintelligence agents or terrorists, the characters exist in a world where there’s little moral ambiguity, and the right choice is obvious if uncomfortable. The show’s hero, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), carries a magic bag with him that always manages to contain exactly what he needs, whether he has to disarm a certain type of security system or make a quiche.
Even for an unabashed dramatic fantasy, FOX’s “24” has often leapt past the boundaries of plausibility, but it’s the storytelling that makes or breaks a season. Too many of “24”’s previous days have been ruined by a poor narrative arc.
However, in this, its fifth season, the series has reached its full potential. Its tendency to be both fantastic and absurd has been overshadowed by strong, believable characters and a plot that’s kept up the momentum. It’s frequently absurd, but at least it’s going somewhere.
More often than not, the plot of FOX’s “24” has made continual right turns, thereby treading the same ground over and over again, until the show found itself six feet underground trudging through a self-dug trench. That started in season one with Jack Bauer’s daughter, Kim, whose constant irrational behavior was designed just to complicate things for her father and allow the show to last for 24 hours. It was weak writing, and her character was little more than a deus ex moron.
This season, however, the show’s plot twists have taken left and right turns, snaking around one another and only ending up back in the same place two hours ago, when we discovered that President Logan was actually the mastermind behind nearly all of the day’s events.
From huge weenie to criminal mastermind
The twist worked despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that the president is such a huge weenie. Played masterfully by Gregory Itzin, Logan is so spineless it’s shocking that he’s not just a little puddle on the floor. He looked terrified every time he had to make a decision, and was easily manipulated by whoever wanted their way.
As it turns out, Logan’s stupidity was an act, and now he must do everything in his power to remain in power. With Jack Bauer on his trail, viewers pretty much already know how this is going to end, but watching the plot unfold should be thrilling.
More surprising than the revelation of the president’s involvement was the way the season has not yet collapsed under the weight of its own conceit, as it has in earlier seasons. In part that’s because the writers managed to create and link three distinct arcs: the assassination of former president David Palmer, the terrorist nerve gas threat, and now the president’s involvement.
Along the way, a number of different terrorists each seemed to be the one person guiding everything. The various characters were quickly discarded, so viewers had little emotional investment in them. But now viewers are left with characters we love and hate, and their battle in these final hours will be far more interesting than if a new villain had appeared out of nowhere.
Among those characters are a number of women, who, defying the show's typical format, are not weak. In the past, the women of “24” have often been stereotypically feminine and existed either because they were duplicitous or because they were easy targets for violence.
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Chloe, perhaps the series’ breakout character, defines competence under extreme pressure, and Homeland Security official Karen Hayes is efficient and pragmatic, but not blindly so. Jack’s love interest from last season, Audrey Raines, has proven a strong asset to CTU and to Jack, although the writers regrettably found a lame excuse to have Jack throw her against a wall and choke her.
The strongest female character is the president’s wife, First Lady Martha Logan. As played by Jean Smart, Martha fits snugly into her role as a wife and a woman. From within it, however, she wields power and influence, but does so selflessly. Earlier in the season, knowing her husband had conceded to terrorists and given them information about the route the Russian president’s limo would be taking, Martha bravely climbed inside.
Now, with the revelation that her husband is the day’s real evildoer, Martha has the potential to become his biggest nemesis. Once she discovers she’s been betrayed, there will be an epic battle. As we’d expect from “24,” that showdown and the rest of the day’s events are sure to be ridiculous, but at least they’ll make sense.
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