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Is ‘24’ running out of time?

Presidential plot twist feels unplanned, makes no sense
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Let’s start by admitting the obvious: “24” is still one of the few TV shows worth watching every week. It’s a compelling hour of television for those able to suspend their disbelief for an hour every Monday night in order to have something to talk about during lunch on Tuesdays.

Here’s the problem: the plot is flat-out ridiculous at this point — even by “24’s” own standards.

The villains of “24 always have plans involving hundreds of operatives, multiple objectives, and dozens of backup scenarios in case Jack Bauer stops the main attack. The terrorists can’t take 20 canisters of nerve gas to Russia to detonate them in Moscow? No problem! Plan B is a local shopping mall. That’s foiled as well? Rest easy! They have schematics of both CTU and a local natural-gas plant at the ready.

Despite the involvement of so many conspirators, nobody ever talks, there’s always several moles in CTU, and without the steady hand of Jack Bauer, we’d all be speaking Chinese/Arabic/Russian (take your pick) by now. But hey, whatever works. “Gilligan’s Island” rolled on for years, even though no one  believed that a professor who could make a workable radio out of spare parts and coconuts couldn’t figure out how to use that to get help from the mainland. People don’t demand realism from their programs; just entertainment. Within reason.

However, the show’s legendary obsession with secrecy and surprise has always left it at risk of imploding, and this season it’s officially crossed the line. This season has gone from suspense to trickery, gambling that it can distract its audience with bells and whistles to make up for the fact that the latest plot developments come out of nowhere and contradict what fans already know about the characters involved.

One twist too many
The latest twist, which aired a couple of weeks ago, reveals the mastermind of the latest terrorist plot to be none other than President Logan. While that undoubtedly pleases the conspiracy theorists who always blame the White House for everything from al Qaeda to lawns turning brown in the summer, it makes no sense at all within the context of the “24” universe.

Logan has never been anything other than a weak, indecisive leader; that’s how actor Gregory Itzen has portrayed him, because the producers didn’t tell him about his character’s about-face until late in the game. That might have prevented Itzen from spilling the beans earlier, but it also leaves a hole in this season's plot that's big enough to drive a truck of deadly nerve gas through.

Last season, Logan spent the whole episode trying to stave off a full-fledged panic attack before being saved by the wisdom of President David Palmer. This year, his big decisions have involved either taking the easy way out of a messy situation or simply sitting back and hope for the best.

Now, he has to deftly switch gears and make it appear as if everything he’s shown the audience to this point was just him skillfully pretending to be a moron.  That’s more problematic than even that sounds, because even this season, his character doesn’t appear to have been written with any of that in mind.

Take the most obvious example. Logan finds out earlier this season that Jack Bauer is alive, and aware enough of the plot to have discovered that Chief of Staff Walt Cummings is (apparently) behind the whole thing. While up until that point he thinks that Jack’s dead (a Season 4 plot point), he surely knows that this is a guy who can really throw a monkey wrench into any of his plans (after all, he did it last season).

One would think that he might make a phone call to Christopher Henderson, the muscle behind the plot and Jack’s former boss, and say “Hey, Chris, just an FYI: Jack Bauer’s not dead, but he probably should be, so how about taking him out before he knows about our involvement in this?” Or really, he could simply have him killed by anyone — he tried to do that last season anyway to avoid an awkward scene with the Chinese.

Instead, he sent Jack off to stop the terrorists from detonating the nerve gas — rather than sending Henderson, who presumably had a better idea of where they were.

Why? In absence of better information, it sure looks like nobody in charge of plot development knew that the president would have any interest in the plot going forward. Whether this was planned from the beginning or not, it sure looks like it’s something the writers and producers decided on very late in the game.

What’s next?The big “24” news a couple of weeks ago is that Kiefer Sutherland signed on for three more seasons of the show. Of course, the producers could still kill him off and limit his role to flashbacks and dream sequences, but let’s assume that he remains the star. Where can the show possibly go from here?

“24” is the television equivalent of “Die Hard,” the classic 1988 movie that features Bruce Willis as the cop turned hero who defeats a host of criminals at their own game and saves his wife and dozens of others from harm. That spawned “Die Hard 2: Die Harder,” which was slightly worse, and “Die Hard 3,” which made no sense at all.

Can “24” avoid heading down the same path? Probably not. The producers have ratcheted up the stakes in the five seasons of the show. Most of the characters the audience cares about are dead. The show has featured nuclear explosions, assassinations, chemical gasses released, coup attempts, conspiracies — you name it, the show’s done it.

There’s not much "24" can do for an encore, much less three of them. Will the producers follow the Tom Clancy model, and make Jack Bauer become the president himself? Will they make him the leader of a modern-day “A-Team,” helping the downtrodden to fight the power? There doesn’t seem to be anything they can do to keep the show fresh, relevant, and even moderately believable any more. For the ultimate clock-ticking show, time may indeed be running out.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.