From Suspense to Soap

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In late 2001 Fox launched a new series called “24,” a daring experiment that became its biggest dramatic hit. The concept was intriguing: each episode would take place in “real-time,” twenty-four one-hour episodes representing 24 consecutive hours in the life of counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer, played intensely by big-screen veteran Kiefer Sutherland.

The timing couldn’t have been better, starting, as the series did, just after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. I watched the premiere episode and was hooked. Here was a small-screen series produced by a wannabe network that managed to match the quality of a big-budget studio thriller, with its tightly written story, heart-thumping music, big-screen camera work, multiple plot lines, and talented ensemble.

At the center of the story was Jack, a rogue agent ruthless in his tenacity and fierce in his loyalty, struggling to prevent the assassination of a presidential candidate while trying to rescue his kidnapped wife and daughter. Each episode was highlighted by dizzying plot twists, gasp-worthy endings, and Jack whispering urgently, “Trust me.” I own the first season on DVD, and every person who has borrowed it from me has watched all 24 episodes nearly back to back. It’s that good. Trust me.

Season two moved the story ahead three years. The candidate was now the president, and he had urged Jack out of retirement to help track down a new set of terrorists. The writers maintained the same “real-time” concept, multiple storylines, and· fast-paced suspense. The plot, about a nuclear bomb set to go off in Los Angeles, was even more intense and timely. I own that season on DVD as well, and my friends have gotten just as hooked on it. One of them pleaded, “Don’t let me take it home until I have a whole weekend free to watch it!”

So what has happened to season five?

The best political thriller to hit television since “Mission Impossible” has become sapp~ whiny, and beyond all suspension of disbelief. Part of the problem is that the writers haven’t been given sufficient time between seasons to produce another tightly written script. In addition, whenever a TV show becomes a huge hit, management gets into the act, dictating storylines based on demographics and designed to appeal to that 18-34-year-old female who seems to buy everything in America today.

The show now feels more like a soap opera than a spy thriller. Jack takes calls from his former girlfriend to talk about “us” while he’s being shot at by terrorists; at least once each week a power struggle erupts between management

and employees, either at the counterintelligence unit, the White House, or both, with management coming off as megalomaniacal buffoons; and the new president (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Richard Nixon) is a weakling who can’t make a single decision by himself but shouts incessantly “I need results!” The writers seem to think that viewers are all powerless lackeys who gain vicarious satisfaction from watching nerdy underlings “stick it to The Man.”

I’m incensed. There are plenty of soap operas on TV for those who want to watch talking heads gossip about the incompetent boss, the cheating husband, or the faithless friend. “24” was different, and there were more than enough viewers buying detergent and beer to have let it stay that way. Trust me.

Ironicall~ this heavy-handed interference from the demographers comes at a time when the traditiona160-second commercial message is becoming obsolete. I haven’t watched a commercial in over three months, not since my son-in-law turned me onto TiVo. For an extra 15 bucks a month I can record up to 100 hours of programming through my cable box and watch it at my leisure, fast-forwarding through the commercials, rewinding if I didn’t quite hear a line of dialogue, and pausing to answer the phone or pop some com.

Product placement is the next step in advertising, inserting sponsored items directly into the show. We see it already in the movies: a box of Dunkin’ Donuts placed prominently on a desk, a can of Budweiser or Coca-Cola held with the logo facing front. The first episode of season three of “24” was “brought to you by Ford without commercial interruption,” but it began with a fast-paced ten-minute mini-thriller that focused on a racy Ford SUV and ended with a more traditional commercial lauding the features of Ford products. Since then, Fords seem to be the only cars driven by terrorists and Counter Terrorist Unit agents on “24.” Reality shows like “The Apprentice” and “Survivor” feature their sponsors throughout each episode as part of the rewards and challenges. Viewers can’t avoid the commercials without avoiding the show itself.

Let’s hope that corporate America is smart enough to let the scriptwriters run the program, adapting their advertising to fit the show as Ford has done, instead of twisting the show to fit the product as the studio heads at Fox seem to be doing.

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