Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Hit the road, Jack

Talk about a double whammy. Just under 24 hours from the end of Lost, another ground-breaking drama left our airwaves. If you know me at all, you know this goodbye was especially taxing on my fragile soul.

For nearly a decade, I've watched and re-watched every episode of 24. Nine years ago, in November of 2001, this Fox drama debuted with a pilot episode containing a blown-up passenger jet just weeks after 9/11. Gutsy. As each episode ticked by in real time and the producers raised the ante with each hour, I quickly realized this was no ordinary show.

Unfortunately, they decided to end this series the day after Lost's send off. Both shows were equally revolutionary, but Lost received a hero's goodbye while 24 sort of whimpered away. It's a shame really, and despite the drop in quality in the last few seasons, Jack Bauer and company deserved better.

The two-hour finale did not measure up to Lost's. It did not pack the punch that I was hoping for since it basically served as a set-up for the potential movie. On a murderous rampage the past few weeks, they brought Jack Bauer back to sanity, but not convincingly. About to assassinate the president of Russia, Jack decides against it with help from trusted sidekick Chloe O'Brian. And that was it. The psycho Jack that took the show in a daring new direction disappeared. They took the cheap and easy way out.

The final scene did serve as a fitting tribute to the core relationship of the show the past four seasons - Chloe and Jack. They say goodbye via video camera and Jack wanders off in exile, a bloody and battered mess, hunted by the country he served his whole life. An ending reminiscent to Season 4. Chloe says "shut it down" and the camera flickers off Jack, revealing the famous clock counting down to zero.

The final two hours felt more like a season finale than a series ender, which I should have expected. Nonetheless, it left me wanting. Maybe this is just my form of denial. Maybe I just can't accept the fact that the ticking clock and Bauer's bulging veins will not be on my TV anymore.

But enough about Season 8, a fine, yet unspectacular offering of the JB saga. I admit I watch too much TV, but what it detracts from my social life it adds to my TV expertize. 24, especially its debut season, changed the manner in which I watch and digest television.

From the death of Janet York to the reveal of the mole, the inaugural season just kicked my ass. I did not expect American TV shows to coldly kill innocent characters like 24 did. I could never predict it would turn a heroic character into the season's biggest traitor. It broke every rule I was weaned on watching ER and Law & Order during high school.

Then it ended with Jack discovering his murdered pregnant wife and I still vividly remember the feeling I had watching that moment. A kick to the stomach. I was almost breathless. It still stands as the greatest hour of episodic TV I've seen. From there, Season 2 started with the show's best plot arc, the search for the nuclear bomb. Year after year, 24 dealt with terrorism, torture, action and espionage with a skill and style usually reserved for Jason Bourne movies.

What makes the show stand the test of time is it's unflinching insistence on sacrifice. Good people die. Good people have tragic endings. Bad guys win sometimes. James Bond always gets the girl at the end and only gets a few scratches. Jack Bauer lost his pregnant wife, his relationship with his daughter, several girlfriends, countless partners and colleagues and even his best sidekick in Tony Almaeda.

His story is tragic. Happiness was never in the cards for him. For a network TV show, this is extremely rare. Enormous credit goes to Kiefer Sutherland, who brought a volcanic intensity to this character every hour while also giving him a heart and soul slowly eroded by each and every tragic choice he made in each season. He turned Jack Bauer from a man doing everything to protect his family and his country into a popular culture icon.

It's corny, I know, but I'm going to miss this show. While it wasn't the best acted, best written and while it wasn't the deepest or most thoughtful show of the past 10 years, it's by far the most entertaining. It never lost it's forward momentum. It never got muddled in minutiae like The Sopranos or lost in crazy mythology like Lost or Alias. 24 served at the alter of its kinetic plot and never wavered.

So thank you, 24, for giving us Jack Bauer, Nina Myers, David Palmer (who played Barack Obama way back in 2001), Chloe O'Brian, Sherry Palmer, Charles Logan, Tony Almeida, Michelle Dessler, Aaron Pierce, Stephen Saunders, Renee Walker, Allison Taylor and many other memorable characters. Thanks for the twists, the ticking clock and the Bauer kill count. Thanks most of all for being fun to watch all these years.

I can't believe you're gone (sort of). It's enough to make even a tough, hard-as-nails guy like me shed a tear.

See ya, Jack.

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