On Nov. 6, the clock started ticking on what was, for many, this season’s most anticipated new show, 24. In the Fox series’ debut, everything starts to go wrong for CIA agent Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland: Presidential candidate David Palmer will be the target of an assassination attempt within the next 24 hours; a mole has breached the security of his anti-terrorism department; and Terri, his estranged wife, has gone to look for their daughter, who has started smoking pot and has left the house for a night of illicit partying.
Like Alias and to a lesser extent, The Agency, 24 relies on mind-numbing action sequences instead of offering audiences a sophisticated approach to the intelligence industry. After our brief post-Sept. 11 moratorium on violence, gunplay and pyrotechnics return with a vengeance in 24. In the first episode, a terrorist escapes from a jetliner seconds before it explodes in midair. The second episode includes a close-up shot of a severed finger and a scene in which a drugged teenage girl is beaten with a crowbar (the editing does not spare us from having to see the assault). In the third episode, a thug administers heroin to the girl who has just been tortured and a homeless teenage boy is bludgeoned with a 2-by-6.
Despite the show’s graphic (and gratuitous) violence, I found myself hooked by the end of hour two–perhaps only because, having grown up under the influence of The Lost Boys, I’m drawn to Sutherland’s nostalgia-for-the-’80s star-persona. He has even begun to mirror the droopy, wizened look of detachment that Donald Sutherland perfected during the late ’70s.
But the real selling point of the show is its narrative strategy: Each episode occurs in “real time,” so that every hour of screen time equals one hour of the characters’ lived time; there will be 24 episodes this season, so that the entire season will equal one day in Jack Bauer’s life. Fox clearly hopes that the unusual plot construction will sell the show, as the very title–which foregrounds the premise–would suggest. Trailers for the show implore us to remember that “every second counts,” and each hour begins with Sutherland’s solemn voice reminding us that the the “events occur in real time.” Titles throughout indicate the precise second in which the action is unfolding; we know that the timing is exact, because the titles are digital! The show’s visual style relies on split-screen cinematography to convey how multiple lines of action are unfolding simultaneously–indeed, at times you might be tempted to think that 24 is Brian DePalma and Michael Mann’s televisual lovechild.
While the concept might well be a marketing bonanza, it actually contributes nothing to the show’s suspense. For a narrative to create suspense by unfolding in “real time,” it must begin at a specific point in time, and it must have a clearly defined end point–a moment in time where the action will stop and audiences will measure the characters’ success or failure. The story must also define the parameters of the geographical space. What audiences should get, then, is an impression of the rapid foreclosure of the characters’ options as both time and space become increasingly limited–a dreadful sense of an endgame continuously and rapidly approaching.
But 24‘s scope is too broadly defined. Instead of focusing on Jack’s movement through time, the show cuts back and forth between several parallel storylines unfolding in dramatically different spaces: the candidate’s hotel room; the terrorists’ desert hideout; Jack’s office; and the teenagers’ cruising van. The breadth of the action is antithetical to the show’s narrative strategy: It diminishes the claustrophobic impact that real-time narration should exploit. The movement from one space to the next does not unify time, it fractures it.
The nature of the medium, unfortunately, mitigates against the realization of this “real-time” aesthetic because it too manipulates time. In the mid-’70s–well before the age of cable and satellite television–pop culture theorist Raymond Williams suggested that television programming can not present events in linear chronology. Instead, advertisements and news announcements get seamlessly woven into the story, creating what Williams termed “flow.” Before broadcast media, audiences experienced narratives–plays, novels, stories, poems–as “discrete,” uninterrupted events; stories unfolded over a measurable period of time. But television offers spectators a “planned flow, in which the true series is not the published sequence of programme items,” but a storyline that includes the advertisements for products, advertisements for news items, and even advertisements for other storylines (e.g., shows coming on later that night). Anyone who has spent hours watching the tube after intending to watch only 30 minutes knows that television doesn’t begin and end–we turn it off and on. Each time we turn on the TV, we must face “a single irresponsible flow of images and feelings” that never ceases.
While each episode of 24 dutifully counts down the seconds of the day, the momentum that the chronological focus should establish is undercut by the flow of network programming. For example, the commercials for That ’70s Show interrupt Jack’s troubles every 15 minutes. If “every second counts” why do we have to change channels or go get more popcorn to avoid the sight of Robbie Robertson hawking Gap products? The marketing of the show itself works against its own real-time strategies in that each hour begins with the obligatory “previously on 24” segment, and ends with a “next week on 24” preview of what Jack is about to encounter. Moreover, to ensure that a significant audience would get hooked on the show, Fox aired the first episode repeatedly during the week following the initial screening. Audiences probably will get from this repetition little sense of time’s continuous, unrelenting pace. (Who knows? Maybe the stewardess from the first episode will stop the bomb from going off when she gets a second chance.)
By far the most promising element of the show is its exploration of the tension between Jack’s professional and personal obligations. In the first episode, Jack’s daughter and a friend sneak out to meet two boys for a night of narcotic and sexual abandon. Meanwhile, Jack’s wife calls him to get his help finding their daughter, but he can’t offer any assistance because he’s obligated to foil the plot to assassinate Palmer. These sequences, which recall Mann’s 1995 film Heat, are as close as the show comes to realizing the potential of its real-time gimmick, as we watch Jack try to maintain several facets of his life at once over a cell phone while he drives to his next shoot out. At these points the show actually emphasizes how real time is in fact a complexly woven fabric and the drama of real time is that you can’t do everything and be everywhere at once.
But by the end of Episode 2, the show suggests that the two boys who have taken Jack’s daughter are actually involved with the terrorist organization; this plot development practically guarantees that the genuinely interesting domestic tension will give way to the more predictable and outlandish action/adventure plot, and that the intensity of real time will give way to the simplicity of programming “flow.” For network programming to “flow,” it has to offer audiences a “hook” to hold their attention through the commercials; every 15 minutes there must be a climax. The fact that the terrorist plot will subsume the domestic subplot reveals that 24 favors the supposed action and excitement of manipulated time, and not the psychological complexity of life lived in real time.
Williams says that, in television, “the real internal organization is something other than the declared organization.” Real television always gives you less time than it promises, which means that, even though Jack has 24 hours to solve the case, he really only has about 19 hours. The real mole in his unit aren’t his co-workers after all–it’s the Fox programmers.