In referring to a once-great show, people often fall back on the argument that said-show, even at its current, anemic state, or with a mediocre to below average installment, “is still better than 99% of the crap that’s out there.” I’ve heard it quite often with respect to the Simpsons, for instance, or The Office more recently, and I hate the line of reasoning. First off, it’s not remotely true, especially in the examples cited. “The Dinner Party” or “Phyllis’ Wedding” are excruciatingly bad, by any reasonable measure of television quality, as are “Homer vs. Dignity” and “Saddlesore Galactica” (or the one where Homer gets raped by a panda, and the one with leprechaun jockeys, respectively, probably the two most mentioned episodes in accordance with the topic of The Simpsons’ decline). Second, it sidesteps the premise of the critique entirely – that the show, by the lofty standards it has created for itself, is simply no longer worthy of the name. Why shouldn’t my levels of expectation be higher for something that has demonstrated consistent quality in the past? Why shouldn’t I be particularly offended by a bland episode that does nothing but ride the coattails of the show’s name – sometimes embarrassingly so, as in the case of Frank Grimes Jr.? I might get nostalgic, but I don’t have a lingering gratefulness for a brand name. The Office has been a mediocre show, and is currently the weakest link on NBC’s Thursday night lineup. The Simpsons, when I stopped watching nearly 10 years ago, was virtually unwatchable at the time (tangentially, I enjoyed the movie, but my expectations were down in the basement). Trash is trash.
I stopped watching 24 regularly sometime during Season 6. Even throughout the previous two years, the show had already become somewhat of a parody of itself. The first three years had been unparalleled. Not only was it incredibly tense, well-paced, well-acted, and simply thrilling, but it was focused. Yes, there were different acts, and different settings, but the main story flowed beautifully, with kind of a natural progression and tension building through the course of the season. Starting with Season 4, however (the one I traced in four parts on this blog five years ago), that singular focus disappeared. I always maintain that the show amped up the stakes too early in its life, and I guess the writers never felt comfortable enough to shrink the scope. It was as though they had written themselves into a corner once they went to the nuclear option (Season 2). The only way to move from there, and from biological weapons (Season 3), was to have multiple threats. 24 thus became almost like a bad videogame. Jack’s quest uncovered one master plan after another, exposed one true villain after another. The internal consistency of the show was no more – if you stepped back and thought about the season in its entirety, the decisions that villains made early on in the year made no sense when you considered their supposed overall plan. The most egregious violation of this, actually, was basically the reason I stopped watching the show: this was Graem, the evil mastermind of Season 5, casually revealed as Jack’s brother in Season 6.
Truth is, as reflected in the hermano moment, 24 had become an incredibly clunky show over the course of its life. It had become everything it was not when it debuted back in 2001: lazy, formulaic, and completely tactless, relying on completely non-thought-out ‘shock moments’ as though to live up to its reputation. Efforts to revitalize the show in recent years only underscore how stale it had become. Sure, the setting might have been Washington D.C., or it might have been New York, but other than some exterior shots, or a scene or two in each episode, nothing had changed – not substantively. The show increasingly drew upon a small set of stock characters, and more frustrating, a small set of stock storylines. It became a joke the degree of infiltration that the terrorists would have on the particular government agency at the heart of the season, whether it be the presidential administration, CTU, or the bizarro-CTU FBI (as in Season 7). Moles were moles, or they were not really moles, or they were triple-agents, or whatever, but they all sure acted like moles, up until the moment in the script that the writers had to finally commit them a certain way. The personal lives of characters, whether it be the schizophrenic daughter of Erin Driscoll inexplicably brought into CTU for treatment, or the drug-addict sister of Lynn McGill who manages to attack him and steal his wallet on the street, intersected with the main story at the most inopportune times. Yes, there were bad subplots in the past (everybody’s looking at you, Kim Bauer), but I daresay, not to these levels of absurdity, to these degrees of irrelevance.
Still, it saddens me greatly to hear that 24 has been cancelled after eight seasons, even though it should have happened two or three years ago. There’s a reason why its most memorable characters remain the people introduced from the early seasons – the David and Sherry Palmers, the Almeidas and Desslers, the O’Brians and Meyers, the Pierces, Masons, and Chappelles of the world. No, in its current incarnation as a generic escapist, torture porn, action soap opera, 24 is certainly no better than 99% of the stuff that’s broadcast on television today. I don’t know that it’s better than 50%. And no, unfortunately, I can’t claim to have been there all eight years, having abandoned it, really, without remorse or regret. But 24 remains a show I consider my own, to some degree. I ‘discovered’ it from the very first episode, spread the word about the real-time format to a few of my friends. I checked its ratings every week to make sure that it would survive. I sat through the years when it started in September and lasted through June, sometimes waiting three, four weeks for new episodes. It’s quite amazing to revisit Season 1 now, to just see how young Sutherland, Haysbert, Cuthbert, and everybody else looked – and were. Eight years. And the clock goes silent.