Right now: terrorists are plotting to assassinate a presidential candidate, my wife and daughter have been targeted, and people that I work with may be involved in both. I’m FailedCritics writer Callum Petch, and today is the longest day of my life.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
On Wednesday, 24: Live Another Day successfully managed to make me cry as they killed off a major character (I shan’t specify here for the benefit of those of you who are either not caught up yet or are saving all of the episodes for marathoning at a later date). Two weeks ago, they revealed that another character was a mole and my response was of gleeful shock instead of eye-rolling. Last week, the show pulled off an action sequence that genuinely had me on the edge of my seat even though they obviously weren’t going to kill off Jack Bauer, c’mon, that’d be like ending The Undertaker’s undefeated streak at WrestleMania (shut up)! Hell, from frame one, this season had my attention and when it finally ran that intro, I realised that 9PM Wednesday nights for the next 11 weeks were going to be the sole property of 24, much like how 9PM Sunday nights were the sole property of 24 for a good four years before.
24 and I have a history. See, 24 was the first prime-time drama I ever watched. I was 10 years old in 2005 (and, yes, I do realise that I have made the majority of the people on staff here, and likely a fair percentage of the reader-base, feel really old by saying that) and the demo disc that accompanied one of my Official PlayStation 2 Magazines had a video hyping the future release of 24: The Game. Being 10 years old in 2005, I got excited for pretty much anything assuming that it looked cool enough. And 24: The Game looked cool, it had gun fights and car chases and people shouting really loudly at other people and it all looked really exciting. (You may think poorly of me for this line of thought but Enter The Matrix was what got me into The Matrix, in the same way that my love of cartoons got me into The Animatrix, so there was a method to my madness.) I was sold on the game and, consequently, resolved to take a shot at the show.
It took a little convincing my dad but I managed to get his permission to record an episode one Sunday night on VHS (yes, it was 2005 and my dad was still recording shows with VHS, what of it) for me to watch the following day after I got home from school and finished my homework (I was a real boy scout in my formative years, feel free to mock). Without having to look it up, I can tell you that episode was Day 4, 9:00pm – 10:00pm and involved the season’s big bad Marwan holding Jack Bauer hostage, whilst he set plans in motion to shoot down Air Force One. I know that a lot of people like to use this phrase in regards to things that they are overly impressed by, but it really was like absolutely nothing 10 year-old me had ever seen before. The hour was fast, it was brutal, it was stylish with its split-screens and that ominous ticking clock, and it had my full undivided attention for the entire hour it ran. Lower down on the list but also important, it was filled to the nines with plots and history and characters that I had no prior knowledge of but were clearly important prior to the episode and for the episode in general; as a 10 year-old who was used to cartoons and Nickelodeon sitcoms, the idea of the events of one episode of a show carrying over and informing the events of another one was mindblowing to me. I was hooked, I wanted more of whatever it was selling and to subscribe its newsletter etc.
So, naturally, I didn’t check in again until the last four hours of Day 4, VHS recording of digital channels being what it was. Not that it mattered, though, as the damage was already done and I was determined to see more. BBC Two re-ran parts of Day 1 over the Summer and I have vague memories of forcing 10 year-old me, who was always in bed for no later than 8PM (yes, you may yuck it up at this fact), to stay up to the twilight hours of the morning in order to catch Jack Bauer rescuing his wife and daughter from the terrorists and defying the odds by saving presidential candidate David Palmer. Christmas 2005 brought me the complete Day 4 boxset, a present I had been begging for for about six months; my parents even took me into the store as they bought it to make absolutely sure that it was the right present and everything, like they knew I would never forgive them if they screwed up.
Day 5 was scheduled to begin just over three weeks after Christmas Day. I finished that Day 4 boxset before 2005 was out. As soon as the credits on one episode had passed, it was straight onto the next one with the only self-imposed breaks coming from toilet stops and refilling drinks, and breaks imposed on me by society (like “Christmas dinner” and “you have go to bed” and “you’ve watched enough for today, come and spend time with your family”) lasting for the bare minimum of time and not one second more. 24 just had its hooks in me, it was compulsive viewing. The relentless pace of the show, combined with its (on the surface) serious tone, had a sense of urgency that I simply hadn’t experienced before. Most cartoons and kids’ sitcoms, well the ones that I watched and liked anyway, were very relaxed. There were conflicts and moments of drama, but it all still felt safe and relaxing, that these were issues that could be resolved at any point without any danger to the characters involved, especially since some kind of funny joke would be along at any point to diffuse the tension. The constant ticking of the clock, though, which always re-appeared on screen whenever the pacing seemed on the verge of dipping, kept that from happening. These were real threats with real stakes that needed resolving now and that urgency wasn’t being let up until either the threat was resolved or the hour was over.
And that feeling of events having real stakes was compounded by how often 24 would actually let the bad guys get one over on the heroes. Again, at 10 years old, 11 when I finally got the Day 4 boxset, I was conditioned by the shows I watched to expect the heroes to win. The heroes would always win. No matter the obstacle, no matter how bleak the situation looked, the villains would never significantly hurt anyone and the heroes would always foil them. Perhaps as a result of their season structure (filling 24 hours’ worth of programming is likely very hard), 24 would sometimes let the villains actually do some real damage. Killing off major characters, revealing that certain characters were evil all along, having several attacks go off without a hitch. I was not prepared for it. “You don’t let the bad guys win! That’s supposed to be Storytelling 101, right?” There was only one other show that I was watching at the time that did that on about as regular a basis as 24, Codename: Kids Next Door (and I’ll have more about that in the near future), but it shocked me. It also reinforced the idea that Jack Bauer, and his friends and co-workers at CTU and in the government, were only human. Sure, they would eventually take down the bad guys and bring them to justice, but they weren’t infallible. They weren’t superhuman, they couldn’t stop everything all the time and I wasn’t used to heroes that were that vulnerable.
Of course, being 10/11 years old, I was enamoured with Jack Bauer. He was just the definition of cool: a man dedicated to serving his country and willing to go as far as he had to in order to protect it. Bauer was driven, resourceful and mostly unflappable under pressure. But he was also prone to overstepping, conflicted about his more questionable actions, devoted to the people he loves and respects, and was just a man. Again, that fallibility was what grounded him, made him more than just a force of nature. He had emotions, thoughts and feelings and sometimes they, along with other outside sources, would conspire to trip him up. I think that’s what drew me to him, even though I wouldn’t have realised so at the time. Yes, his one-man rampage through a terrorist compound to rescue the Secretary of Defence James Heller and his daughter, and Jack’s lover, Audrey Raines was awesome incarnate, but his capture and torture by Marwan made him more grounded and his family drama made him more relatable. After all, everyone loves a relatable underdog, it’s human nature.
For Day 5, I adopted the practice, through much begging to my dad (and also to my mum to let me stay at his house on Sunday nights), of recording the episodes on VHS on the Sunday night and then getting up extra early on the Monday morning to watch them before school. Initially, this practice was due to my extreme excitement for new episodes; waiting until I got home from school at 4PM was much too long when I needed to know what was happening in the lives of Jack Bauer, Chloe O’Brian, Bill Buchannan and others right now, dammit! Eventually, though, word got out that I watched 24 (my memory is too hazy to remember how and I chose that phrase because it sounds far cooler than the more likely answer “I never stopped talking about it”) and it turned out that there were other people in my year who watched the show too. Suddenly, I had another reason to watch new episodes as soon as possible, so that I could chat about them with friends over lunch, the school kids’ equivalent of the water cooler.
See, 24 was the home of so many firsts for me. It felt like a primer for all future adult dramas I would get into as practically all of the tropes that 24 had exposed me to (heightened stakes, fast-pacing, heroes who could lose, shocking character deaths and even shocking-er twists, cliffhangers, “did you see [x] last night…” conversations with people the day after, the season with the massive dip in quality that we all like to pretend never occurred) would be deployed or come up in practically every other big drama I have come across since. Some would even do 24 better than 24 at points (Nikita’s first season is probably the best example of such a thing) and the show suffered a dip in quality after the phenomenal Day 5 (still one of my favourite seasons of TV ever) that it never really recovered from, but it always held a special place in my heart for being the first.
Being the first is not the only reason why I stuck with it all the way to the bitter end, mind. Nostalgia doesn’t blind me that much to the quality of things (for example, Day 6 sucks utter balls and if you’re going through the series for the first time I guarantee that you can skip it and lose pretty much nothing). See, even at its worst, 24 was always entertaining. At its best, few shows could touch it. Not in its ability to turn the screws, not in its ability to extract tension, not in its ability to keep the pace up, not in its lead turn (seriously, no matter how the show ended up, Kiefer Sutherland was always exceptional as Jack Bauer), not in its action, not in its audacity. Those two reasons are why, ultimately, in the final minutes of Day 8 3:00pm to 4:00pm, during Jack and Chloe’s last conversation with one another, I blubbed like a sheep that’s just been told it’s up next for the slaughterhouse. Part of it was the moment itself, and part of it was finally closing the book on the previous five years of my life as a show so integral to my formative years finally drew to a close. My dad, who was sat next to me at the time primarily because I had commandeered the TV from him and he doesn’t really have anywhere else to go in the house, probably thought I was weird for doing so, but how would he know? My last tether to my infinitely happier childhood had finally wrapped up.
Which is why it was strange to hear in May of 2013 that 24 was coming back, in the same way that the return of The Powerpuff Girls back in January for a one-off (at the time) felt strange to hear. As much as I loved the show, 24 peaked back in 2006 with Day 5. I mean, sure, it still reached some great heights (and some lows we don’t talk about) but its best days were undoubtedly behind it. Its signature tricks were beginning to feel like checklist clichés, I greeted Day 8’s mole reveal with much derision instead of shock. Plus, I have a cautious wariness about people digging up things I once loved and trying to resurrect them. Add in the fact that most of the people involved in 24 had moved onto Homeland (which I still love and is still great and I will not hear otherwise) and… well… what place does 24 have in 2014? The television landscape has both absorbed and moved past 24’s big hooks and storytelling style, not to mention the fact that pretty much every possible angle of the show’s universe and concept had been wrung out in the original run. What’s gained by bringing 24 back for a 12 episode half-season besides a nostalgia run and a filled up slot on the schedule for 11 weeks?
As you may be able to guess, I was sceptical for a lot of the build-up to the season, even with all of the tidbits that they were throwing out that should have gotten myself, a die-hard 24 fanatic for whom the show was a vital part of his growing up, super excited in anticipation (Chloe’s back! Heller is the president! Yvonne Strahovski is still getting work!). But as the premiere date drew ever closer, I started getting excited, I started getting hyped, my worries and suspicions faded into the background. I was excited for 24 again. I was so excited that I actually stayed up until 3am on premiere night, when I really should have been doing uni coursework instead, in order to catch the US/UK simulcast. And it was good. It was really good, in fact. Suddenly, I was excited for next week’s episode. And then next week’s episode was great, so I was really excited for the week after’s episode. And this cycle kept going and going until they revealed the mole in 4:00pm – 5:00pm and I realised something.
For one hour every Wednesday, I am back to 2006 Me. The one going through his first as-it-happens season of 24. The one who counts down the days, hours, minutes and seconds between episodes. The one who is genuinely blindsided by twists and reveals, whose heart gets broken when characters he loves are killed off, who is on the edge of their seat because “oh, man, how is Jack going to get out of this?” The four year break between the end of Day 8 and the start of Live Another Day really is the best thing that could have happened to 24. Whilst it never really fell out of my memory or my life (I have the entire show on DVD and Blu-Ray, obviously), enough time had passed between new episodes to make the prospect of them something to relish instead of accept as a thing that will happen. That time distance is what makes Chloe O’Brian telling someone to open a socket a joyous little in-joke, a tight Jack Bauer escape feel amazingly badass, or the reveal of a mole to be an exciting twist in the ride. Everything feels fresh again, even though it’s not. The season so far has basically been a greatest hits of the 24-verse and that four year gap is what adds to the appeal, instead of feeling like a warmed-over re-hash.
Which, again, is what leads me back to my point: for one hour every Wednesday for the last seven weeks, it is like the last 8 years never happened. With the exception of the having friends to discuss the episode with (*blasts All By Myself whilst gorging on a tub of cheap ice cream*), it is that exact same feeling! A straight blast of that every week. 24 is hitting me like it did the first time and for one all-too-brief hour every week, I am back at my dad’s house. It is 7am Monday morning, I am sat on the couch with my cereal and watching last night’s episode recorded from my VHS before I have to go off to school. I am in bliss, and nothing else matters because terrorists have placed Jack Bauer and CTU in a seemingly impossible situation and I need to know how they are going to get out of it. So thank you for coming back, 24. For the hour of my life you have taken up these past few weeks, you have made it seem like the last eight years never happened and I cannot thank you enough for giving me that feeling. Dammit.
Oh, and because I know you, the reader, are curious:
Day 4 (for personal reasons you’ve likely already figured out)
Day 7 (its last third really drags the whole season down)
Day 8 (although its last third is some of the best of the whole run)
Day 6 (which is mostly without value after 9:00am – 10:00am)