Tuesday, January 30, 2007

S6:6 of "24": Skeletons in the Closet

I have complained before about the various subplots that have bogged down <i>24</i> over the years, but it seems that last night we had subplots as the main event throughout most of the hour. While sometimes these subplots add tangible moments to the rising action (like Lennox’s slick maneuver to get Karen to resign), the rest of them seem rather annoying and cloying and not important in the grand scheme of things.

Last week we left our hero Jack as he placed a plastic bag over his brother’s head (the evil brother Grim/Graem/Graham). Avid fans of <i>24</i> were just salivating at the prospect of Grim getting his just desserts, but Jack needs him for info and torture is just a way to break a guy fast. In terms of a spineless wonder like Grim, that takes all of about ten seconds (even Audrey lasted longer under duress), and he divulges the truth about their father, their company, and the five missing nukes.

So here we have the first example of skeletons in the closet, the Grim/Graem Bauer closet to be more precise. Grim engineered some kind of deal that brought nukes from Russia in order to have them neutralized and recycled and maybe to become part of the Homer Simpson Memorial in Springfield. Nevertheless, Grim screws up by hiring this Charlie McCarthy character (with a more annoying Australian accent than Croc Dundee) who promptly sells them off to Abu (Mr. Clean) Fayed, who just recently used one to nuke Valenica and wipe out twelve thousand people (and also has four more waiting in the wings).

Admittedly, this rather damaging evidence is something Grim wants to hide, but Jack forces him to take off for Charley’s office to check the bloke’s computer. As Jack and Grim leave the palatial estate, we get a glimpse of Grim’s Trophy Wife looking even better than last week. Grim mumbles something about this turn of events but the key moment is the exchange of eye contact between Jack and Trophy. Jack, man, you really need to take a few minutes and talk to that girl.

Meanwhile, back at the underground bunker we have Tom (more Twitchy by the Minute) Lennox locking horns with Karen (I’m Not Some Liberal Do-Gooder) Hayes and it’s getting ugly. I don’t even mean the script or the actors, I mean the subplot. There’s talk of wearing each other down, but truthfully it’s wearing the viewer down. It’s just a very slow-moving subplot, but also necessary because Lennox is trying to realign the Cabinet and get the Prez Wayne on board. To do so, Twitchy can’ t have Karen around anymore.

To whom does Twitchy turn but Reed, Rob Lowe’s little brother. Little Bro is on Twitchy’s team, and his job is to help get rid of Karen. The answer is simple: get to her through her beloved Bill Buchanan. Swifter than one can sing “Obli-Di, Obla-da, life goes on…” Little Bro has come up with some dirt on Bill. Twitchy calls Karen on it. Something to do with Bill having Mr. Clean in detention and letting him go (yada-yada-yada), but it’s enough to get Karen squirming. She warns Twitchy that he has skeletons in his closet (example number two), which causes him to look over his shoulder and think about the blow-up doll back in his office. Still, he is undeterred and gives Karen an hour to resign or else.

We switch to CTU headquarters, where the Three Amigos of subplots emerge more prominently than ever. Milo (Still Asking Why I’m Here), Nadia (I’m Middle Eastern and they’re watching me), and Morris (my accent is almost as annoying as Charley’s) have formed a triumvirate of insignificance. Unless one of these three are going to figure in the story in a major way later on (and, admittedly, we are through just one fourth of the season now), their interactions border on ludicrous most of the time.

The powers on high (no doubt directed by Twitchy) have limited Nadia’s “access,” (this has always been a source of contention in the bowels of CTU) to a level that inhibits her productivity. Milo, in a rare show of any concern for someone else, goes to Bill in the old upstairs office (where Jack used to hold court and shoot tranquilizer darts into George Mason) and fights for Nadia’s honor (please, don’t let there be a romance between these two). Bill is ever stoic for a few seconds before caving in and telling Milo why Nadia can’t do her job. Milo goes back downstairs and gallantly (for him) lets Nadia use his access code. Warning to the writers: Please, these two are not Michelle and Tony and don’t even try to go there.

In yet another seemingly meaningless subplot at the detention center, we’re getting more of the same (sort of a broad view of the rights of Muslims across the social, economic, and political spectrum being objects of discrimination) . Walla Walla Walid is still undercover, trying desperately to get info from one guy who smuggled a cellular phone into the detention camp. Sandra (I’m a lawyer and the Prez’s Sister) Palmer is still fighting for his rights, but it all goes bad when the guys realize Walla stole the cell phone and beat him senseless.

By the way, our gal Chloe determines that there is no bad content on that cell phone (somehow or other Walla was able to transmit its contents to CTU). Now, this brings me to an even more important matter here. Because of this subplot mania, if you will, our intrepid CTU computer geek gal is being seriously cut from the picture. I really want and need more Chloe-Jack time (and that usually means Jack talking to her in the field on his cell phone). I am really hoping that gets back to its usual level soon, because I am tiring of these others who wouldn’t know how to taser a pesty drunk guy in the bar or wield an M-16 like our Chloe.

Of course, the final (and most important) skeleton in the closet has to do with the Jack Bauer family, his until now unknown brother and father (and former girlfriend and her son). These people have helped to shape the Jack Bauer we know, and his antagonism toward Grim obviously emanates from something far deeper than the current issue of nukes. This also connects the extended metaphor of skeletons in closets used throughout the show to illustrate hidden agendas (Twitchy and Karen), loyalties (Milo & Nadia and Karen & Bill), clandestine promises (Twitchy and Little Bro), that go far beyond the phantom Bauer family.

Jack’s search (with a reluctant Grim dragged along for the ride) for Charley and his computer brings them to yet another mysterious office building. Outside there are CTU personnel sitting in a car as sentries, and we get a quick glimpse of them and know they’re going down (just like those extras who used to beam down to a planet with Kirk on <i>Star Trek</i>). Jack quickly finds the computer but its files have already been compromised.

This is when we have the Shakespearean moment we have been waiting for all throughout the episode: Jack encounters his father. Is the old man mad in a King Lear-like way (his hair looks worse than Trump’s)? Or is this a case of something like Hamlet facing his father’s ghost, learning a necessary and compellingly ugly truth about family, life, and his place in the world? It may be a little of them all as Jack’s Dad begs for his other’s son life (though the idea of Grim going to prison is such a pleasant thought).

Thereis a brief father-son reunion, but it is tempered by time and the situation at hand. It does not seem at all plausible that this wealthy Phillip (Stretch Cunningham) Bauer would be taking on security guards assigned by Grim and lying in wait for Charley. It does set up this magnificent moment when Jack is once again torn between family and duty, but he quickly straightens his back and knows Grim made the wrong choice and millions of people can’t die in order to protect him.

This is when Grim becomes Edmund (King Lear’s bastard son) and sets the guards upon Jack and Stretch. Who needs the word “legitimate” anyway, right? Grim reveals himself as the evil person the viewer has known him to be (connecting the dramatic irony begun in last week’s show). Jack and Stretch are handcuffed and dragged off to a van as we see the dead CTU agents in their cars. Which brings up an important point: how many totally inept CTU agents have been killed over the last six seasons? Anyone with numbers please let me know.

The episode ends with Grim driving off, no doubt to get back to Trophy and see if he can beat President Logan in the quickie department. Jack and Stretch are loaded into a van to be taken off to certain death (yeah, right). We know that Charley has found someone to help Clean with the nukes, that Karen is on a plane home to LA to fall into the arms of her man Bill, and our Three Amigos will no doubt be even more annoying next week. Finally, we must assume that Twitchy (fresh off his victory of ridding himself of Karen) is probably celebrating back in his office with the blow-up doll in his closet, having a very meaningful discussion about skeletons.

Until next week, <i>Klaatu barada nikto!</i>

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

S6:5 of "24" : He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother

It would go without saying that Jack Bauer has had a rather difficult life, at least in the six seasons of 24 that we’ve come to know him. He lost his wife in Season One and Kim almost died too (his daughter); in subsequent seasons, he has not been able to maintain relationships, became addicted to heroin, had to kill two colleagues (Chappelle and Curtis), lost close friends to assassination and murder, and was finally kidnapped by the Chinese and tortured for twenty months. He hasn’t just had some bad days or years but has had to an endure suffering almost of the Biblical Job-like proportions.

In last night’s episode we learn that Jack has more family (a brother and a father), and it does not surprise us in the least that neither one brings any joy to Jack’s life. Apparently Jack’s father Phillip is somehow connected to the terrorists, so Jack sets out on a search to find him, which leads him to his estranged brother, Graham. Holy dramatic irony, Batman! Graham is very recognizable to viewers as the leader of Gang of Four, the shadowy group of powerbrokers behind President Charles Logan’s nefarious schemes in Season 5. It seems Jack can’t get a break no matter which way he turns.

As you may recall, at the end of the last episode a nuclear suitcase was detonated in Valenica, California. At the beginning of this episode, we see the aftermath of the bomb, the ghost of its mushroom cloud lingering in the air. Jack rallies from his moment of despair and doubt after shooting Curtis and seeing the bomb explode. He runs toward the mayhem of people rushing to escape their fate, and a shockwave has dumped a helicopter on a rooftop. Jack Be Nimble quickly gets up there and saves the passenger before the helicopter falls to the ground and explodes, and now he is back in Super Jack mode and ready to kick some terrorist butt.

At CTU Bill Buchanan and company are trying to deal with information that they received concerning “five visitors” (translate that as one nuke detonated, four left). Nadia (I’m Not Michelle) continues to look very good for the camera; Milo (Why Am I Here) and Morris (I’m Better Looking Than Mr. Clean) remain combative, and Chloe (I Have a New Hairdo) is ever on the side of right, which means whatever side Jack is on. She stumbles upon Jack’s father’s name on a list, checks with Bill, and gives Jack a call to let him know. This sets Jack off on his quest and eventual confrontation with brother Graham.

Graham is seen in the car talking to a flunky. Here he laments about setting up Jack’s capture by the Chinese (now we know how that happened) and not killing him. Graham goes home to a sprawling mansion where Marilyn (his most obviously Trophy Wife) and good-looking son Josh are waiting for him. Josh is scared about fallout from the nuke, but Graham tells him not to worry. Graham has more pressing things on his mind. He knows Jack is looking for him and reminds Trophy that she and Jack once had a thing (Jack, you sly fox) and that maybe she would be happy to see her old lover again. Talk about fraternal conflict! Now we know why Graham set Jack up.

In the detention camp, the President’s sister continues to fight for the freedom of Tall Muslim Dude. However, the FBI has decided that his information about the “visitors” has been so helpful that they want to enlist him in an undercover sting to get more to work with. Sandra Palmer is against this, but the FBI boys are not taking “No” for an answer, even roughing up Tall to make it look good. He mentions Abu (Mr. Clean) Fayed to one of the guys and he’s in like Flynn (though I doubt old Errol could even get a Tic-Tac from these fellows).

Meanwhile, back at the White House Prez Wayne is trying to hold things together. It is decided to bring Prez and his staff down into “the bunker” for safety reasons. Karen (I Miss Bill) Hayes and Thomas (I Miss Dancing Baby) Lennox are all maneuvering to get what they want and need during this crisis. Lennox does rise to the occasion once, reprimanding someone at the conference table about not listening to “The President” and it makes us take note that not everyone, even in Prez’s Cabinet, really respects him the way he should be (it’s no doubt difficult living in the shadow of a brother like David Palmer).

The most important moments of the hour center around Jack’s arrival at Graham’s palatial estate. As a qualifying moment, this works rather well as Jack walks into the foyer and takes a look around (we know a CTU agent’s salary must be decent, but Jack could never afford anything like this). Graham is too obsequious when talking to Jack (even hugging him falsely), who quickly sees through his brother’s demeanor. We can also see the conflict for Jack when he meets his nephew, shaking hands with Josh and contemplating what things might have been like to have a family connection with him.

Graham soon gets himself into trouble with Jack as he evades questions, and Jack takes a lamp cord and begins thinking about doing things to his brother that gave others like Walt Cummings and Paul Raines very loose lips. Graham is trying to buy time, but there is no time in Jack’s quest to find his father because millions of lives are at stake. As Prez reads a speech off a teleprompter, we shift back to the scene with Jack and Graham, a microcosm of what is right and wrong with this country for sure. Jack has had enough and the scene (and episode) end with Jack putting a plastic bag over Graham’s head. So much for brotherly love.

Understandably, some will see this week’s episode as a let down. The rising action that culminated in a mini-climax last week (Curtis’s death and the nuke exploding) has put us in a swoon for a moment, but there is a swelling of new conflict and another in a series of waves of action ready to rise. More than anything, this episode is promising in that we are getting to know Jack’s character even more, a deeper knowledge of what has formed him and turned him into what he has become. There has always been an inherent goodness in Jack and a sincere desire for love and family. As we get to know more about his brother (and his father in Episiode 6), we’re no doubt going to wonder even more from whence it came.

Until next week, Klaatu barada nikto!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Season Six Premiere of 24: A Pain in the Neck

During the past few weeks, I have not been certain of how good Season 6 of 24 was going to be, since the premiere hype has been rather overblown and overwhelming. Combine that with the covert release of the first four episodes (courtesy of the Internet), and there was almost a feeling that something was horribly wrong with the show. Why would Fox be releasing a DVD (today, January 16, 2007) and somehow let its contents be leaked if the show was not up to par? Or, perhaps they wanted the first four hours to be pirated because they were trying to create a buzz or maybe it was the work of those devious enough to find a way. After viewing the first four hours of Season 6, I no longer care about any of this because 24 and our stalwart hero Jack Bauer are back with a vengeance.

The first and the fourth episodes feature neck wounds that figure prominently in the plotline and do much to show us Jack Bauer’s tenacity yet also reveal his new, more conflicted nature. Jack channels his David character from the rather fine movie Lost Boys in which Sutherland played a vampire. He has been chained to a chair by Abu (Mr. Clean) Fayed who wants him to die painfully because of a similar death his brother suffered in Jack’s hands (during some incident in 1999). This is reminiscent of the situations in Season 1 and 3, when the Drazens and Saunders wanted to get revenge for Operation Nightfall in Kosovo. Needless to say, the list of people out there who want Jack dead is a long one.

Jack has just stepped off a transport plane from China, where he had been held prisoner for twenty months. Looking like a cross between The Count of Monte Cristo and Grizzly Adams, Jack ambles off the plane and gives the Chinese guy who authorized his capture and imprisonment one of those “Jack looks” that viewers of the show know mean one thing: it’s not over between Jack and Cheng (and Cheng better watch his chopsticks for the foreseeable future).

Despite months of torture, Jack quickly gets back into shape (a shave, haircut, and new set of clothes help) after he learns that the new president Palmer (David’s brother Wayne who once learned how to release his inner Rambo courtesy of Jack’s tutelage in Season 5) has agreed to exchange Jack for cash and the location of one Hamri (Cat Stevens) Al-Assad (a terrorist believed to behind eleven weeks of deadly attacks all around the USA). Jack has no problem with going from the frying pan into the fireand likes the idea that he will “die for something” in the exchange. He even tells Bill that his death "will be a relief." Man, our pal Jack seems to be almost beyond hope at this point.

Once in the custody of the terrorists, Jack is quickly apprised of the truth by Mr. Clean (that it is he and not Assad who is behind all the bombings). Clean likes to inflict pain with a set of home dental and surgical instruments he keeps lying around for kicks. Giving Jack pain brings a gleam to Clean’s eye, but then he is called away to answer an urgent call. What’s a busy terrorist to do but leave behind a flunky, which is like asking Jack to kill the dude. So within a few minutes Jack has faked his death by pulling out a heart monitor, and Concerned Terrorist rushes to assist him (I guess wanting to keep Jack alive so Clean can kill him). This is when Jack does his best Dracula imitation, sinking his teeth into the guy’s neck and pulling out a chunk flesh and blood the size of Verne Troyer.

The ever-resourceful Jack has soon escaped, ruining the best part of Clean’s day. Well, he’s not going to let this get him down so he figures he’ll just go out and commit more terrorist acts. Jack manages to get a car and a cell phone faster than a burger and a Coke, and he informs his old buds at CTU that the exchange is all a fraud. He is quickly switched over to the president who has a hard time believing Assad is a good terrorist and Fayed is the bad one (a naughty and nice terrorist list might help).

An interesting new twist in Season 6 is that we are actually seeing the president in the Oval Office for the first time. In previous seasons we have seen the presidents on the ranch in California, on Air Force One, and even fishing on a lake, but they have never been in Washington until now. This is a welcome and needed development, especially with the nature of 24 being so entwined with technology that can easily connect both coasts. Inside that Oval Office we now have Karen (I Love Bill) Hayes and Thomas (new Twitchy Guy) Lennox, played with gusto by that old Ally McBeal lawyer who was weirdly likeable on that show but here he comes off as an annoying but dangerous sycophant.

A good deal happens in the first four episodes but it comes down to this: Jack is right and everyone else is not. Bill (I’m Married to Karen Now) Buchanan, head of CTU,  is ready to support Jack (unlike Ryan Chappelle and others in charge in the past) and quietly has Chloe assisting him as he saves Cat from an air strike on his hideout. Then Jack and Cat form an uneasy alliance to track Mr. Clean, stop the attacks, and save the day. This chase includes tracking one terrorist to his lair and stopping another from detonating a bomb on a subway car (instead Jack swiftly kicks him out the door and the terrorist blows himself up in the tunnel). Hey, Jack, you can really can bend it like Beckham.

As for annoying subplots (and what would 24 be without them?) we have Ahmed (that White Castle movie dude) taking a family hostage, and Wayne’s sister Sandra (a lawyer for some Islamic Center) getting taken to a detention camp along with her boyfriend, a tall Muslim dude who is head of the Islamic center and suspected of terrorist activity. I know the show has always had these subplots (and actually White Castle has to deliver an important component to Mr. Clean for his nuke to work), but they are still seemingly a waste of time in all and add little to the action.

It is obvious that the writers are taking great pains to distinguish good Muslims from bad ones (even those terrorists like Cat who now want to renounce violence and try to find peace) and even the good, bad, and ugly in our own government (detention camps, invasion of privacy, the need to protect citizenry, etc.). This is a panoramic kind of view of America, its war on terror, and the effects of these difficult years after 9/11, and it works rather well and shows that 24 is now an accurate reflection of real life pain,  paranoia, and patriotism. 

No one more than Jack Bauer can be seen as emblematic of the strain of the conflict and the toll these years have taken. In Season 1 Jack looked like a happy family man until his world was torn apart slowly and irrevocably; in subsequent seasons, Jack has grown more weary, grizzled, and dark in appearance and personality. It would seem the only thing that drives him is the notion that there is a cause to be fought for and, if it is the right cause for the right reason, Jack will put everything into winning the battle.

The end of episode 4 is rather stark, depressing, and frightening. Jack gets into a standoff with Curtis (whom I used to joke about getting lost for four hours trying to find his way back to CTU) over Cat. Apparently Cat had once wiped out an army team, leaving Curtis for dead and taking two of the men hostage. These men were later beheaded by Cat himself, so Curtis has a grudge against him and doesn’t want to see him getting an immunity deal from the President.

Curtis puts a gun to Cat’s head and is ready to send him to see 72 virgins, but Jack springs into action. He asks Curtis to drop his weapon “in the name of the President of the United States.” Unfortunately, Curtis isn’t going to let Cat go free, so Jack has no choice but to shoot him in the neck. Curtis gets this look of disbelief as he crumples to the ground and dies as the TAC team rushes Cat off to the safety of a van. This second neck wound can be juxtaposed with the first one and used as a barometer of Jack’s day so far. He kills the terrorist savagely, relying on his bestial inner vamp to get free. Here, Jack kills Curtis with cool precision, yet the very nature of this causes Jack to run off, collapse in a heap, and vomit (I'll bet every last bit of that chop suey from the plane came up).

In past seasons Jack has been at times a killing machine, but here it seems Curtis’s death is just more than he can bear. He tells Bill on the cell phone that he can’t do this anymore, but then what to his suffering eyes should appear but a mushroom cloud in the distance. The nuke has been detonated in a warehouse in Valencia, and Jack’s reaction is a combination of shock, fear, and anger. We shiver as he tries to process the sight of something that should be incomprehensible, yet in the reality of our modern lives since 9/11 it is more than believable and possible, and that’s what makes it all the more frightening.

Until next week, Klaatu barada nikto!