The ’24’ finale brings up mixed emotions

05.24.10 7 years ago 4 Comments


 Millions of DVRs across the nation will wake up on Tuesday morning feeling an odd weight lifted from their shoulders. [Disclaimer: The Fien Print is aware that DVRs don’t sleep, nor do they feel the pressure of their central and irreplaceable role in many of our lives.]

I’m not going to get all nostalgic on you and try to write some sort of “It’s the End of an Era” manifesto, but I’m also not immune to the general significance of “Lost,” “24” and the “Law & Order” Mothership all ending within 24 hours. [Plus, if you want to extend another 72 hours, we’ll get the series finale of “FlashForward,” not that anybody cares.]
Using the same cop-out I invoked yesterday with “Lost,” I’m not really going to do an elaborate “24” tribute. If I didn’t cover my respect and admiration for the show in my Best of the Decade posting for “24,” it probably wasn’t worth saying. And certainly nothing in the show’s current eighth season has done anything to enhance my appreciation. If you want to honor “24,” check out that post. This post here is a realistic assessment of where “24” is as it wraps up its eighth season on Monday (May 24) night.
That doesn’t mean “24” is going out with a total whimper, but those expecting a bang aren’t correctly understand the way “24” works.
Some thoughts on the departure of FOX’s “24,” with general spoilers but not specific spoilers, after the break… Feel free to come back after the episode ends…
The “Lost” finale on Sunday was a series finale-by-design. Even if you hated the ending, it brought the story full circle and left the characters in a place where, outside of decades of future fan-fic, you can imagine a rest or a pause. The “Lost” finale was, in fact, all about bringing together many (but certainly not all) of the elements that fans have been yearning for over the years. Plus, thanks to the various flashes in the Sideways Universe, it functioned as a pseudo-clip-show, albeit one that aired after an actual two-hour clip show.
Am I confident that I’ll never see Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse return to the “Lost” universe? Nah. Everything comes back around again. Life and TV have similar carbon cycle. Everybody dies. Everybody is reborn. I can’t tell if I’m confusing Hinduism, the final theme of “Lost” or just Hollywood creative logic anymore. I just figure there will be another official “Lost” chapter of some point, but whenever that comes, there isn’t a timetable. So “Lost” ended with *an* end or, as the finale title put it, “The End.”
That’s not the way “24” is exiting the primetime landscape. Yes, FOX is canceling “24” and no other network is picking up the show, which is more a function of the rising costs of a long-running action-drama than audience size, though the show has suffered a decline in ratings as well. But nobody is pretending that this is the last we’ve seen of Jack Bauer. It’s quite the opposite. The party line has long been that a “24” movie wouldn’t be possible until production on the series was completed and it wasn’t a coincidence that the formal announcement that Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass”) was working on a “24” feature script came just weeks before the official cancellation.
That takes away a tiny bit of the fun of the finale right there. 
Back in the early days of the show, Kiefer Sutherland used to say that he thought “24” had to end with Jack Bauer dying. Sutherland was probably correct in his reasoning. Then he started viewing “24” as a franchise and not just as a freakish one-off series that FOX had been nice enough to keep around for a couple years. He also saw the kind of movie roles he was getting and realized that being a perennial Emmy nominee and hit TV series star wasn’t such a bad gig.
So Kiefer hasn’t mentioned Jack Bauer dying for a while. And, to make matters worse, the show has made an active mockery of Jack Bauer’s mortality, as he staged his death at the end of one season and spent the final three or four episodes of last season dying, only to be saved by miraculous and off-screen stem cell therapy or something. Even if “24” had wanted to end this season with Jack dead, it wouldn’t have had any real impact anymore anyway. Jack Bauer dead? Been there, done that. Plus, if Jack Bauer dies on Monday, but returns in a movie that they call a “prequel” for no particular reason, what would the point in that be?
For a sadistic killing machine and a conscience-free force of American justice, Jack Bauer has never shied from sentimentality, especially in season finales. He’s ended seasons crushed by the death of his wife, bawling with released adrenaline and heroine withdrawal and staring out off a cliff in full-on existential crisis. As I’ve often said, being Jack Bauer means never (or very rarely) having to say you’re sorry, but that doesn’t mean that he’s immune from frequent bursts of sentiment. 
But what would a show like “24” even do for a series finale? The series has been clear-eyed and vicious when it comes to killing both beloved heroes and hated villains, so you couldn’t really play a game of “This Is Your Life, Jack Bauer” in the waning moments. You can’t work even a modified clip show into the mostly irrelevant real-time conceit. And although dedicated fans have no absence of lingering questions from the show’s Emmy-winning run, there aren’t exactly huge mythological issues to resolve. 
SPOILER ALERT: President Taylor isn’t revealed to be Jack’s mother. Chloe isn’t revealed to be Jack’s sister. None of the action is taking place in heaven, hell or purgatory. Nobody’s a ghost. Nobody’s an alien. Nobody’s on a rocket ship to Mars. And Walt doesn’t make an appearance. 
So it’s no wonder that the two-hour “24” finale is really a season finale and not notably a series finale. There won’t be a next season, but there *will* be a movie, probably. So we aren’t leaving these characters — Jack, really — for long.
Season Eight of of “24” has been rough. Yes, I’m being generous out of residual respect for departing show. This day in Jack’s life started off boring and progressed to ludicrous and then obnoxiously implausible and finally familiar and lazy. 
I’ll admit it. I stopped watching after maybe Episode 11 or 12. The Dana plot was bad, but I was even more annoyed by Renee Walker, a character the writers overhauled so ridiculously that she had no connection to the character she was last season other than a name and the very talented actress playing her. Renee became merely a mechanism to allow Jack Bauer an otherwise head-scratching transition from the premiere’s So-Much-Too-Live-For Grandpa Jack to the Tool-of-God’s-Vengeance Jack of recent episodes.
I only quit for a few episodes, coming back for the last six or seven episodes in time for the return of President Logan, the latest irreparable breaking of Jack’s heart and the helpful reminder of why Michael Madsen doesn’t get much significant work outside of Quentin Tarantino movies. 
Without any doubt, “24” has recovered some of its mojo in recent episodes. I don’t know if it’s become “good” again, but it’s definitely become entertaining. If you like Jack bellowing at actors doing mediocre Eastern European accents and learning, as ever, that there’s no better way to get information than torture then it’s possible that you’ve even loved recent episodes. Jack Bauer has been more Jack Bauer than ever!
Well, that last statement is only true if you think Jack Bauer is all about screaming and torture and not especially about patriotism. The Jack Bauer we’ve been watching since Renee’s murder has been a sadistic machine hell-bent only on revenge. The element of real-time suspense has become an afterthought because as the finale approaches, the imminent threat is that a peace treaty might be signed for the wrong reasons. Leaving that aside, Jack could probably head home, pop a couple Valium, sleep for 36 hours and then track down the men responsible for Renee’s death over a leisurely two or three year period, “Munich”-style, relishing each kill like the Angel of Death he’s become. 
A Jack Bauer without nobility or ideology, who absolutely, positively has to kill every person in a conspiracy — to hell with justice or due process or even morality — within three hours isn’t Jack Bauer at all. He’s the star of a first-person shooter video game and he might as well be Max Payne. As “24” ends its FOX run, Jack Bauer has never been more Jack Bauer-esque, but he’s also never been less Jack Bauer-esque. 
Jack Bauer’s transition into pure monstrous urban legend was complete with last week’s masked tunnel assault and the previous week’s data-mining gutting. I fear it’s going to take more than just a heart-wrenching humanitarian trip to Africa to pull Jack Bauer back from this abyss.
The finale has plenty of “How the heck can this possibly resolve itself?” tension, but once you accept that Jack isn’t going to find redemption in 120 minutes, you have to look for other pleasures.
Cherry Jones, underused to the point of obsolescence in the season’s opening hours, locks up another Emmy nomination with her finale work and she probably stakes a legitimate claim to a second consecutive win. On a character level, the writers have made a mess of President Taylor, but Jones is shatteringly good.
The show has also found a way to maximize the potential of Mary Lynn Rajskub, whose Chloe is the only remaining tie to The Good Ol’ Days. Rajskub shows range in the finale that I didn’t know she had.
And there’s a reason why Gregory Itzin’s Logan keeps coming back. He’s an intriguing villain, expertly played. But he’s a better villain for the sort of intellectual cat-and-mouse games he’s played with Jack in the past. Current Jack is a blunt tool and Logan has ceased to be able to compete. Still, Itzin and Reed Diamond are a predictably fine slimy duo.
No matter what problems I’ve had with this season of “24,” it doesn’t change the respect I have for the show’s myriad structural and stylistic innovations and their influence on some (but maybe not all that many) successful shows to follow. We’re still saying good-bye tonight to a show I thought was one of the best of last decade, even if I could stand to forget about what it produced this decade. 
Ryan McGee will have HitFix’s full recap later tonight after the two-hour finale.

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