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June 12, 2005 ・ Blog

I’m extremely late to the party, but I finished watching the first series of 24 last week and embarked on the start of the second yesterday. It’s gripping stuff. With that breadth of experience I bring you a list of top tips for 24:

  • All women are evil, impressionable, useless or poignant triggers for male action. 24 is a man’s man’s man’s world (actually series two seems a little more balanced: perhaps the scriptwriters had gotten over their marriage break-ups in time for it).
  • Always have an atrocity in the first episode, the awfulness of which should go almost entirely uncommented on for the rest of the series (i.e. passenger plane explosion, Bauer cold-bloodedly killing a suspect and hacking his head off).
  • General guide to characters: ugly = evil, beautiful = good/innocent. Some difficult but good characters should be half ugly, half beautiful (i.e. Darlene-out-of-Rosanne’s CTU computer character in series two, the nerdy CTU computer guy in series one, CTU chief Mason). This rule particularly applies to non-Caucasians: 24 should demonstrate that the US is a paradise of ethnic diversity but all representatives of that diversity must be beautiful. All ugly non-Caucasians are evil.
  • The “difficult” choices that 24 has its characters make should never actually produce truly ambiguous situations so viewers never have to feel uncomfortable about them. Always fit choices into a rigid moral framework (i.e. the over-riding importance of family bonds).
  • The main source of threat should originate from outside the US. While it is OK for lackeys of that threat to be American, they must be ugly and therefore be easy to dismiss as morally depraved and worthless.
  • Each character should be set with a limited set of situations that are repeated throughout the series (i.e. daughter Kim in constant cycle of threat of kidnap and attempted escape, CTU man Tony either under suspicion of being a traitor or suspecting others). This is so that viewers that miss several episodes always know roughly what each character is going through.
  • It’s fine for LA’s size to fluctuate, depending on the requirements of the narrative – similar journeys can vary from five minutes to an hour.

Of course, these problems are highly exacerbated by the fact I’ve been viewing 24 over the course of a few weeks on DVD, often two in a row. It’s fascinating how the producers have created a shorthand of visual cues (physical appearance, lingering shots on certain facial expressions and so on) to communicate a twisting, fairly complex story over a long period of time to a wide audience.

Steven Johnston in his new book Everything Bad is Good For You holds 24 as an example of complexity in modern popular culture. He writes that 24 “makes the viewer think in ways that earlier shows never dared; it makes them analyze complex situations, track social networks, fill in information withheld by the creators.”

Maybe, but it’s still not very sophisticated. The producers’ shorthand is incredibly successful in making it look like there’s a lot going on when things are actually a lot simpler.