Forget The Sopranos. Forget Sex In The City. Both innovative shows. Both groundbreakers in their own right. Forget The Wire. Forget Deadwood. Terrific writing. Incredible characters. Hyper-realism. It doesn't matter. For the last decade, the most important show on television, the greatest show on earth has been 24.
Let's be clear: I do not come to bury 24 because this is its final season. Let others do that. I come to praise it as it continues in all its glory. And let's be clear: I am not claiming it is the best show on television. I am claiming that it is the greatest. Are we clear? Are.....we......clear?
Good. Now let's figure out why.
Television is entertainment. That's what it was meant to be when it began, and that's what it still is. If you want edifying stimulation, intellectual challenge, deep explorations of morality, read a book. Don't expect a television show whose primary goal is to reel in as many viewers as possible to put cerebral matters at the forefront. Hence, the success of 24. It is the television equivalent of heroin. If Seinfeld ran non-stop, there's a pretty decent chance I would watch it non-stop, and probably in a kind of apathetic, too lazy and just entertained enough to change to a different activity stupor.
But 24? It makes me the equivalent of a rat completing the same task over and over to get a food pellet each time, the television version of sitting at a slot machine, pulling the lever over and over because I know that the payoff is coming. What other television show can claim that? In fact, probably none. Possibly The Shield. The ever-increasing entanglements of Vic Mackey and the amorality of his lifestyle were hard to turn away from. But a Wire-athon? Not hardly. Even though I thought it was a great show.
The genius of 24 lies in its real-time, one day format. And cramming as many plots and subplots (including some really bad ones) into that time restriction. But you knew that, didn't you? What you don't know, if you've never done it, is that this show is pretty good week to week, less so with commercial interruption, but if you can delay gratification or if you just couldn't keep up with it, and you get an entire season in your hands and can block out some time, then you can engage in huge binges of 24, and that is when it is at its best. Watching one episode gets your heart rate up; watching them back to back to back turns your heart into a jackhammer that won't quit, that makes you get up and walk around, but never take your eyes off that screen. It isn't a popcorn show; it isn't a beer show. It is a full commitment, 24-only, experience, and it is only enjoyed in company if the others with you are like-minded.
It is not a show that you "drop in on" some Monday night to see what it's all about. Like Bauer himself, you need to either be "all in" or get out of the way.
The genius of 24 lies in its willingness to break every rule of the genre. Characters, major characters die casually, easily, indiscriminately. They end up on the wrong side of the wall during a bio-terrorism outbreak. They get exposed to radioactive materials. They are traitors, compromised agents, ineffective defenders of liberty. Or Jack just kills them. Because he has to. For the sake of the mission and because of the instant cost-benefit analysis going on in his mind. We kind of take that for granted now, but 24 is the show that made that okay to kill off whoever you want. Except for Chloe.
And, since Jack is the hero, he should get the girl, right? Nope, sorry. A woman who hangs out with Jack is more likely to end up dead, arrested, mentally unstable, isolated from him for her own safety than she is to end up in his bed (I think he's only had implied sex once in all of the seasons of the show). There's a pretty good chance that Jack will put her in danger, kill someone she thought she was involved with, create so much stress that she almost has no choice except to snap.
And then there's the issue of "doing the right thing" and what that has meant to 24. Bauer's use of torture was a national issue a few years ago and has since been toned down. The show's emphasis on actors of Arabic descent as terrorists has been criticized or challenged. The show has been called "right wing," even though it has put African-Americans into the presidency, even though the worst, most corrupt president during the series was a dead-ringer for Nixon. Basically, even though 24 was already in production and ready to roll when 9/11 happened, it is the ultimate 9/11 show. Rescue Me may reference firefighters who died, but 24 captures of internal conflicts of a post-9/11 America that cannot consistently find its moral footing.
As Jack screamed out last week when confronted with some rogue traitors within the government, "I only obey the President of the United States!" Doing so has led to a pretty tough time for old Jack--drug addiction, isolation from his family, torture at the hands of the Chinese, arrest, incarceration, death. That's right, Jack has died at least twice during the course of the show, so if you think someone is going to get sympathy from him because of their entry into danger or their loss or their fear, forget it. Not that it's been any easier to be president--they've been assassinated, pushed out of office in disgrace, countermanded, brought out of life-threatening comas at the expense of the rest of their lives, held hostage by terrorists who have captured the White House, and all with great personal tolls on their families.
24 is the show that, when it's on, makes you put everything and everyone aside because there are more pressing matters to attend to. When it's on, you put those things and those people aside without apology.
And so, if someone you know tells you that they haven't been able to get into 24 or couldn't commit to it, look them in the eye and say, "Are you ready to do this now?" Give them your "the fate of the free world depends on your decision and I personally have already sacrificed everything" look. If they still don't get it, don't walk away in disgust. After all, they're just citizens. Nothing wrong with that. Better that they don't know.