Saturday, February 2, 2008

24 Ways To Disappoint Me

I think Lost is off to a pretty good start, and I still have The Shield to look forward to. Due to a combination of production problems and the writer's strike, though, I have one big 24-hour hole in my TV schedule this year.

And now, via Libertas, I find out that may have been good news:

Against the real-life backdrop of global terrorist attacks, "24" at its peak fulfilled the fantasies of an insecure nation. It became one of the most important franchises for News Corp.'s Fox Broadcasting Co., with 17 million viewers tuning in some weeks and millions returning to watch on DVD. (News Corp. also owns The Wall Street Journal.)

But those who ride the tide of the times can also get upended by them. As public opinion about the Iraq War turned south, the show's depiction of torture came to be seen as glorifying the practice in the wake of real-world reports of waterboarding and other interrogation techniques used on detainees.

Ratings dropped by a third over the course of last year's sixth season. Producers would later experience trouble casting roles, once some of the most desirable in television, because the actors disapproved of the show's depiction of torture. "The fear and wish-fulfillment the show represented after 9/11 ended up boomeranging against us," says the show's head writer, Howard Gordon. "We were suddenly facing a blowback from current events."

Ratings dropped because the show writers had run up against a block - they were just redoing plots from earlier in the show's history, but not as well. It wasn't because of Iraq angst or because of a sudden repulsion against torture. In fact, here's a post showing that public opinion about the use of torture basically hasn't changed much over the last five years - including both the highly-praised (5th) and less-watched (6th) seasons of 24.

So, OK - I don't mind some retooling - as I mentioned above, the show clearly needed some. We heard rumors about Jack in Africa - how was that going to work in a 24-hour period? And then we had a trailer showing a new "evil" Tony - who was pronounced dead a while back? And then the announcement that shrill lefty Janieane Garofalo was going to be playing an agent in the 7th season.

None of these were good signs. But I had no idea just how bad it had become. Money quotes from the article:

Fox gave the writers carte blanche to "reimagine" the show. One of the team's chief considerations was how to address the controversy surrounding Jack's use of torture. Should Jack be feeling the guilt the media would have him feel?

"One of the themes we discussed was penance, that Africa was a place Jack had gone to seek some kind of
penance. Some sanctuary too, but also penance for things he's done in his life," Mr. Gordon says.

Here, the technical crew keeps a billboard with hand-drawn pictures of Vice President Cheney with fangs and one Photoshopped image of President Bush eating a kitten. Mr. Gordon keeps on his desk a copy of his wife's book, co-written with prominent Hollywood environmental activist Laurie David, about the dangers of global warming.

But by Sunday afternoon, they had a new idea: Jack is Bad.

Here's the big one:

"For five years, this was a wish fulfillment show," Mr. Gordon said. "At the beginning, when everybody's fear was more acute, people's tolerance for violence, their own rage, seemed to make Jack's tactics more acceptable. But in the wake of our own abuses in prosecuting this so-called War on Terror, we feel Jack is getting a bum rap. So instead of selling out the entire show and its history and its legacy and apologizing for it and ultimately invalidating it, we decided to defend it."

OK - I don't mind some handwringing over torture. That's not for me the big draw for 24 anyway - yeah, we want to see Jack do whatever it takes ("I'm gonna need a hacksaw"), but we're more interested in the roller-coaster ride - Jack and good guys get one-up on bad guys, then they reveal a new twist, good guys recover and react, and so on. We don't need to see Jack pull out the electric cord for the show to work, and to think that we do shows lazy thinking on the writers' part.

But. This is NOT a "so-called" War on Terror. This is real.

The thought that one of my favorite shows is now in the hands of a guy that thinks the War on Carbon Emissions is somehow more real than the War on Terror doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. There's still a lot of time until next January; maybe Joel Surnow can reassert himself and get this show back on track - the right way.

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