Monday, January 15, 2007

Sunset Vs Sunrise: Which wins?

I always felt Grease 2 was just as good, if not better, than the original. You had Michelle Pheiffer, some fun songs, an enjoyable plot, and a cool rider. It held a place in my heart, you see, because I didn’t see the first movie until years later. We have a tendency to reset the bar for sequels, follow up albums, and later seasons following grand debuts in entertainment. Sometimes this prevents us from accepting (decently) good examples of media as anything but pale forms of their predecessors. Was Godfather 3 truly that unwatchable or did it just fail to stay in the same room with the rest of the trilogy? If he never enjoyed the Police era, wouldn’t Sting still have a decent solo career? If I started watching the Sopranos at or after season 3, would I notice or care about the heavy soap opera slant?

This is the question that’s boiling about for me as 24 returns for its 6th season. 24 debuted in the late fall following 9/11, and critical acclaim more than ratings (8.6 million viewers averaged for a #76 ranking) kept the show going. FOX made an ingenious move last year by slating all episodes to air as a single and continuous block across the first half of the year. As the most continuity-driven show in the most ADD-addled country on the planet, this worked out wonderfully for the network (13.8 million averaged for a #24 ranking). This has led to an interesting situation where a very large segment of the 24 fanbase consists of viewers that got hooked 4 seasons late. As I see and hear the most widespread mainstream excitement and acclaim over the show, the series seems to be on an obvious nosedive to myself and other longtime watchers.

The first 3 seasons of 24 were fantastic movies stretched out and cut up over 24 (17, if you cut the commercials out) hours. I don’t want to overstate the case – they had their fair share of blemishes, usually found in the subplots needed to round out the series and change the pace each episode. Tough-to-swallow romantic interludes and the intolerable Adventures of Kim Bauer (I can’t control my heart rate! There’s a live cougar about to pounce on me!) in particular kept me from ever nominating 24 as the best thing on television. Still, the first and third seasons have clearly stood above the rest of the series in my book. Both were well-written, well-acted, compelling, and were the most creative of the seasons.

The two seasons following and, at first glance, the current one have embraced the formula of the earlier seasons and seem to simply rotate through previously established scenarios (a mole in CTU! Jack disobeys an order and is arrested!) and confine themselves to the box (the terrorists are in Los Angeles, Jack must work as a member of CTU despite leaving it at the end of each ‘day’, you can travel anywhere within the greater LA area in the span of a commercial break, etc). Season 5 took the series to a low point; fully integrating Days of Our Lives writing, inserting overt political soapboxing (there was an instance in season 2 well), and becoming a film study course in shark jumping. In most movies or TV series, you can read the foreshadowing and figure out some major plot points when you want to (or if you read LOST spoiler boards). When the show has become so formulaic and transparently telegraphic that you’re groaning at the first contrived “subtle” give away, you’re treading on Robocop 3 ground. By the time it wrapped up in May, myself and 2 others that watched it live weekly took to simply giving it the MST3K treatment (call me Joel). The series, like James Bond’s Moonraker days and Michael Bay movies, realized that as long as the explosions and effects remained high quality, there was no need to worry about anything else.

In the first glimpses of the new season, it seems that the drop off has managed to become more pronounced. The soapboxing has become openly preachy to the point you would think it was a Lifetime Original movie. CTU’s human resources department has ordered a young models only staffing decree, terrorists haven’t learned that taunting Jack Bauer is akin to cutting off Bruce Banner in traffic, an ’86 Caprice Classic on LA streets can outrun military artillery coptors, and the weasley member of the President’s advisors and the annoyingly outspoken Palmer family member have been reincarnated yet again. Worse, the acting has become so shallow and the writing so stilted that I have to wonder if George Lucas is pulling the strings.

Just like America will fill the seats for Die Hard 4, they will watch 24 and not ask for anything higher. Since so many missed out on the earlier seasons, there isn’t a frustration concerning the drop off in the writing and ingenuity.

Let me revisit what I first mentioned – what is more important, my soured perspective of the series as a longtime viewer or the enthralled take of someone who just discovered it a year ago? I figure it doesn’t matter at all. It’s entertaining, and still in the top ten of current TV shows for what it delivers weekly. People like myself have the dilemma of the shared time slot with Heroes solved and still have the upcoming 24 film to look forward to for a shakeup to the formula that has staled for us. People that are eating up the show as it is are happy and loving it. Hey, I know I didn’t like it when people got on my case for liking The Color of Money when I had never seen The Hustler. I won’t mention anything about Return to Oz.