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24 Season Six Revisited - "A source of constant frustration"



NOTE: Full spoilers for "24" season six follow.

The defining moment of 24’s sixth season comes not in the fourth episode, with the explosion of a nuclear bomb in Valencia that kills upwards of 12,000 people. It’s the shooting of Milo Pressman (Eric Balfour) in the 21st episode, during the Chinese-ordered assault on C.T.U. to abduct Josh Bauer (Evan Ellingson).

“24”, over the course of its original eight-season run, came under fire at times most notably for its gratuitous violence, the brutal torture that portrayed the heroes in a fairly negative light and suggested that the end justifies the means when it comes to inflicting pain during interrogations. Season seven looked to address this, disbanding C.T.U. and centring one of its sub-plots around an investigation into such methods and the morality involved.

But season six had been entirely the opposite, and it’s the shooting of Milo which lays that bare most starkly. In eight seasons, 15 characters who — at some point in the run, although not necessarily at the time — had been designated part of the main cast were killed (this includes Tony’s season five ‘death’ and Wayne Palmer’s, which was confirmed as part of “Redemption”). Looking down the list, only two deaths do not signify a natural end to that character’s story, or fit into the narrative as a necessary death based on the story being told.

One of those is Milo. The other is Curtis Manning (Roger Cross). Both occur in season six.

Curtis’s death has been the topic of much chagrin from fans over the years, an unnecessary kill in a fairly ridiculous manner. And while there is credibility to that argument, there’s also the element of forcing Jack to kill a colleague — and, to an extent, a friend — because Jack, ever the patriot, understands that his partner’s vendetta is irrelevant compared to the nuclear threat facing his country. The story’s execution is clunky at best, but its ideas are in the right place.

The same cannot be said of Milo’s death, which feels very much like an excuse to murder a main character for no other purpose than shock. In the context of the scene, Zhou (Ian Anthony Dale) and his men have infiltrated C.T.U., and have control over the main floor (*). Milo does not try to be a hero; he simply poses as acting director to prevent anything happening to Nadia (Marisol Nichols). There is no reason to shoot him. It’s the “24” shock factor at its most obvious and its most infuriating.

(*) There are other parts of the building, although we only ever see that briefly in season five when Lynn McGill (Sean Astin) asks for Audrey Raines’ (Kim Raver) phone records.

That shock factor is something the show has always relied on, but is ramped up to 11 in this season. It’s partly a consequence of the much lauded, Emmy-winning fifth season, which demonstrated a relentless intensity and regular twists. But it was always engaging, handled with a sense that each moment had significance in and of itself, and relevant in the context of the season’s overall plot.

Season six instead treats so much of its plot as filler. In the eighth episode, Morris (Carlo Rota) reconfigures a trigger so that Abu Fayed (Adoni Maropis) can arm his nuclear bombs. When C.T.U. arrive, Fayed leaves a bomb at his safe house to buy time, forcing Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) to disarm it. There’s no tension to the scene — there is no alternative to him disarming the bomb; he can’t run from it and it cannot explode and kill the leading man — but the telling thing comes at the start of the following episode. The scene is not even mentioned in the “Previously on 24”. This is the disarming of a nuclear bomb, and it only exists within the episode it happens.

Season five does a similar thing with the nerve gas attack on the Tyler Memorial Hospital, but there’s a crucial difference (aside from the chasm in potential casualties). That attack was outlined from the outset as merely a distractive measure, allowing Vladimir Bierko’s (Julian Sands) henchman to infiltrate C.T.U.

But virtually every major plot moment in season six exists solely for the scene it exists within; “24” takes a breakneck pace approach like never before, opting to make each scene more shocking and dramatic than the last with seemingly very little regard for how everything fits together. Or, indeed, how interesting any of the scenes are. Even the nuke that does go off — the single most devastating attack on the country during the show — is largely ignored after about two episodes.

One of the big problems with this season is that it so often feels dull, in a way “24” had not before. Dialogue is regularly too exposition-heavy, scenes are repetitive and forced (see: Morris’s misery after arming the bomb; it should be one of the better ‘quiet’ plots but just frustrates) and so many of the plot points are recycled from seasons gone by. There’s even meta-commentary by Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin), pointing out to Jack that breaking into the Russian consulate is exactly why he just spent 20 months in a Chinese prison. Said meta-commentary does not excuse the plot (*). And the less said about things possibly intended as callbacks — looking at you, Chloe’s (Mary Lynn Rajskub) “That’s usually how it works” line after telling Morris of her pregnancy — the better.

(*) That plot sees Jack spend the 13th hour sneaking around the consulate, looking for a way to call C.T.U. and tell them the location of the nuclear bombs. That’s his entire story for the hour, yet the episode ends with him being rescued and providing C.T.U. the information that way.

When the plot isn’t dull, it’s ridiculous. That’s no more apparent than at the White House. The attempted assassination of President Wayne Palmer (D.B. Woodside) starts things off, with Tom Lennox (Peter MacNicol) feigning interest purely to stop the action — again, built entirely for the twist — then hidden away as Reed Pollock (Chad Lowe) offers the least convincing lies for his whereabouts. President Palmer has his life risked by being removed from his coma early, a story that feels sickening just watching in the inevitability of his collapse. Noah Daniels (Powers Boothe) being “a dirty old man” all the while blundering his way through the crisis with an arrogance in ways not even Logan showed. MacNicol and Boothe are superb and drag the White House arc from the bottomless pit, but there is no amount of charisma or gravitas they can bring to truly balance out the cringe-worthy dialogue and nonsensical plotting.

The White House discussion feels a good time to bring up the discrimination angle. Season six spends a lot of time racially profiling, largely in the form of Tom’s detention facilities plan. It’s an ongoing debate in the Oval Office, sees Nadia’s access restricted, and generally feels wrong. The season’s first two scenes lay bare how things will play: we open on a Middle Eastern man receiving hostile glances in the street amid news broadcasts about the wave of terrorist attacks that have taken place. The man is then prevented from boarding a bus by a driver clearly motivated by racial profiling, only for a young Asian man to bomb the bus. Cut to: Palmer, Lennox and Karen Hayes (Jayne Atkinson) arguing over the aforementioned detention facilities, offering a blanket suggestion that detaining the American Muslim population will stop the attacks.

It’s difficult not to feel unclean watching those five minutes. Yes, there is certainly a need to convey the fear of the American people amid these devastating attacks and, yes, as the political climate of the last 20 years proves, there is a real-life element at play with racially aggravated fear. But it’s so clumsy here. “24” has often been very good at grappling with morality questions — everything involving the Stephen Saunders (Paul Blackthorne) and the Cordilla Virus in season three is a good example — but when it comes to this delicate political subject, the show is out of its depth.

The same can be said for its handling of the Hauser brothers, with Mark (Devon Gummersall) an associate of Dimitri Gredenko (Rade Šerbedžija) and forcing his autistic brother Brady (Scott Michael Campbell) to help. It’s fairly exploitative and somewhat horrifying as Jack is forced to put Brady in immense danger, having him meet Gredenko with no guarantee of keeping him alive. It’s the season six version of Teri’s amnesia or Kim and the cougar; none of them work.

One thing that’s especially noticeable throughout this season is how the real time element falls apart whenever it suits the episode. In episode 13, exactly 24 seconds of running time pass between the final shot of Martha (Jean Smart) on the phone to Anya Suvarov (Kathleen Gati) — she has not fully explained the situation at this point — and the first shot of Consul Markov (John Noble) on the phone to President Yuri Suvarov (Nick Jameson). Yet we are presumably meant to believe that Anya has explained the scenario and C.T.U.’s impending response to her husband, who then calls Markov and begins a conversation. In the space of 24 seconds. Absolutely not.

Furthermore, in several episodes, an end of act break (or a cutaway) is treated like a pause button; no substantial progress happens in those four in-show minutes that pass. One example: when Zhou’s men attack C.T.U., 11 minutes pass on the clock for them to travel 153 metres. The real time element has never been perfectly followed down to the exact second, but it has been roughly right for 98% of the time. That is not the case this season.

Structurally, season six is bizarre, especially compared to its two predecessors. Season four has 4 acts; season five has 3. But season six has just two, and the existence of Philip Bauer (James Cromwell) prevents them from being separate to one another. The divide comes after 17 episodes with Fayed’s death — making it the longest single-story act in the show’s history, ahead of season two’s 15-episode first act. Cromwell’s Philip is a walking, talking cliché, a charisma vacuum favoured for the main villain role over Graem Bauer (a slimy but entertaining Paul McCrane) — quickly killing the man behind Charles Logan felt more major a mistake than making him Jack’s brother to begin with. Philip is of exactly no direct threat: his entire story revolves around his quest to hide his involvement with the nukes and, later, his helping the Chinese. The familial angle gives it some life but Philip becomes the forgotten man for ten episodes in the middle of the season, and there’s no reason to care when he returns.

The family element does not work at all, especially when it comes to Jack’s sister-in-law and former flame Marilyn (Rena Sofer). There’s an endless, painful romantic tension between them from the moment they first appear on screen together. Sofer has more than 700 credited appearances on “The Bold and the Beautiful”; everything between the Bauer in-laws would be more suited to the CBS soap opera. And — no slight on Ellingson — Josh doesn’t have ten episodes of screentime, he has the same 40 seconds of screentime each time he appears for ten episodes.

Over the past few weeks, I returned to watch season six for the first time in at least seven years. The point was to try and establish whether it was truly as bad as I remembered, and as people often suggest it is. It’s not. It’s worse. It’s a source of constant frustration; when it isn’t frustrating, it’s joyless and uninspired. The lightning pace would be exhausting if it weren’t so unengaging. Rarely is there excitement, rarely is there intrigue, rarely is there a story that feels like it has been planned more than five minutes ahead.

Those who know me will know how much I value “24”; it’s always been part of my TV-watching life. I love the show as a whole. I wanted to love season six. But, damn it, the show makes it very hard to do that.

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