24 is an action/drama show broadcast on Fox. The main concept/principle/hook/gimmick of the show is that events shown occur in real time - the events of a one-hour episode (which usually boils down to roughly 45 minutes after commercial breaks) are supposed to take place in a real time hour. A given season of 24 consists of 24 one-hour episodes, taking place consecutively.
The show loosely focuses on a federal agent named Jack Bauer (played by Kiefer Sutherland), who works at the Los Angeles branch of a fictional U.S. government agency called the Counter-Terrorist Unit (CTU).
Against scenarios of progressively more severe terrorist threats against America and (less frequently) specific Americans, Jack, aided by a large number of other principal characters including his superiors and subordinates at CTU, races against time (and any number of other factors, but mostly time) to avert disaster and root out the invariably many-tentacled and near-omnipotent heirarchy of increasingly sinister terrorist leaders responsible. The result is a show constructed from action, drama, tension, gunfights, explosions, espionage, gob-smacking plot twists and deaths of major characters, though rather less in-depth political commentary or ethical debate than you might imagine.
The real star of the show is - or should be - the clock, a big yellow digital readout which appears before and after each ad break, counting off the seconds with its trademark tick. (Actual clocks and watches are surprisingly few and far between in the programme itself, probably due to the continuity hazards they present.) If somebody says the strike team will take four minutes to arrive at their destination, they'll be there after the next ad break. If the bomb is set to go off at 9:30am, you can bet it'll go off halfway through episode ten/two/twenty-one/whatever.
Another motif is the split screen. At any given moment there are typically three to five smaller interrelated story arcs in progress, so before and after ad breaks, and at the end of an episode, each of these is displayed in its own smaller window just to remind viewers of everything that's going on at the same time. These are also used during telephone conversations, and for dramatic effect during key scenes.
24 is perhaps most (in)famous for its plot twists. There are many of these, large and small, but the most dramatic ones usually occur just before an hour mark, so as to provide plenty of suspense for the next episode. A good guy turns out to be a bad guy, or someone is ambushed or kidnapped or killed, or CTU's only lead in the investigation is blown up in the faces of the pursuing agents, that sort of thing. These twists provide IMMENSE spoiler potential while at the same time being critical to the plot - making it near-impossible to provide episode-by-episode or even season-by-season synopses in any detail without ruining something major.
This also makes it very difficult to provide background info on the major characters - or even the seasons in which they appear - without giving certain facts away. Turnover is high. Nobody, not even a major, season-spanning character, is safe.
In its first season, 24 was one of the best shows I'd seen in a very long time. The relentless pace, endlessly ticking clock and the aforementioned plot twists led to a show where pretty much every episode left me desperate to find out what happened in the next one, and the final episode lived up to all expectations.
I started getting tired of 24 around the start of season 2, when we had
- A-plot: There's a nuclear device under terrorist control somewhere on American soil!
- B-plot: Jack's daughter is being chased by some guy.
I really wanted to quit, however, around the end of season 3, when the present head of CTU, that means "Counter Terrorist Unit", lest we forget - starts negotiating with a terrorist. Plot twists in the third season stretched suspension of disbelief to breaking point, and gaping plot holes, pointless story arcs and flailing, untied plot threads abounded, but that moment stands out for me.
Unfortunately it took me until a few episodes into season 5 to quit entirely.
The real time aspect ceased to have any kind of real bearing on events in the show somewhere around the middle of the first season. Nobody sleeps. Nobody eats. Nobody goes to the toilet. There are no shift changes at CTU - which appears to have roughly four employees who do all the work. Everybody seems to run for a straight twenty-four hours on pure adrenaline. But the real kicker is that nobody even mentions this. Nobody complains about missed meals. Nobody yawns. All of these subtract from the basic realism of the show, the whole point of which is everything occurs in real time. Without basic pointers as to what time it is, and how people are reacting to being up so early/called in so late, the real time element is negated, and so is the entire point, the reason for being of the show. It's just an action movie with a clock, a clock which the writers continuously treat as an obstacle rather than an asset.
In addition, it is a bad action movie. It is not boring, but it is stupid, sometimes offensively so. 24 is supposed to be edgy and relevant and a lot of people interpret it as such, but it is not a show set in the real world. It is set in a crazy fantasy world where enemies of America lurk in every dark shadow and can get hold of nukes at fifteen minutes' notice, you can get away with torture and murder if you do it patriotically enough, and everybody goes around and around and around explaining the same things to each other over and over again and asking each other suspiciously "What are you doing?" Jack Bauer is treated as a hero, but time and again he proves himself to be no better than the terrorist he fights. And this issue, like all the other really interesting issues, never gets touched upon.
It is possible to analyse the show, look for deeper lessons, choose to take it as cautionary example, as modern fable, or whatever, but if nothing in the show itself hints at any such greater depth, aren't we just finding meaning in vacuum? 24 could be so good. It could be exciting political commentary AND nerve-shredding adrenaline at the same time. But it's neither. It's an endless, pointlessly over-the-top MacGuffin hunt which lacks realistic dialogue, human drama, believable characters, credible threats, ethics, story planning, plot cohesion and continuity. It is a show which punishes the viewer for paying attention and knowing things about reality.
It is okay for a show to be like this. It is okay for a show to be shallow and gratuitous.
What angers me is the number of people who take the lessons of 24 at face value.
The Internet Movie Database: http://imdb.com/title/tt0285331/
Fox's official 24 website: http://www.fox.com/24/