Groundhog Day

February 02, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

This isn't about the Bill Murray movie, but it uses the idea of the movie as a jumping-off point. The essence of Groundhog Day is simple: one day, lived over and over ad nauseum. With Groundhog Day, director Harold Ramis develops this premise to its best comedic potential. Each time I watch the film, I admire it more. Although it is primarily a comedy, there's enough romance and drama to broaden its appeal. But perhaps the real reason Groundhog Day had become such a favorite DVD rental/purchase is the concept.

If you think about it, TV's 24 applies the Groundhog Day principle: one day, lived repeatedly (six times as of this season). Every day in the 24 universe is pretty much the same: Jack Bauer foils terrorists out to destroy his country. Along the way, there are gun fights, chases, explosions, deaths, and general mayhem. 24 is formula driven and, after a while, the overall sense of sameness generates viewer fatigue. I give the writers of 24 credit - they keep trying to surprise us, but each "shock" becomes more easily anticipated. (I don't agree with comments discrediting 24 on account of its lack of real-world believability. This series has never been believable. It has existed in its own world since the first episode of the first season.)

There's no inherent reason that 24 has to be confined by the Groundhog Day approach, but that's the way Fox has elected to position the program. Don't mess with success. There are plenty of unique ways a 24 season could unfold, but Hollywood likes formulas. When 24 started, it was viewed as a maverick show that tried something different. Now, it has fallen into a comfortable niche where there's always a terrorist to kill or a conspiracy to uncover. Regardless of whether or not the show has tumbled into a rut (viewer opinions differ), there's another question worth addressing: Has 24 had an impact on the movie industry? (And I'm not referring to the proposed 24 feature.)

Recently, having arrived in a theater a few minutes too early to completely miss the previews, I was able to see the teaser trailer for the new Die Hard movie (officially called Live Free or Die Hard). Until I saw the trailer, I had been looking forward to the movie, but this 90-second peek at the action killed my interest. The trailer shows explosions, chases, and shots of Bruce Willis' face. In fact, it looks like a big screen version of 24 without Kiefer Sutherland. That's when it hit me - with the stakes raised on television in shows like 24 and Prison Break, how can a standard action movie compete? In fact, there aren't a lot of generic action movies out there. Most action films feature superheroes or science fiction elements or something unusual to spice up the mixture. Consider that the grandfather of big-screen action, James Bond, underwent a reboot to incorporate character and drama into the mix.

The concept of a hero tracking down a terrorist isn't all that interesting to movie-goers. 24, for all its faults, is a slickly made action show and when you enter that territory, the comparison is inevitable. So it's surprising that Die Hard would go down this road, although what else would John McClane do other than fighting the terrorists and being a fly in the ointment? When you think about it, he and Jack Bauer are pretty much the same person except that one of them has a sense of humor. (McClane's best-known saying: "Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!" Jack Bauer's best-known saying: "Dammit!")

I wonder whether the events of 9/11 have had anything to do with the death of big screen action. It could be a coincidence, but the decline in the genre has come during the past few years once all the pre-9/11 approved scripts made it through the assembly line to the screen. It's not that viewers don't want action in multiplexes; they want it divorced enough from reality that it's not uncomfortable. 24 has cornered the market on contemporary action. TV action used to mean The Six Million Dollar Man and Charlie's Angels. In that era, the spectacle of big-screen action were welcome. But with 24 closing the gap, where's the thrill? Maybe the new Die Hard will answer that question in six months.

Meanwhile, 24, now in its sixth season, is garnering the kind of ratings that result in shows being renewed. People haven't gotten tired of it yet. So, one year from now, we'll be watching Jack Bauer wake up for a seventh time and go through this whole thing again. All that's missing is "I got you, Babe."