Turn off the Clock

May 29, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

(Contains spoilers for: season five 24, season two Lost, season two House.)

With the approach of June, television enters the "summer season." When I was a kid, this was the "rerun season," when everything on TV was a repeat because no one stayed inside during the nice weather to watch TV. Viewing habits, however, have changed. There are stil repeats during the summer - usually of the most popular scripted shows. Then again, a lot of these shows repeat throughout the year, almost like prime time syndication. There are also a lot of hideous "reality shows" - cheap and cringe-worthy attempts to fill up schedules. But this column isn't about looking ahead. It's about looking back to the season just gone by.

I'll start with 24 which, for the past few years, has been my favorite show on television. No longer. It has been passed by Battlestar Galactica, one of the few programs on TV that refuses to accept the status quo. Without question, season five of 24 has been the weakest in the show's run, continuing a downward spiral started last year. That's not to say there weren't worthwhile moments, but the series has fallen into the rut of repeating itself. I don't mind that it's absurdly over-the-top. That goes with the territory. But I do mind that it's unpredictability has become predictable and that the creatively bankrupt writers keep pulling the same rabbits out of their hats. How many moles and inept bosses can there possibly be in an organization like CTU?

The fun thing about 24 used to be the way it took risks. Increasing popularity, however, has forced the writers to regurgitate. The storyline for season five featured cobbled-together pieces of the previous four seasons. Apparently, the original plan was to have Jack Bauer on his own for most of the year (remember how season four ended?), but that was scrapped when it was decided to once again put Jack in the field working for CTU. That's the formula. But we already have four seasons of that on DVD to watch.

Then there are the deaths. I realize people are going to die in 24. The first major death, Jack's wife at the end of season one, was a wakeup call to the fact that no one is safe. Since then, characters have dropped right and left, but almost always in ways that were integral to the plot. This year, outside of David Palmer, that can't be said. Michelle, Tony, Edgar, and Samwise Gamgee (Lynn) were all brushed aside not because their deaths were important but because the producers recognized the shock value that such eliminations can have. (If they wanted to kill someone, why not Kim??? Just put her back in the mountains with the cougar.) Tony's death was the worst. It accorded no respect to a character who had been there from the beginning. After five years, that's all the sendoff he got? Some 24 fans were so baffled by the manner of Tony's death that they couldn't believe he was actually dead. (Theories about his "resurrection" for the finale proved to be unfounded, however.)

The last few moments of the season finale offer the promise that season six will be different, with Jack trapped in China. We can speculate that 24 will abandon the formula and replace it with a more personal story - one that's no less exciting but in which the stakes are Jack Bauer's safety instead of the fate of the free world. Think The Fugitive in Asia, with Jack escaping and trying to find his way home. No doubt some of the surviving CTU crew will be involved, perhaps unofficially. A word of caution, however: until we see the first couple of episodes of season six next January, we won't know whether the show delivers on this promise. They tricked us this year. And you know how the saying goes: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice...

As disappointed as I was with season five of 24, it didn't match my disgust with season two of Lost, which I gave up watching regularly in November. After that, I would occasionally see pieces of it, and there were some episodes I recorded and half-watched/half fast-forwarded through. The show's shift in tone and intent from Robinson Crusoe to a second-rate rip-off of The Prisoner has created a fiercely loyal cult following, but there are signs that the general public is getting tired of the program's repeated teasing. It's the Emperor's New Clothes. Why did I stop watching? Because I no longer cared about the show's mysteries. It ceased to matter why everyone was on the island, or who lived and who didn't. So, three more characters died (Shannon, Anna Lucia, Libby), but on a show like this, is death permanent? For the most part, I found season one to be engrossing. Season two increasingly seemed like a waste of time.

At least House didn't lose steam. Credit Hugh Laurie and his four sidekicks (including Robert Sean Leonard, who deserves more screen time) for that. This show is all about acting. The stories are pure formula: character-of-the-week is stricken, House is baffled, more symptoms manifest, House mis-diagnoses, more symptoms, House has a last-minute burst of inspiration. The season ended strongly because the final half-dozen episodes focused on character development. The last episode was the most intriguing because it offered a window into the murky world of House's subconscious. There, we discover indications of sexual desire for Cameron, something that has been hinted at in the past, but has never been put forward quite this blatantly. As long as the dialogue and character interaction remains sharp, I'm willing to forgive House's episode-to-episode sameness. For me, Lost is beyond forgiveness, and 24 has to work hard to earn it. If season six goes down the path of season five, I may find other things to do on Monday nights.