Now back to really important stuff: The season premiere of “24,” Fox’s suspense/thriller/action”extravaganza, starring Kiefer Sutherland as Jack “Just Do It! Do It Now!” Bauer. (In case you didn’t know, it’s “the most critically acclaimed show on television.” Fox’s announcers kept saying that during the Green Bay-Minnesota playoff game, so it must be true.)
I admit ’24’ used to be a sort of guilty pleasure. The series’ central conceit, that you’re watching the story unfold over the course of a day, and that each episode represents real time, was an attraction at first. Yeah, it was kind of trashy in some ways. The characters’ personal side- and subplots were kind of dumb and not all the acting was great, but hey, it’s network TV and the original story line was engaging enough: a group of mysterious and really nasty people are trying to assassinate a leading presidential candidate on the day of the California primary.
We watched that season. And the second, when the presidential candidate Bauer saved has become president and is confronted by terrorists who try to detonate a nuclear weapon in Los Angeles. And the third, when the same president — by now notorious to regular viewers for letting his loose-cannon wife and other relatives wreak all sorts of outlandish havoc on the Constitution and other innocent bystanders — is confronted by terrorists who threaten to wipe out Los Angeles and probably most of the country by releasing a super-bad germ that makes Ebola look like the sniffles.
Now, you’d never mistake “24” for “Smiley’s People” or “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” Then again, it’s not aspiring to be complex and challenging. It’s a romp. But even on that level, it’s had its problems. The terrorist plots are never intelligible. Bad people are doing bad things, but their motives, aside from wanting to settle scores with Bauer and his pal, the president, are never explored. Meantime, the scriptwriters spend most of their time concocting more and more elaborate woman trouble and political backstabbing for both Jack and the president.
This formula — just enough exotic terrorists vs. good guys action to make you sit still for the parallel soap opera — has been in place since season one. But last season, it went too far. Whenever any of the so-called good guys had a straightforward choice between a sane, common sense action that might keep them out of trouble and one that would bring them one more step toward utter destruction, they always — not sometimes or most of the time, but always — chose the latter. It got to be too much, so manipulative and dumb that we gave up on the show halfway through the season (though we did pick up again in the final couple of episodes just to see how it all came out).
So, where were we tonight when “24,” the most critically acclaimed show on television, began its new season? Not in front of the TV, at first. We got a TiVo digital video recorder, and we started watching about 40 minutes into the two-hour broadcast so we could just jump through the commercials. And what did we see?
It’s disheartening to report that the show didn’t even make it to the first commercial break without introducing its first sappy, predictable romantic subplot or disclosing that CTU, the counterterrorism unit where Jack does his stuff, is supervised by jealous, politically-driven moron who cares more about marking her territory than, gee, stopping a terrorist strike. Another predictable character was present, too: The field agent brought in to replace Jack had “dispensable” written all over him, and sure enough, he was dead by the time the show was off the air.
After saying all that, yeah, I’ll give it another couple hours tomorrow to see how bad it gets.