The creators of the insanely plotted Fox show 24 threw bedraggled viewers a bone recently -- a March 12 episode that relied more on dramatic heft than frenetic pace. It was a welcome turnabout: Keeping track of the kidnappings, murders, and split-screen multiple story lines that make up "the longest day" in counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer's life has been exhausting. Unfortunately, the show's writers followed up that beefy, character-driven episode with yet another slip into the implausible/predictable plot twists that usually stalk B-grade horror movies.
As a fellow viewer told me, "One thing I can't handle is how much this show is predicated on stupidity."
Much of that stupidity is embodied in the form of Bauer's teenage daughter, Kim (Elisha Cuthbert). While her dad (Kiefer Sutherland) tries to stop an assassination plot against an African-American presidential candidate, she sneaks out of their home, gets kidnapped, develops a Stockholmian attachment to one of her kidnappers-turned-good-guy, nearly gets shot trying to find him, but is eventually rescued. Fulfilling her duty as idiot-T & A-in-horror-movie, she gallops through all of this in a letter jacket and revealing top, her barely restrained breasts expressing the horror of her situation.
In the latest episode, Kim called up Rick (Daniel Bess), her former kidnapper, and heaved and sighed with concern over whether he would get in trouble. Meanwhile, her mother, who went through an even worse ordeal -- kidnapping, rape, and additional mental trauma -- had a major meltdown/convenient amnesia attack.
This is a far cry from the dramatic highpoint of the series just one week before, when Bauer and presidential candidate David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) -- the heroes of the show -- met face-to-face for the first time. Senator Palmer originally suspected that Bauer was the mastermind behind the plot on Palmer's life. The moment Palmer realized that Bauer had been putting Bauer's own career and kidnapped family on the line to protect Palmer was a gratifying revelation.
This was also a meeting of two fathers desperate to keep their families safe, Bauer's from kidnappers, and Palmer's from media hounds hell-bent on exposing a dark incident in his son's past. Both had been placed at a crossroads, forced between jeopardizing their loved ones or their morals. For Palmer this means choosing whether to reveal his family's complicity in the cover-up of his son's actions.
So when the two shook hands before they parted, the scene held an elegant dramatic symmetry, perfectly capturing the convergence of two story arcs. These two characters had found simpatico partners in hell, and they were determined to break out together.
Too bad this kind of symmetry turns troubling elsewhere in the show. Take the two main black female characters -- Palmer's wife, Sherry (Penny Johnson), and Alberta Green (Tamara Tunie), the agent sent to take over the counterterrorism unit in Bauer's absence. Both are grasping, ambitious women, ready to sacrifice others' families or positions for their own gain. Sherry helped cover up her son's alleged wrongdoing, we are led to believe, more out of political aspirations than out of any protective maternal instinct. Green was only too willing to go after Bauer to further her own career. At worst, the treatment of these characters smells of bias; at best, it's just some crappy TV writing.
Still, there's time to fix these problems. We've got eight more episodes of 24, eight more hours in these characters' lives this season. I count myself as one of the hopelessly addicted, but even a junkie doesn't stop wanting better smack. So in the spirit of improving the supply, here is a two-pronged suggestion to 24 creators Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran:
1) Work on characterization, please. Let Kim have a brain -- I suggest importing the one given to Sidney Wade in that satiric takedown of horror movies, Scream. Give the characters more nuance. Is Sherry always evil? Is Palmer really so saintly? One way to get at that last question is to explore who is financing Palmer's campaign -- the same people who are now trying to blackmail him. How can he not know who these people are? Or is he hiding something? After all, he voted against campaign finance reform, according to the "Palmer Campaign" link at www.fox.com/24.
2) Don't put in a plot twist if it means that a character has to act exceptionally stupid to make it happen.
Why? Because while an addictive plot keeps suckers like me hooked, character development and plausible story lines are nice, too. 24 infuriatingly gives us just one or the other; or in the latest episode, neither. Here's hoping that fewer topsy-turvy plot antics and a little more attention to telling an old-fashioned story -- characters, motive, causation -- will bring 24 fully up to date.