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Original Essays | May 3, 2013 2 comments
When it happens, it feels like winning the lottery. An email arrives out of the blue, from one of my publishers or a festival director or a member... Continue »
24 and Meby Jonathan Barnes
Superficially, 24 is pure plot. Its structure of 24 one-hour episodes (well, closer to 40 minutes when viewed without persistent interruptions from the sponsors) demands constant incident and breathless action. The show eats up story, working through enough material to fill a string of novels in the course of half a season. Its innovation is constant and unflagging; the wealth of its depicted events exhausting. Viewing episodes in swift succession on DVD (as I do, the wait between instalments as broadcast being too unbearably long), the effect is heightened and the narrative begins to feel as though it is being delivered intravenously, direct to the senses.
Yet all this noise and excitement is not, I think, the reason why the show has been so successful around the globe. That people tune in so regularly and purchase the DVDs in such numbers is not simply due to the constant corkscrews of the plot. We are riveted to our seats not just because of the distinctively hectic quality of the storylines but because we are witnessing chapters from the life of an individual because 24 is, above all else, a character study.
The two most recent James Bond films have been justly praised for their attempts to examine the effects that the lifestyle of a secret agent would have upon the psychology of their hero, but 24 got there first. Events do not leave Bauer untouched as they might have many of his fictional antecedents earlier iterations of Bond, say, or Richard Hannay or Bulldog Drummond but wound him irrevocably. In the six complete seasons produced to date, Bauer has lost his wife (killed by Bauer's former mistress), become estranged from his daughter (last glimpsed dating her creepy therapist), seen numerous friends (including a former president) murdered, been forced to amputate the hand of the personable young man who looked set to become his son-in-law and was subjected to torture in a Chinese prison for two years. Such relentless trauma in less than a decade of a man's life would surely be sufficient to drive him half-mad, and, to their credit, the writers of 24 have repeatedly depicted just that. Think of Bauer, bearded and in mourning at the start of the second season, or sobbing in the front seat of his car in the very last scene of season three, or of that remarkable moment in season six when, having witnessed a mushroom cloud blossom over Valencia, he collapses to his knees in the street, apparently impotent, beaten and done. Most shows would buckle under the weight of such a dense and tangled mythology but 24 has turned it into a strength by zeroing in on the burden that experiencing such events would place upon its characters.
Yet the show is at its most interesting (and when it's firing on all cylinders, there's not much else on television, in my humble opinion, to touch it) not in its operatic peaks but in those smaller moments which are rooted in reality, scenes which, for all their proximity to melodrama, most of us can recognise from our own lives or from those of people we know the father of Jack's most recent girlfriend asking him firmly but politely to leave his house; Jack fretting about the company that his daughter is keeping; Jack realising that a man he has been brought up to respect has disastrous moral failings. I wonder if showing further such moments, perhaps of an even more humdrum nature Jack emerging from the bathroom once in a while or stopping at a Subway to buy a sandwich or even (as we saw in season one but never since) struggling to stay awake having been up for the greater part of a day would serve to tether the story even further.
I was thinking about this stuff whilst writing my second novel, The Domino Men. Not that it particularly resembles 24 (why try to ape something, after all, when it's already been done just about as well as it can be?) but I did want to try to import something of that show's trademark style of manically whirling incident underscored by a bass line of reality. The Domino Men is a sort-of sequel to my first book, the Victorian fantasy The Somnambulist, and concerns a very ordinary young man in the present day who finds himself sucked into a bizarre and dangerous world. Its moments of reality are grey and drizzly, and the Directorate, the secret, quasi-military organisation which is, I guess, my answer to Jack's employers, the Los Angeles Counter Terrorism Unit, is staffed exclusively by freaks, weirdoes, and incompetents. There's no room here for the unflappable professionalism which typifies the best employees of the CTU (though I suspect that several of my characters would like to think of themselves as having been cast in that mould).
24 is structurally bold, brilliantly written, acted with rare conviction, and well worth checking out on DVD if you've somehow managed to miss out on it so far (or been scared off by its alleged political bias I'm convinced that there's enough evidence to mark it out as neither especially left nor right wing). It's certainly been an influence on my own writing. But I still wish they'd show us some more tiny pieces of reality from time to time. For what it's worth, I've been sure to put such scenes in The Domino Men (even some of those things which, on 24, tend to get lost in the edit), but maybe, as I said at the start, that's just because I'm perverse, peculiar, or nosy. Needless to say, you're very welcome to buy the book and find out for yourself assuming, that is, that you have the time. After all, at the time of writing, Day Seven is just about to begin.
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Jonathan Barnes, author of the critically acclaimed novel The Somnambulist, graduated from Oxford University with a first in English literature. He reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and lives in London.