Despite my affection for both the original “24” and its current instantiation -- “24: Live Another Day” -- my commentaries are usually somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Not this time. I want to be serious, because I want to be clear: Last night’s episode, covering the period between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m., not only was the best by far of the season -- it was also as brisk, exciting and well-executed an hour of network television as a thriller fan is likely to find.
First and foremost, Chekhov’s gun finally fired -- that is, the threat by Margot Al-Harazi to destroy large chunks of London unless the president of the United States turned himself over to her justice actually led to the hard choice being made. For once the terrorists weren’t stopped in time. President James Heller (a bravura performance this week by veteran William Devane) chose to surrender himself -- and thus sacrifice his life -- to save London.
Second, the writers also had a choice to make. Wisely, they gave us the scene of Heller’s execution this week, as opposed to the cliche of a cliffhanger ending in which we would be left with Heller standing in the middle of Wembley Stadium as the missiles fired by the vengeful Margot Al-Harazi streaked toward him. What we might call “Game of Thrones” post-modernism -- a casual disdain for the television convention of resolving the crisis in the next episode -- may at last be making the rounds of other shows, a change that’s all to the good.
Third, for the second week in a row, the writers are allowing Jack Bauer to be Jack Bauer. He’s a character who’s not at his best being arrested or interrogated, or fleeing the well-meaning minions on his own side. He needs to be out there battling the bad guys, and if his methods often leave us queasy, at least he makes no pretense of enjoying his work.
In addition, the writers gave us two tiny set pieces that worked extraordinarily well. In one, Heller says goodbye to his daughter Audrey without ever telling her his decision. As she types busily on her laptop, he asks to look at a family photograph taken when she was a child. We see him fighting the tears. Busy Audrey doesn’t.
In the other, Margot Al-Harazi’s son Ian tries to persuade her not to keep her promise to Heller to destroy her hijacked drones if he gives himself up. She tells him she is going to do what she promised. Margot is so distracted by thoughts of gaining revenge at last for her husband’s death that she misses the doubt and defiance in her son’s eyes; we viewers see it.
Yes, there were flaws. It proved remarkably easy for Jack Bauer to smuggle the president out of a building that in every other episode has been bristling with guards. Even with the aid of Heller’s chief of staff, one would have thought it would be harder. Margot’s daughter Simone, wakened forcefully from a medically induced coma, was not only lucid but, from what I could see, pain-free. And the subplot involving the clumsy efforts by traitorous CIA London station chief Steve Navarro to kill his suspicious analyst, Jordan Reed, still seems terribly rough around the edges.
But these are quibbles. Or, perhaps, necessities -- for there is a sense in which, ever since the show’s launch in the weeks after Sept. 11, picking out the small sillinesses that stitch “24” together has always been part of the fun.
Thirty years ago in the New York Times, the formidable Christopher Lehmann-Haupt published a classic review of a Robert Ludlum thriller. “Before long the action is careering out of control,” Lehmann-Haupt complained. Ludlum’s hero escaped death so often that he began to seem like “the roadrunner in that Saturday morning cartoon show.” Lehmann-Haupt added: “One gets the feeling that the only motive behind it all is Mr. Ludlum’s determination to tangle the yarn hopelessly and then untangle it again.” Strong criticism, perhaps. But then he provided the kicker: “Still, one does keep reading.”
Exactly. And when “24” is truly clicking, as it was last night, the show’s remarkable zaniness shares some of the virtues of Ludlum at his best. The plot is often byzantine to the point of impenetrability, and Jack Bauer falls in and out of so many deathtraps that it’s easy to lose count. But once you get started, it’s impossible to stop reading. Um, watching.
If you enjoy thrillers, you can’t ask for more.
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