Friday, January 12, 2007

Poetic Faith And 24

The great poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase "the willing suspension of disbelief" way back in the 18th century, and the concept goes back even further than that.

The phrase, also called "poetic faith," refers to how a person (in this case, the TV viewer) voluntarily suspends his or her knowledge of facts in order to enjoy the unfolding drama. We viewers, for example, will accept sci-fi/fantasy stories because we know ahead of time that the genre allows for the fantastical.

We accept drama because the actions of the characters are real within that universe, and would stay real within real life.

Coleridge obviously never watched an episode of "24."

My brother and I have long debates over the merits of this show. He accuses me of being somewhat hypocritical, since I have watched all five seasons of the show even though it continues to frustrate me because the actions of the characters and the plot make no logical sense.

There's no denying that "24" is exciting and original, which is perhaps why its siren song continues to draw me in even when I know there is only a whirlpool of disappointment and frustration awaiting me that people continue to buy into concepts that wouldn't even count for realism in Bizarro World.

"Ah," a cynical reader might interject at his point, "but how, all-mighty TV Guy, can you espouse the canon of Star Trek and Buffy, when they so obviously do not take place in the real world?"

Which brings us back to the willing suspension of disbelief. Take Star Trek, for example. It's science fiction, which means we know ahead of time it will contain concepts that do not exist in our world. But since the show is set in the future, there exists at least the possibility that things like warp drive and transporters and phasers will be invented at some point. (After all, our computers and flying to the moon would be considered ridiculous concepts in Coleridge's time).

With Buffy, we know the action takes place in the world of the supernatural, of vampires and werewolves and demons. Sure, those things don't exist in our world (at least, I hope not), but we accept that they might in Buffy's.

So, as long as the actions of the crew of the Enterprise and Buffy stay true to the laws governing those worlds, their actions make sense. As long as Buffy and Jim Kirk act the way we know they are supposed to act, it makes sense. Even if Buffy suddenly bursts into song and dance during her daily routine, the writers of "Buffy" explain it away within the context of the show, that is, a demon makes her do it.

"24" takes place in our world, the world of the USA vs. terrorists. It's protagonist, Jack Bauer, and his CTU agency, are charged with protecting national security from terrorist threats. Fair enough.

The premise of "24" is that each episode is a single hour within a single day. Each hour has Jack facing off against some threat, trying to get to the ultimate bad guys. Fair enough.

The viewer has to allow the producers to make some concessions from reality to assist the drama of the hour, such as not having the characters eat, sleep, go to the bathroom or any other biological functions. It also allows Jack the superhuman ability to cross through L.A. traffic within ten minutes. Fair enough.

But "24" stretches that goodwill past the point of any sort of realism. Jack has to perform feats of ingenuity far beyond those of mortal men. He must land a 757 on an L.A. freeway in a dead drop with just 1,000 feet of makeshift runway. Somehow, Jack defies the laws of physics and succeeds. During Season 2 or 3 (I forget which), Jack is tortured for an hour and his heart actually stops. The torturer must shock Jack's heart so that it starts working again. Yet, Jack is able to continue to fight bad guys when most of us would be in the hospital, unable to move.

The actions of those around Jack also defy logic. For some reasons, his superiors at CTU and the government constantly challenge Jack despite his having saved the world eight or nine times, forcing Jack to become a rogue agent for a few episodes in order to save the day. CTU, despite being the center of U.S. intelligence, manages to get attacked or infiltrated at least once every season.

(I won't even get into the folly that is Jack's daughter, Kim, and her string of boyfriends with amputated parts).

And the terrorists Jack fights are especially dangerous, what with having at least seven contigency plans to launch once Jack foils the initial plot within the first three or four hours. Last season alone, terrorists managed to assassinate a former U.S. president, take hostages at an airport, steal nerve gas and use it at multiple targets, nearly kill the Russian premier and hijack a Russian sub (among other things), all within the span of a day, and all defeated by one man, Jack Bauer. They were able to accomplish this, in part, because they happened to know ahead of time which CTU agent had a junkie sister whose boyfriend would mug the agent at a critical moment and steal his ID keycard for them.

Jack, incidentally, is one of the most prolific killers on TV. One fan board details 136 kills during the show's 120 episodes, including a career-best 44 during Season 4.

When "24" returns Sunday night (Fox, 8 p.m.), Jack is being held captive by the Chinese government, whose agents managed to sneak into the country despite of all the crises going on at the time and kidnap Jack from a CTU safehouse.

It's the ridiculousness of the grandiose schemes, and the producers' apparent lack of caring about the logical flaws, that really drives me crazy about the show. As a writer myself, I know a drama has to make sense at some point. Characters can't do stupid things just to drive the plot (e.g. Jack's wife Teri losing her memory for three episodes in Season 1). There's only so many action sequences you can write to cover up these problems.

"24" isn't the only show to suffer these problems; its companion show on Fox, "Prison Break," also has a number of logical flaws, for example. But "24" is far and away the worst violator of the world of logic.

WEEKEND'S BEST BETS: If you aren't into Jack Bauer killing off bad guys, you may want to check out "Rome" (HBO, 9 p.m.) and "Extras" (HBO, 10 p.m.), both of which debut their second seasons.

"Rome" was one of TV's most lavish dramas last season, detailing the machinations of Caesar's Rome, while "Extras" was a clever comedy lampooning Hollywood, starring "The Office" creator Ricky Gervais.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I suggest you do what I do when watching 24 (which I love by the way). I just ignore the fact that it is suppose to be in one day. Just keep thinking OK this is one hour of a day. Like you, how many things could happen in one day. Just traveling to Washington DC from CA to visit with the president will surely take at least 6 hours round trip not including the time spent fighting. But in the end all I want is something that will entertain me after a hard days work. Which this show does. I just will blow off all those thoughts of 'why has Jack only been seen eating something once in 5 seasons' and just say "it's just a TV show, not real life" and enjoy.

Phillip Ramati said...

Even if I concede the time element of the show as you do, it still doesn't make up for the stuff that simply can't happen, such as terrorists using a portable missle system to shoot down Air Force One or Jack being able to call for a helicopter to pick him up in the desert 10 minutes after a nuclear warhead explodes.

Even in the most escapist, fantastical thing, there has to be a basic structure of logic and the absence of the nonsensical.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Phillip,

Let me tell you a little story about Jack Bauer:
The city of Los Angeles once named a street after Jack Bauer in gratitude for his saving the city several times. But they had to rename it after people kept dying when they tried to cross the street.
Why? Because no one crosses Jack Bauer and lives.

(Ok, yeah, that's not mine. It actually came from here: www.jackbauerisgod.com/)

Phillip Ramati said...

I hadn't heard that one. But Jack Bauer is no CHUCK NORRIS!

Zodin2008 said...

Jack Bauer is one of my 2 most favorite characters on TV along with Tommy Gavin on "Rescue Me". As far as I am concerned, let Jack be president. Thin the way Harrison Ford was in "Air Force One".

Anyway, I though the first 4 hours were fantastic, as usual, but I am want to put a bullet into Sandra Palmer, Wayne's stupid, annoying and POSSIBLY evil (???) sister.

Anonymous said...

Hydrocodone
Cialis
Valium
Norco
Wellbutrin
Diflucan
Fioricet
Butalbital
Ultram
Vicodin
Effexor
Adipex
Ambien
Lipitor
Viagra
Prozac
Diazepam
Zovirax
Dianabol
Alprazolam
Xenical
Lorazepam
Tamiflu
Famvir
Didrex
Lortab
Zoloft
Atarax
Meridia
Carisoprodol
Tramadol
Tylenol
Codeine
Levitra
Bontril
Zyrtec
Zyban
Acyclovir
Ativan
Valtrex
Adderall
Nexium
Propecia
Phentermine
Xanax
Paxil
Cipro
Celexa
Renova
Soma

Hydrocodone
Cialis
Valium
Norco
Wellbutrin
Diflucan
Fioricet
Butalbital
Ultram
Vicodin
Effexor
Adipex
Ambien
Lipitor
Viagra
Prozac
Diazepam
Zovirax
Dianabol
Alprazolam
Xenical
Lorazepam
Tamiflu
Famvir
Didrex
Lortab
Zoloft
Atarax
Meridia
Carisoprodol
Tramadol
Tylenol
Codeine
Levitra
Bontril
Zyrtec
Zyban
Acyclovir
Ativan
Valtrex
Adderall
Nexium
Propecia
Phentermine
Xanax
Paxil
Cipro
Celexa
Renova
Soma