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T.V. on TV: 24 & American Idol

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T.V. on TV: <em>24</em> & <em>American Idol</em>

The first four hours of 24’s sixth season premiere (Sunday and Monday, 8 to 10 p.m. ET) misplace what makes the series so effective, fixating on stilted policy debates and characters we’ve never met. Yet two moments at the tail end are so legitimately shocking that they seem to kick the whole season into gear. The first is a plot twist, arrived at via barely-motivated plot machinations but carried out with ruthless efficiency; the second is a moment of absolute terror, played with the requisite gravitas. Together, these incidents encapsulate what the series does best: kinetic melodrama and political exploitation. The two go hand-in-hand.

24 is one of the few series on television that is willing to engage in the things that frighten Americans most. Some of the show’s strongest hours came in its second and third seasons, when, respectively, it detonated a nuclear bomb (in the desert, far from people) and released a virus in a crowded hotel. Even the fourth season’s attack on Air Force One, conveyed almost entirely through the worried faces of the actors watching the plane come down at the Los Angeles Counter Terrorist Unit offices, managed to hit that “Oh shit! Could that happen here?” button.

The show’s immediate connection to post-Sept. 11 fears is the source of both its power and its crudeness. A friend describes the show as a “Republican wonderland,” and he’s not far off. The series often wanders close to pure fascism and never seems apologetic for doing so; the subliminal refrain is, “Sure there are badasses like Jack Bauer out there who have to torture and kill indiscriminately, but think of what would happen if there weren’t!” The nadir of the show’s views in this regard also came in Season Four, when a liberal human rights lawyer had the nerve to intrude on CTU business (in a thoroughly unrealistic fashion) and demand that the rights of a terrorist suspect be respected. Who did he think he was?

24’s writers deploy politically charged elements in a very canny way. Like most macho action blockbusters, the show’s heart is fascistic, but each season is likely to include elements that seem to criticize such tendencies. The fifth season, for instance, had the requisite torture action, but it also had a slimy, treacherous president who was more interested in protecting his own interests and legacy than in doing right by his country. Whether intentionally or not, the character—played by Gregory Itzin, who will return sometime this season—was a Nixon/Bush amalgam that juiced the show’s often boring White House plotlines (and may have contributed to its Emmy victory as best drama).

All of this leads into Season Six’s first few episodes, which actually feature the characters in the White House (led by D.B. Woodside’s President Wayne Palmer) taking the time to debate recurring War on Terror issues, from torture to Guantanamo-style prisons to the idea of rounding up all Muslim-Americans and putting them in camps. These point-counterpoints are assigned to strong actors (Peter MacNicol from the right and Regina King from the left), but they never integrate with anything around them; they’re blandly declaimed, as though the cast spent the summer hiatus reading Opinion Journal and developing position papers. The “debate” is theoretical anyway. The left can’t win on 24, which is set in a U.S. where terrorist attacks seem to occur almost daily. (“You’d think about rounding up Muslims then, wouldn’t you?” the show seems to be challenging.)

Other current dramas not only engage the audience on civil liberties issues (The Wire and Battlestar Galactica, for two), but manage to do it by showing rather than telling; in comparison, the first four hours of 24’s sixth season feel like a more conservative Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: dueling monologues and stacked decks. Regular viewers are used to this. Aside from Season Five, the straightforwardly political material has always been 24’s weakest link; but the action scenes, anchored in Kiefer Sutherland’s lead performance, are so strong that they pulverize rational objections.

Sutherland plays lone wolf hero Jack Bauer as a barely restrained weapon that can go off at any time. The character’s emotions (aside from anger) are held in check; even in potentially deadly situations, his intelligence and cool seem boundless. He’s the perfect American soldier, ready at an instant to sacrifice himself for his country but also to willing to plot an escape when new information becomes available (the plan Jack hatches at the end of the season’s first hour is a moment of shocking catharsis—brilliant and brutal). Last season ended with Jack shipped off to a Chinese prison; when he returns after years of being brutalized in captivity, he’s grown a long, hobo-esque beard and taken a vow of silence. (On a show where torture frequently garners important information, Jack never talked to his jailers.) Within minutes, however, he’s clean-shaven, discussing battle plans and ready to go. As played by Sutherland, Jack is every action hero ever, distilled to the basest essence of the archetype.

But Jack is one of the few returning characters to whom viewers have extensive allegiance. (Another is Mary Lynn Rajskub’s hilariously prickly computer expert Chloe, who saved the world on a hotel bar wi-fi connection last season.) Other faces are familiar from prior seasons (Woodside’s president; Eric Balfour’s middle manager Milo; Roger R. Cross’ dutiful CTU agent Curtis Manning), but they’re not as compelling as former colleagues who have since been written out. Manning is a workhorse, but he’s not as vivid as Carlos Bernard’s Tony Almeida, who was killed off last season after rising from dutiful peon to CTU head, then getting sent to prison when trying to save his wife’s life. Manning doesn’t have anywhere near as rich a history, so when 24 focuses on him, we just want to get back to Jack or Chloe. It’s a predicament for which the writers can blame only themselves. Season Five was full of shocking plot twists (the body count of regular and recurring characters was probably the highest of any season of a regular series ever), but by killing off all of those interesting and vital people, TV’s ultimate plot-driven series wrote itself into a corner. When we’re not with Jack, we have nowhere to go.

In some ways, it feels unfair to pick on 24 for some of these things—barely sketched-in characters and hardly-suppressed fascism (and a concurrent belief in the sheer force of masculinity) are staples of the modern action movie, and 24 is stylish enough to reinvigorate them. The show’s now-familar jittery editing and split screens still feel as fresh as they did when the show debuted in 2001; ditto the writers’ eagerness to wallow in the worst fears of American citizens (and world citizens—24 is an international hit, too), then offer a tidy resolution before the world-changing worst can occur. It’s both a way to acknowledge our worst fears and deny them power. Nothing bad can happen as long as Jack’s around.

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Lots of shows are debuting or returning over the next two weeks, including HBO’s Rome and Extras, SciFi’s Dresden Files and Battlestar Galactica and the aforementioned 24. But the most significant event in the TV landscape (as it is year after year) is Fox’s American Idol, which returns one week from tonight. Every January, Idol lands with a ratings bang, sending time slot competitors scrambling through the spring, yet without ever shaking up its format all that much. It has a sort of lazy confidence—and from a ratings standpoint, why shouldn’t it? Idol is one of the few genuine pop phenomena left. More than 30 million viewers watch it every week; by comparison, in 2006 only a handful of films attracted more ticket buyers. If in fact we do still have a mass culture, last year American Idol, Pirates of the Caribbean and Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” were pretty much it.

Idol isn’t the world’s greatest television show, but it’s not as bad as its detractors claim, especially when it’s in competition mode. The singing is mostly imitation Mariah Carey/Whitney Houston, and every episode has so much padding that a viewer with a TiVo can catch the relevant bits in about 15 fast-forwarded minutes; but the show is competently staged and shot, and the individual singers’ personalities are often appealing, if one-dimensional. The judges have fallen into too-easily-predictable roles over the years—Paula Abdul is the eternal cheerleader, Randy Jackson is everybody’s best friend, Simon Cowell the needlessly bitter foreigner), but their banter is cornily charming (even if Cowell and host Ryan Seacrest’s sniping verges on homophobia more often than not). What’s more, Idol is one of a handful of hit series that’s satisfying for whole families to watch together—no small feat. Hell, it even works as a very basic introduction to democracy—assuming, of course, that by the time today’s children are old enough to vote, said voting will be conducted by text messaging your favorite candidate’s name to AT&T, over and over and over.

The worst thing about Idol, though, is its audition episodes. Perhaps reflecting our love of the perverse, these episodes often garner huge ratings. In the competition section, the singing may be varying degrees of bland, but there are reasonable discussions to be had about it—one singer may be too “pitchy,” another may have forgotten the words, while yet another might boast excellent stage presence. In contrast, the audition episodes delight in trotting out oddballs who turn up for nationwide open call auditions. Only a handful of competitors are let through the various screening processes to stand before Randy, Paula and Simon, and some were clearly invited only because of their awfulness. Since these bad singers are often deluded about their talent (William Hung being the foremost example), it’s an exercise in cruelty. The judges and the audience are encouraged to sit in superior judgment of the hopeless crooners. “Yes,” we can say, “that’s very bad. I could do better. And if I were that bad, I would know.” At its best, American Idol is a silly celebration of the American dream—anyone can be famous if they try hard enough and/or get on TV. At its worst, it’s a sad celebration of the flipside of that dream—kicking a poor bastard when he’s down.

House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.