[This is part of my recent series of dispatches from the recent past. Netflix has me watching TV shows that I missed for various reasons, and I just finished 24 season one.]
For all the trouble it must cause to editors, costume designers, and lighting technicians, the “24 episodes portraying 24 hours” conceit is a screenwriter’s dream. It allows you to talk to the audience, tell them something and make them believe it without question. When someone says they will kill Jack if they do not hear from Palmer in 15 minutes – you know this is fifteen minutes of YOUR LIFE, including the trip to the bathroom you are going to take when the show goes to commercial. Characters are constantly making proclamations about time on the show because the writers know that if you can demonstrate that the characters have something in common with the audience – the desire to see a little girl saved for example – the audience will be more emotionally involved. On 24 time is a device the show can use to make this connection, in addition to all the other tools in the toolbox.
It is admittedly a fairly absurd device. Because 24 usually relies on four things going on at once (Jack’s story, Palmer’s story, Kim’s story, CTU’s story) the show is premised on the idea that at no point will something interesting be going on in two places at once. Jack will do something interesting for five minutes, then have a short stretch to drive with nothing going on while we cut to something beginning and ending with Kim, then downtime for her while we move to CTU, and so on. The show’s creators like to stress the “realism” of 24, but there is nothing realistic about it. It is an American James Bond story, whose very artificial premise gives it a boost of energy that sets it a bit above its counterparts. In the first season, by the way, Kim Bauer is kidnapped, on average, every eight hours.
52 was an attempt to create a comic book analogue for 24, but they misunderstood the main virtue of the thing – 52 accurately measures what week you are reading the book – the same week the story takes place – but this is a far cry from matching the reader on a minute by minute basis.