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I hate American TV. Actually, what i really hate, what i can't handle whatsoever, is the constant barrage of commercials every 10mn or so. I have a real problem with watching 42mn of programming, spread over an hour with 18mn of commercial interruptions. This is undoubtly cultural: i grew up in France where until maybe a decade ago, the thought of any commercial interruptions were simply taboo. Commercials happened between programs, not during. Since i came to the US about 15 years ago, watching anything with constant commercials is something i never got used to. Those commercials completely break my concentration. Because of this, i have stayed mostly away from TV all these years, except for the things that don't really require any focus or some truly favorite shows of mine such as The Simpsons and South Park. But even so, i never truly enjoyed watching the episodes on TV. So, how about Cable and commercial free channels do you say? Well, i have another problem with the TV format in general. I find it hard to follow a story line, one piece at a time every week over months at a time. It is something i simply do not enjoy. So, even if i have caught your occasional Friends, Seinfeld or Sopranos episode from time to time, i have completely stayed away from TV series in general.
But, that had a side effect of course: i felt sadly alone all those years at the water cooler as they say. When every one was talking about the latest episode of 24, or recently Lost, i wasn't part of the conversations. And not only that, i really felt those people had no clue about what they were talking about. How could anyone enjoy those TV series, all chopped up with commercials, and padded to last 20-some episodes over several months? Not me, right? Wrong! Although i am still not ready to change my stance on the overall TV format, commercials and all that stuff, i am about to change my opinion on the content itself. With the success of TV Series on DVD, people like me can finally enjoy all those great shows outside of the TV medium. Most shows now come out on DVD in season sets, and they are great. Over the last 6 months or so, i have treated myself to 24, Lost, The L Word, The Batman TV Series, Nip And Tuck, Rescue Me and Desperate Housewives. One can say i have finally caught up with what i've been missing all those years. And while i am still not ready to watch any of it on TV and catch the next season of any of those shows this year, you can be sure i'll be waiting for when they come up on DVD. I am hooked. On DVD, i don't have to suffer through commercials and i can watch episodes at my own pace. Typically, i have found that watching 4 episodes at a time (a little bit under 3 hours), and spread the entire series over a couple of weeks works great. I get completely engrossed in the story lines and characters, and live through all of it on a compressed time frame. It's an experience i have enjoyed very much and look to repeat whenever a good TV show comes up on DVD.
24 has probably been one of the most talked about TV series in the past 5 years. It uses a gimmick that proved very effective with the audience and critics alike: the series is presented in continuous real time. That means that each 5 minutes on screen match 5 minutes in the story, and all 24 Episodes show a continuous story over 24 hours. It could have been a complete disaster, but in the hands of the expert writers on the show, it worked wonders. If you think about it, this gimmick puts some really tough constraints on the writers and how the story is put together. For one, the story has to focus on a very specific element at a time. You can't have flashbacks, and funky editing tricks. If some element of the story is about a ride across town, you can't just edit your way to accelerate it. Everything in the series is time accurate. On the other hand, as is often the case, constraints are sometimes liberating, and the writers certainly knew how to use them as assets. When showing a ride across town, every element of the story becomes important. And it becomes wonderful to be able to add intrigue or suspense just by having the audience wait while the main character stops at a red light, while a Police car is waiting too right by. All this worked to deliver a very focused presentation of a complex and richly layered story.
Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is a top director at the CTU (Counter Terrorism Unit) in Los Angeles. He is very effective, but rather direct, and above all, all too often willing to break the rules in order to achieve his goals. His methods, and his past missions, have earned him lots of enemies. Some want him dead, plain and simple, while others would be happy to just see him leave the agency. One night, at midnight, he gets a call that intelligence data has been intercepted regarding an assassination attempt on the Democrat presidential candidate Senator David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert). Shortly after, his daughter Kimberly (Elisha Cuthbert) is kidnapped, and news of a mole at the agency surfaces. Jack Bauer is about to have the longest day of his life dealing with all of this while learning those events are deeply connected.
The series succeeds amazingly in pulling you into this frenetic ride. All the tricks of the trade are used to keep you on the edge guessing until the last minute. This series has more cliffhangers than the Himalayas. The writing is clever and does not take easy paths. However, at times, it felt somewhat tired. Even though i almost never guessed anything coming and jumped on my seat more than once, i got to a point where i knew when to expect something to take a different turn. It was exciting because i was fully engaged, but it also felt repetitive somewhat and predictable in its unpredictability. Now, of course, i saw the entire series in about 3 weeks, 2 or 4 episodes a night at a time, so it was a rather intense run. If i had seen the episodes 1 at a time each week, maybe the feeling of repetitiveness of predictability would not have been there.
On the performance side, i thought the entire cast was rather superb. Kiefer Sutherland was phenomenal. He is to Jack Bauer what Sean Connery is to James Bond. It seems that he was born to play this role, or that the role was perfectly handcrafted for him. He combines frightening aspects along with professional and caring aspects with ease. He is after all a trained killer and intelligence operative. That has obviously left marks on him psychologically. He is very smart and very skilled, and is able to your attention and respect within the first 2 episodes. His wife, played by Leslie Hope, and his right hand Nina, played by Sarah Clarke, form a great emotional counterpoint to his character. Finally, Dennis Haysbert is also brilliant as the African American presidential candidate who refuses to play dirty politics and yet, is dealt seemingly all the worst hands possible on this critical day for his career. Frankly, even if Jack is cool, it is David's character with which i had the most empathy for. What he goes through represents probably for me one of my worst nightmares. He is surrounded by well intending people who are sabotaging his campaign right left and center. Everybody knows Hell is paved with good intentions, and here is a perfect illustration. His wife in particular, masterfully and frightingly played by Penny Johnson, is a real destructive dragon. Nevertheless, David deals with all this extreme frustration the best he can, and Dennis Haysbert demonstrates great poise, courage, and intelligence throughout. This guy plays a leader and a hopeful president with aplomb and great presence.
On technical accounts, the cinematography is clean and the music was acceptable, but i feel that opportunities were missed. In particular, on the music front, after having seen the Batman Animated TV Series, everything else seems so flat, repetitive and uninvolved, The art direction and the editing though were first rate.
After all these years hearing about my friends' latest TV addiction, i finally got to experience the first season of 24. I really liked it even though it felt somewhat tired at times. I am definitely looking forward to renting or borrowing the other 3 series now on DVD, but don't expect me to catch any of it on TV any time soon. DVD is such a great format for TV haters like me. 24 was edgy, very fast paced, and very effective in the end. The fact that the Series deal with themes that are also quite relevent with today's world (the first season started shortly after 9/11), makes the whole experience even more interesting.
- Laurent Hasson