’24’ Turns 5: An Interview with CrimeSpree Magazine: Winter, 2006

CrimeSpree MagazineThe Secretary of Defense is kidnapped. A tactical warhead brings down Air Force One. A nuclear bomb is set to explode over Los Angeles. Never fear. Somewhere in the bowels of the city, a grim band of anti-terrorists is working feverishly to prevent disaster.

Yes, quicker than you can say C-T-U, the fifth season “24” is upon us. Once again Jack Bauer, Tony Almeda, Chloe, and the rest of the gang will attempt to save us from the worst terrorist threats ever hatched on American soil. In so doing over the past few years, “24” has become not simply a giant hit, but almost a franchise. It has spawned numerous message boards, its own talk show, as well as a specially produced prequel that will air sometime this season.

So, why is “24” such a success? The plot machinations can be over the top. Some of the dialogue and characterizations are so lame they’re dead-to-rights funny. And we pretty much know the end of every season before it begins (the good guys will prevail). Given that, why have I—a reasonably intelligent mystery author—become a “24” addict, who not only watches every episode, but has been known to lose entire weekends with the DVDs of past seasons?

Part of the answer is the show’s production values. As a former filmmaker, I appreciate the lavish sets, the staging—particularly the action scenes—the razor-sharp editing, the special effects, and dramatic cinematography. The eye candy in “24” is more than equal to most feature films. So is the attention to detail and the research behind the scenarios.

But what I love most about the series is the way it builds suspense. Before I became a writer, I read thrillers. I still do. I love the nail-biting scenes, the emotional roller-coaster, the utter inability to put a book down. As an author, I enjoy building suspense into my own work. And whether it’s in prose or on the screen, I like to study how others do it.

“24” does it well.

Structure/Timing

First there’s the construct of the show itself. The ticking clock is a staple of suspense, and “24” uses it relentlessly. Each of the season’s “24” episodes is one hour of a day, and each block of the show is book-ended with a digital ticking clock. The use of real-time storytelling creates urgency and tension. We are always aware there’s some kind of deadline approaching, and that adds more suspense. In addition, most scenes end with a sting or a cliff-hanger that makes it impossible to turn away from the show.

In fact, you’ll see very little downtime in “24”. Elmore Leonard says to skip the boring parts, and “24” does. With quick scenes and even quicker cuts, the show whips through each episode like an angry tornado. Still, almost every scene contains conflict, action, or risk. Each minute DOES count. Another element of suspense involves stretching time—slowing it down. Curiously, despite—or maybe because of—its Mach 4 pacing, “24” does just that.

Still another way to build suspense is to shift points of view, and “24” does that regularly. We see scenes from Jack Bauer’s perspective, followed by a cut to the other members of the CTU team, their family members, and, most important, the villains. Cutting back and forth between the characters—and locations—in real time builds momentum, keeps interest from waning, and allows viewers to invest in the story.

Complications

Another hallmark of suspense is to create complications and raise the stakes. Again, “24” doesn’t disappoint. Take Season Four: a train explosion is followed by the kidnapping of the Secretary of Defense. No sooner does Jack rescue him, narrowly avoiding a retaliatory missile strike, when terrorists take control of the country’s nuclear power plants and threaten to cause meltdowns.

You get the idea. “24” loads each episode with more complications than the most challenging obstacle course. The CTU team is constantly faced with impossible tasks, risks, and decisions that keep mounting in intensity. Split second timing is often required. High tech problems, such as the inability to get a satellite feed or the lack of internet access, complicate matters more. Every episode milks the opportunity for a worst-case scenario, and then it gets worse. While some of the plot twists can strain credibility, it does make for riveting, edge-of-your-seat viewing.

To its credit, the show does try to maintain authenticity. Bad things happen to good people. The fate of Jack’s wife in Season One, for instance. The political demise of President David Palmer in Season Two. Or the warhead that slams into Air Force One in Season Four. These situations help balance some of the more “fantastic” plot points.

Dilemmas/Isolation

In any good thriller, the protagonists are faced with Hobbesian choices and dilemmas for which there is no happy solution. The choices they make not only define their character but add suspense. “24” is rife with chilling dilemmas. Does Erin Driscoll, Jack’s boss, attend to her mentally ill daughter, or does she save the country from nuclear meltdowns? Does Jack track the terrorists or rescue his kidnapped wife? Even the villains have their own dilemmas: does Nina play along with Jack, even though it means delaying her own agenda?

Similarly, a good thriller will make the protagonist struggle to prevail by wits alone. A protagonist becomes more and more isolated as his friends, colleagues, even his tools are progressively stripped away. Ultimately, he faces the enemy alone. “24” depicts that isolation effectively, whether it’s Jack dealing with Nina or Marwan, or President David Palmer confronting his political enemies. We feel their isolation, and we hold our breath waiting for the move that will vanquish the enemy.

Subject matter

The more believable the plot, the more suspenseful it is, and “24”‘s subject matter is usually ripped from the headlines. And while not every plot twist is credible, the show gets high marks for its portrayal of the decision making process at high levels of government. The issues the President grapples with during a terrorist threat seem authentic, and while Jack does seem to get the President on the phone more than the rest of us, the discussions and choices they make are fascinating. At this level of story-telling, furthermore, there’s a fine line between plot and commentary, and I give the show kudos for not veering into political polemics.

All of this confers a degree of authenticity that isn’t usually associated with TV. And this authenticity is backed up with research. The “24” website contains write-ups of the research that’s been done for each episode, and the show hires security consultants, intelligence officials, and even thriller writers to help flesh out story ideas.

For all these reasons, I’ll continue to tune in every Monday to see what’s new with CTU. I’ll revel in the suspense and enjoy every nail-biting obstacle and dilemma that’s foisted upon Jack, his colleagues, and the rest of the free world. But hey—if anyone has the DVDs of Season Four, you know where to find me.

  • About Libby

    Compulsively Readable ThrillersLibby Fischer Hellmann left a career in broadcast news in Washington, DC and moved to Chicago 35 years ago, where she, naturally, began to write gritty crime fiction. Fifteen novels and twenty-five short stories later, she claims they’ll take her out of the Windy City feet first.

    She has been nominated for many awards in the mystery and crime writing community and has even won a few.