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Is 24 ending tonight because it ran out of gas or we found new fears?

24-Jack-Bauer-Posters He’s the guy who gets paid to torture Jack Bauer, dreaming up the various scenarios and schemes that bedevil TV’s most tormented government agent.

And 24 executive producer Howard Gordon is sure about one thing; his sprawling, “real time” action drama isn’t ending Monday because we’re all in a different place as a country than when it first debuted, two months after the 9/11 attacks.

“The show is 8 years old,” he said. “(Cultural shift) might have been the case back in Season Six when it seemed that, I think, all these negative associations with the White House and torture policies (emerged) … In fact, I think the appetite would have been very much to keep us going (these days) if there was a story to tell.”

And yet. We are in a much different place now than we were when 24 debuted — so close to the raw wound of the 9/11 attacks that producers back then were ordered to remove footage of a plane exploding from the pilot.

In that moment, 24 caught lightning in a bottle in two ways; nailing a formula for complex storytelling that had never been done before, while neatly encapsulating our fears of terrorism and infiltration from foreign bad guys in a way no other series has managed.

Never mind the challenges of making every minute on screen correspond to a minute for the viewer. (Could this show have existed before cell phones and the Internet?). 24 also challenged viewers to stay engaged with a complex tale evolving over a season’s worth of episodes moving so fast, any viewers who lagged behind got left behind.

24_Season8_ComicCon-JackBauerNY Fast forward nine years, and the equations have changed. The torture tactics Bauer so often used — methods even producers admitted were sometimes little more than unrealistic storytelling shortcuts — inspired real interrogators and were later discredited.

Ask the nation’s most visible paranoids, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, and they’ll say America’s greatest dangers now come from policies openly advocated by the current presidential administration. Forget about backroom deals with terrorists; America’s fears today center on a bereft economy and the free-floating anger channeled by politicians and pundits into increasingly ugly forms.

Star Kiefer Sutherland seems nearly as damaged as Bauer, veering from one embarrassing, alcohol-fueled incident to another. And at a time when viewers have more distractions than ever, 24’s Armageddon-of-the-week approach feels creaky as a 100-year-old farmhouse. How many legendarily bad days can one agent have, anyway?

So, I agree with Gordon that 24’s time has come. But it’s come because we’ve changed as much as the show’s approach has not.

For proof, consider recent episodes, which have turned Bauer into a ruthless revenge machine, cutting a cellphone SIM card out of a bad guy’s stomach and giving a beat-down to an ex-president after a woman he loved was assassinated.

Instead of breathtaking drama, this feels like a desperate bid for relevance at the end of a perplexing and disappointing season.  Like a catty ex-girlfriend, 24 is going down in a spiral of self-destruction hoping for a surge of attention — curdling its stalwart hero (and Cherry Jones’ Hillary Clinton-esque President Allison Taylor) to make for a big finish.

Once upon a time, 24 excelled by painting society’s worst fears on a broad canvas.

Now that we’ve moved on, perhaps it’s agent Bauer who can’t keep up, anymore.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 3:08pm]


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