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Tick, Tick, Tick… Time's Up for Jack Bauer and 24

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Variety is reporting what has been whispered around the TV business for a while: this will be the final season for 24 on Fox. The show has been losing viewers and critical acclaim for a while, and it’s expensive to produce; after eight seasons, there’s apparently not enough upside.

This may not be the end of Jack Bauer entirely; there’s a lot of talk of trying to relaunch 24 as a movie franchise. But it’s symbolic of one thing: for big-network TV dramas, the ’00s are emphatically over.

Launched in 2001, 24 was probably the show that defined the look and ambitions of network-TV drama (as opposed to cable, that is) for the last decade, together with Lost, which ends in May. (Throw in American Idol and maybe Survivor and you pretty much have your time capsule of what network TV in the ’00s was.) After The Sopranos stormed the world in 1999, it was clear that cable had raised the game to a level network TV couldn’t follow, either in terms of content or artistry. What network TV could do instead—as 24 and Lost showed in different ways—was deliver a version of the blockbuster-movie experience, weekly, on a smaller screen and a TV budget.

As with many groundbreaking shows, 24’s innovations are hard to notice now, but what it was first and foremost—before its politics, before the torture issues, before the increasingly insane plots—was a formal innovation. The idea of doing a series in real time (even with plenty of dramatic cheats) was bracing, and by itself it gave 24 the sense of constant heightened stress that was its hallmark. And its visual style—the shaky cameras and the use of multiple screens to show concurrent events—reinforced the idea that there was just too much story to show you only one thing at one time. It was perhaps the first mainstream TV success to reflect an audience that was used to multitasking and multiple screens, on computers or on cable-news channels. It was an action drama for the age of information overload.

Then, of course, 9/11 happened—after 24 was scheduled and the pilot made, but before it premiered—and suddenly this innovative show was also a show about the country’s single greatest concern, terrorism. This made it a lightning rod for criticism, for, among other things, making it too easy for Bauer to torture information out of suspects. (True enough, though I think it owed as much to the demands of the thriller genre as to the conservative politics of co-creator Joel Surnow. Action shows are biased toward ticking-time-bomb fantasies.)

24 never shied away from raising the stakes and stoking the fear—chemical, biological, nuclear. But even early on in the post-9/11 era, 24 complicated its view of international terror. Season two, concurrent with the invasion of Iraq, had a plot to undermine President Palmer and hoodwink him into a war with a Middle Eastern country.

But like any series that was so much of its time, 24’s age has been showing. (Side note: I suppose if this is the last season, this means I have to start watching regularly again.) It somehow seems appropriate—if it does not get a surprise reprieve—that one spring should see the end of both it and Lost, which defined what TV in the ’00s was. Now to see what comes next.

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