In 2001, the hit Fox serial 24 revolutionized TV drama with its upscale action theatrics and virtual "real time" concept. Satiating an audience hungry for broad, blockbuster-style entertainment, the show created a new-millennial "JB" hero to kick ass alongside James Bond and Jason Bourne: Jack Bauer, indelibly embodied by Kiefer Sutherland. The star operative of America's Counter-Terrorist Unit (CTU), Bauer has had seven very bad days, each represented by a season-filling 24 hours of episodes (in order to accomodate previews and end credits, each hour has a few minutes shaved off--in addition to commercial breaks).
24 has always been uneven as it tries to keep the adventure alive and kicking through twenty-four episodes, but the early seasons had an undeniable vigor in their variations on a formula. Recent years, however, have understandably strained to sustain freshness, especially with a self-imposed mandate to twist the plot with double and triple-agent characters who betray loyalties from within CTU or the White House. Fan and critical griping came to a head with the widely-panned Season Six, so it was a blessing in disguise when the 2007-2008 Writer's Strike halted preparations and caused a year-long delay for the Season Seven launch. With more time to "break" the story, the 24 team could begin filming from a place of relative confidence (though the show would shut down again, late in production, to rewrite a pivotal episode).
Some would call this stroke of luck and new approach too little too late: the writers are still paying for years of making up plots as they went along, rather than plotting out full season arcs. In a concession to virulent fan reaction (just ask the folks at almeidaisgod.com), Season Seven saw the much-hyped return of CTU agent Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard), who--along with his wife Michelle--was offed in Season Five. Turns out Almeida wasn't dead after all, a syringe having been tactically aligned to miss the fatal artery. Though laughable, this backpedaling allowed the return of one of the show's best characters. Tony re-emerges in the company of terrorists and then in the company of CTU stalwarts Bill Buchanan (James Morrison) and Chloe O'Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub). The true nature of Tony's motivation and allegiance remains a subject of debate, on screen and off, for most of the season.
By 2009, Jack Bauer had also generated feverish criticism from many as a Republican poster boy for torture. Series co-creator Joel Surnow (who left the show during production of Season Seven) has made no secret of his conservative credentials, though the show has avoided identifying the political parties of its various U.S. Presidents. At the outset of Season Seven, 24 wisely addresses its critics by effectively putting Jack Bauer "on trial." CTU has been disbanded, and Jack is testifying before a Senate sub-committee headed by Senator Blaine Mayer (Kurtwood Smith). A defiant Bauer refers to having saved a busload of children by torturing a terrorist, and argues, "The people that I deal with: they don't care about your rules...My job is to stop them from accomplishing their objectives." Though the "busload of kids" scenario is a liberal button-pusher, the Senate hearing is a great idea, one to which a more daring series might have devoted a whole hour. But things aren't going to blow up themselves, so the scene lasts less than five minutes, with Jack pulled away by the FBI to answer another crisis.
Happily, the show keeps the question of Bauer's moral rectitude a bubbling issue throughout the season. Though his tactics change little, Bauer himself seems to grow more tortured by his own choices, and he drags FBI Agent Renee Walker (Annie Wersching) into his own private little hell. The crisis involves the intervention by U.S. President Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones) into the African nation of Sangala. Taylor is poised to invade Sangala to put an end to the murderous reign of dictator General Juma (Tony Todd) and secure the reinstatement of Prime Minister Matobo (Isaach De Bankolé). But terrorists on our soil attempt to stop President Taylor by threatening to use a "CIP device" to infiltrate American computers and cause havoc with crucial systems, such as air traffic control. (This plot was teased by a two-hour prequel, 24: Redemption, crafted to mitigate the year-long gap in the series' airing.)
It's all very far-fetched, of course, and the series frequently falls into old patterns and recycled plot points. But Season Seven has a number of saving graces, as well. Jones is superb as President Taylor (and if forerunner Dennis Haysbert's President David Palmer is any indicator, perhaps Hillary Clinton may make a comeback in eight years), and she's well supported by actors like Colm Feore and Bob Gunton. But the season's MVP has got to be Jon Voight (an openly conservative actor, by the way) as Jonas Hodges, founder of the Blackwater-esque defense contractor Starkwood. Voight makes a terrific sparring partner for both Jones and Sutherland, and almost single-handedly elevates the series into sublime action melodrama whenever he's on screen. There's also consummate star Sutherland, never better than when Jack is brought to the very edge of physical and mental endurance. After seven years, the writers wisely dig a bit deeper, articulating Jack's fears for his very soul.
Season Seven may well be the series' most action-packed, parceling out a surprising amount of near-feature-quality action sequences: shootouts galore, a third-hour parking garage stunt, and a hostage crisis in the White House among them. Among the non-explosive stunts is the casting of dyed-in-the-wool liberal Janeane Garofalo as a wiseacre mirror-image to tech-whiz Chloe (the show also makes time for the fan-pleasing returns of several characters from earlier seasons). In the end, the trashy but entertaining Season Seven will be best remembered for giving the show "buzz" again. The show has generated continual conversation--whether good, bad, or ugly-- enough at least to propel it through a Season Eight widely thought to be the show's last before the launching of an attempted film franchise.
24 fans can get excited about the series hi-def home-video debut in a six-disc Blu-ray set. The hi-def image is thrillingly true to the source material, and a clear upgrade from both the HD broadcasts and the relatively unwatchable low-res offered by DVD. True blacks are strongly defined detail are highlights of the image, though it becomes more grainy in low-light sequences. That kind of roughness and the whiplash camera moves that can cause a bit of motion blur are defining characteristics, so they're not among this set's visual flaws (for those, look to occasional, mild compression artifacts). Trust me when I say that a TV show has never sounded more like a movie than 24 does here in its pulse-pounding DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mixes.
Spread across the six discs are a number of bonus features, mirrored on DVD. On Disc One is "8:00 AM – 9:00 AM" commentary by executive producer/director Jon Cassar and Carlos Bernard; "10:00 AM – 11:00 AM" commentary by executive producer Manny Coto, co-Executive Producer Brannon Braga and Carlos Bernard; and "The Fimucité Festival Presents: The Music of 24" (13:05, HD), a live performance by the Tenerife Film Orchestra & Choir
Disc Two features "12:00 PM – 1 PM" commentary by executive producer/director Jon Cassar and Annie Wersching.
Disc Three includes "4:00 PM – 5:00 PM" commentary by executive producer David Fury and Hakeem Kae-Kazim; "5:00 PM – 6:00 PM" commentary by executive producer Manny Coto, co-executive producer Brannon Braga and Annie Wersching; and "7:00 PM – 8:00 PM" commentary by co-executive producer/director Brad Turner and Tony Todd.
On Disc Four, you'll find "8:00 PM – 9:00 PM" commentary by co-executive producer/director Brad Turner, composer Sean Callery and James Morrison and "9:00 PM – 10:00 PM" commentary by executive producer Juan Carlos Coto, Annie Wersching and Bob Gunton.
Disc Five houses "1:00 AM – 2:00 AM" commentary by executive producer Howard Gordon, Carlos Bernard and Jeffery Nording and "Hour 19: The Ambush" (12:46, HD), a close-up look at a major action sequence with much of the show's crew represented: director of photography Rodney Charters, special effects supervisor Stan Blackwell, special effects coordinator Scott Blackwell, Gabriel Casseus, transportation coordinator Hal Lary, "B" camera operator Jay Herron, first assistant director Richard Rosser, and director Michael Klick.
Disc Six is home to "5:00 AM – 6:00 AM" commentary by executive producer Evan Katz, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Glenn Morshower; "6:00 AM – 7:00 AM" commentary by executive producer David Fury, co-executive producer Alex Gansa and Glenn Morshower; and "7:00 AM – 8:00 AM" commentary by Executive Producers Howard Gordon and Jon Cassar.
Fourteen "Deleted Scenes" (26:00, HD) come with optional commentary by co-executive producer Stephen Kronish and producer Paul Gadd.
And in the fascinating and surprisingly frank "24-7: The Untold Story" (15:46, HD) the show's creative staff--executive producer Howard Gordon, executive producer Manny Coto, executive producer Evan Katz, executive producer David Fury, co-executive producer Brannon Braga--explain what went wrong and ultimately right in the process of "breaking" the story for Season 7.
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