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Episodes: The "can you top that?!" season


Emily VanDerWerff

Aug 16 2016

6 min read



You remember 24, season six, right? (Bear with me; I've been thinking about 24 a lot today.)

It's probably the worst season of the show, when the series more or less gave up trying to tell even 25 percent of a coherent story and gave in to its own wildest terrors. In the first four episodes, a nuclear bomb took out Valencia, and by episode seven or eight, people had pretty much forgotten about it. Such was living in the 24 universe: Nuclear bombs went off on American soil, and everybody shrugged.

The truth of the matter is that this was the second nuke to go off on American soil in the course of the series. The other had gone off in the desert in season two. Jack Bauer had meant for the bomb to kill him, but instead, his boss and rival, George Mason (the always excellent Xander Berkeley), insisted that Jack go back to live among the people who loved him. George could fly that bomb into the desert just fine. This was always happening to Jack. He had the most obviously inflated protagonist bonus of any TV show to ever have existed.

But anyway, the first five seasons of 24 are, barring some hiccups and weird shit here and there, entertaining TV. The first season kinda runs out of steam about halfway through. Season two is good all the way through -- even with the cougar. Season three starts really slow, but the last eight episodes or so are the show at its best. Season four is all over the map, and features some of the show's most comically evil liberals, like a horrible human rights lawyer, but it did pretty effectively reboot the entire show, so points for that. And season five is the show's dada masterpiece. None of it makes sense, but you just want to keep watching.

But that fifth season was praised way, way beyond the scope of the show ever having been praised before. Its twist of an evil president was a favorite of critics, and because he was played by Gregory Itzin (with able assist from Jean Smart as his wife), there was finally a plotline worth caring about in the White House. Meanwhile, Jack had to cope with the fact that the people who signed his checks were irreparably horrible. It was compelling TV, even if it fell apart the longer you thought about it. It won multiple Emmys, including the big one: Drama Series. (It remains, to this day, the last broadcast network drama series to win that prize.)

(Sidebar: 24 is mostly remembered as a "conservative" show, and it was, in that it more or less agreed with the Bush Doctrine, but that conveniently sidesteps how a healthy dose of it, like all paranoid thrillers, was built atop things the liberals of the 2000s were terrified of, like the presidency being stripped from otherwise peace-loving presidents in the name of war and corporate interests pushing for trumped up wars in the Middle East. That last one was a plotline on the show before the US went into Iraq.)

Anyway, season five pretty much doomed the show, because the second it became a thing, the show was going to have to top it. And it couldn't possibly top it. The plot logic barely worked in season five as it was, and a great deal of that was due to Itzin and Smart. What's more, the series leaned into every terrible choice you can make when you're trying to follow up an acclaimed season of TV. It overloaded on guest stars. It brought back characters there was no good reason to bring back (including Itzin and Smart). It upped the stakes in terms of plot devices.

Which is how we return to Valencia, and Jack watching a Los Angeles suburb be blown into oblivion. At the time, I watched that scene and thought, "Jesus. They just might top season five." (This is even recent enough in the past for there to be a record of me writing about the show in a somewhat professional capacity.) But what that bomb taught me was that when you do something like that in what amounts to your first act on television, you have absolutely nowhere else to go. 24 kept trying to chase it, and the season eventually devolved into an absolute mess.

Time is both television's greatest quality and its curse. Do something big, and the temptation is to keep doing big things. But the equal, opposite reaction is quiet, and when you attempt to go quiet for the requisite amount of time, the audience punishes you. (The fact that it's doggedly pursuing its own quietude is why I'm not as down on Mr. Robot, season two, as many. It needs some time in the shadows before it starts blowing things up again, and it's mostly spending that time doing things I'm interested in. No more chess matches between Elliot and Mr. Robot, please, tho.)

What's fascinating about 24's "Can you top this?!" season is that it came so late in the show's run. Most shows that fall apart because of "can you top this?!" seasons fall apart in season two. The list is well-known: Desperate Housewives, The O.C., Glee, Heroes, etc., etc., etc. And the "Can you top this?!" season is hard to come back from, because it fundamentally divulges the show's greatest weakness -- it doesn't know what it is beyond plot twists.

24 got further than most because the Jack Bauer character, as ridiculous as he was, was a great fulcrum for everybody else on the show, and because the series' filmmaking was consistently stellar. The directors would sometimes seem to find great shots almost by accident, and the series' production method ended up being a massive influence on the way Friday Night Lights, of all things, was shot. (I'd go even further and say that if you want a cable-like cinematic sweep and feel to your series but you have to make more than 20 episodes in a season, the 24 directorial model isn't a bad one to ape, unless you're lucky enough to shoot in Hawaii.)

But it fell apart because it trusted in bigger and better bombast, when what it really needed was to go quiet and small and a little bit mean.

Come to think of it, that might also describe Game of Thrones. Huh.


Thanks for waiting out my long absence! I hate the way the TCA press tour seems to gobble up more and more of my time with every year.


Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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