'24' and the perfect TV death: Entertainment Geekly
Entertainment Geekly is a weekly column that examines pop culture through a geek lens and simultaneously examines contemporary geek culture through a pop lens. So many lenses! (Note: This post contains copious plot information about 24. I’m assuming you’ve either seen 24 or you’ve made peace with the fact that you’ll never watch it. But if you start watching now and don’t take any breaks, you have just enough time to watch the best years of 24 before it disappears from Netflix.)
With all due respect to The Sopranos, Lost, The Wire, The Walking Dead, Grey’s Anatomy, Breaking Bad, American Horror Story, Justified, Dexter, The Good Wife, and basically any other Cable Age drama that aimed for serious storytelling cred and/or day-after WTF buzz, no show ever killed people like 24 killed people. On Fox’s realtime spy thriller, everybody was expendable and nobody ever got out alive. An entire season could be about saving the life of one character — and that same character could die a season or so later, dispatched quickly and brutally, a sudden shocking footnote in the greater story of national woe.
24 now is essentially a national landmark of pop culture — and it’s a test balloon for the idea that TV shows don’t really have to end anymore, that any remotely successful series from the 2000s can basically become the TV equivalent of a legacy-artist rock band, releasing a new season/album every few years and soaking up nostalgia dollars. So, it’s easy to forget that the first season of 24 was not a ratings success. Which means that — in the context of Broadcast Era ratings that all look hilariously inflated now — not that many people were watching the season 1 finale, which ended with Jack Bauer cradling the body of his dying wife Teri in his arms.
On a narrative level, Teri’s death supercharged the show in every direction. It left viewers reeling for the entire summer, in the finest tradition of the X-Files cliffhanger — but it also added retroactive heft to the season preceding it. A season that featured all manner of bizarre tangents (Lesbian assassins, teenybopper Stockholm Syndrome, hysterical amnesia, Serbian Dennis Hopper) suddenly looked, in hindsight, like a carefully plotted modern tragedy.
Of course, it wasn’t. The last decade has normalized the notion of TV-as-Art-Form, but 24 at its best was pure meat-and-potatoes television. It was TV-as-Sporting-Event, the equivalent of watching a football game played by eight teams simultaneously. (This Calvin and Hobbes comic strip is the best recap I’ve ever seen of 24‘s fourth season.) Like, imagine for a second that you could run a TV show Moneyball-style: Promoting undervalued assets and eliminating the overvalued ones. That was 24. Teri Bauer was a boring character and a narrative drag — so the show figured out how to produce one brilliant moment with her, and then never deal with her again.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Teri this week, in light of all the chatter about The Good Wife‘s Big Death. After an initial wave of gut-level resentment — a common cultural reaction to major TV deaths and website redesigns — the consensus has moved into a wait-and-see holding pattern. But as my colleague Jeff Jensen pointed out, the real story here isn’t the death, but rather, the fuzzy maneuvering around the death. The writers’ intention appears to have been an attempt to achieve the Holy Grail of TV fatalities: The Absolute Shock, the sensation of pure randomness, the feeling that you were watching a constructed story that suddenly got invaded by the kind of arbitrary happenstance that defines real life. And by all accounts, they pretty much achieved that. Nobody was ready to part with Will. He was a central part of the show — and he would’ve remained so, if Josh Charles wanted.
So his death was shocking: Congratulations! The whole idea of TV death has gotten so normalized and debased in recent years. Walking Dead frequently introduces new characters and does nothing with them, keeping them around just long enough so that you care just a tad when someone blows their head off. The last season of American Horror Story killed every character at least twice.
But a truly great TV death isn’t just the initial shock: It’s also the aftermath, the effect that the death has on the show. The question is: Does the show feel somehow less when you remove a central foundation of its narrative structure? The death of Denny on Grey’s Anatomy is an early Shonda Rhimes Hall of Fame moment, but it also spun the show off its axis for much of the following season, which eventually discovered the heretofore undiscovered tenth level of Hell known as Gizzie.
As a counter-example, look no further than premiere of 24‘s fifth season. David Palmer was the show’s Day One co-lead: First introduced as a a presidential candidate, he went full-POTUS in seasons 2 and 3 before becoming a part-time consultant in season 4. When season 5 started, he was working on his memoirs. He seemed a bit troubled. He looked out the window…and a sniper took him down. He didn’t even make it to the first commercial break.
Cards on the table here: I think this is the perfect TV death, as close to the Socratic Ideal of Absolute Shock as you can get. And not just narratively. Frequent 24 director Jon Cassar films Palmer’s death with a neat bit of visual misdirection: The camera stares straight at his face, and only when the bullethole appears do you realize that we were looking through a window. Even better: This death happens midway through the opening credits, so the bullethole appears onscreen in a space that was only one moment earlier occupied by “Co-Executive Producer Michael Loceff.”
(ASIDE: There’s also a great, totally bleak bit of humor in the scene. The last words that Palmer hears are “There’s gonna be a lot of questions about your relationship with Sherry” — meaning that the last thought in Palmer’s head was probably about his wife, one of the greatest terrible human beings in recent TV history. END OF ASIDE.)
But it’s not just the shock that matters. 24 was coming off a not-so-great season. (EMP pulse, Air Force One, Chinese Consulate, Suicide Daughter, Bad Guy from The Mummy.) The death of David Palmer teed up the show for its best season ever, a sequence of traumatic events where nobody was safe and anything could happen. Fellow core-team cast members Michelle and Tony died soon afterwards; office teddy bear Edgar died, along with basically everyone in CTU, during a nerve gas attack. The death of David Palmer had weight — but killing him also unshackled the show, letting it strike off once and for all in a bold new direction. Game of Thrones would perform a similar trick years later with Ned Stark, but that show had the benefit of knowing that George R. R. Martin had already plotted out seasons’ worth of Post-Sean Bean narrative. 24 just rolled the dice.
The show never quite achieved the same level of unmitigated mojo. It tried: At the start of season 6, Jack was forced to kill Curtis, basically his last remaining friend. But 24 could never quite figure out how to match the pure boldness of the Palmer killing. Right around season 6 was also the point when Chloe O’Brian officially entered her Hurley phase, becoming the Unkillable Sidekick. (That was also the point when Kiefer Sutherland started talking about a 24 movie — a theoretical project whose abstract existence meant that Jack Bauer could never die, thus robbing the show of its natural endgame.)
So is Will Gardner The Good Wife‘s David Palmer? Or is he the Denny? Time and TV history will tell. But any showrunner planning to kill off a central character should study the death of David Palmer like a textbook. In life, he made 24 a great show. In death, he made it even better.