Prime-time TV's not quite a wasteland

Shows like `24' and `Boomtown' advance the craft of storytelling


October 27, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,sun television critic

With the season premiere of Fox's 24 coming Tuesday, and the announcement last week by NBC that it has given its celebrated new cop drama, Boomtown, the green light for a full year of 22 episodes, this is a good time to try to fine-tune conventional wisdom about the state of prime-time network television.

As part of the critical chorus that has been relentlessly lamenting the sorry state of most new network series this fall, I feel a responsibility to get out what might seem a counterintuitive message: Overall, prime-time network television is not as bad as you might think. It is not all second-rate compared to the premium cable service of HBO, which is regularly and rightfully acclaimed for landmark series like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under.

In fact, if you look at series like 24 and Boomtown, it is fair to say that the craft of storytelling on prime-time network television is in one of the most exciting and creative phases of the medium's 55-year history. While no series make the case as compellingly as those two, the evidence extends well beyond to include other dramas such as: CSI and Without a Trace (CBS), Smallville and Gilmore Girls (WB), Law & Order: Criminal Intent (NBC) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (UPN). Each pushes the boundaries of traditional television narratives in ways that enrich the medium and make for more viewing pleasure.

But 24, which last month won the Emmy for best dramatic writing, is the show of shows when it comes to rewriting the book on television writing. No series since Steven Bochco's ill-fated Cop Rock, which in 1990 tried to re-imagine the police drama as a Broadway musical, took on more iron-clad network conventions than this one, starring Kiefer Sutherland as a counter-terrorism agent trying to stop the assassination of a presidential candidate. The biggest dare 24 took in its debut season last year was telling its story in real time, with 24 one-hour episodes recounting the 24 hours of CIA agent Jack Bauer's battle to thwart the assassins while his own personal life spun out of control.

`24' a calculated risk

The main reason network drama had never been done in this highly serialized way is the belief among programmers that it would preclude viewers from dropping in and out of a series over the course of a year. It was feared that if viewers missed one week, they would simply stop watching altogether.

That did happen to some extent. The series ended with a weekly audience of about 8.7 million viewers. By way of comparison, CBS' The Guardian, a traditional drama about a lawyer who defends children, had 13.4 million viewers last week in the same 9 p.m. time period that 24 will occupy. Making the ratings somewhat more palatable to Fox is the fact that many of those 8.7 million viewers are in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic most attractive to advertisers.

Still, Fox deserves credit for bringing the series back in the same real-time format this year, even though it's costing the network money. Taking the longer view, Fox understands that the excitement generated by 24's brand of storytelling is one of the most effective weapons network television has in the war with HBO and the rest of the cable and satellite universe.

For those who did not stay with the series through all 24 weeks, Bauer did stop the Serb terrorists from assassinating Sen. David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), but at great personal cost, as his wife was killed in a season-ending shootout. Tuesday's opener, which will run without commercial breaks, picks up 16 months later, with Palmer in the White House and Bauer in a deep depression and on leave from the counter-terrorism unit.

So as not to spoil any of the pleasure of watching a series that so relies on startling explosions of plot, I'm going to be scarce with details. But the first two episodes offer almost as good a dramatic ride as last year's pilot.

The wounded hero

And it's not only about 24 being new and different. It's the wise recombination of archetypal material with narrative innovation. The Jack Bauer who greets us this season is a guy we have met often in American popular culture: the frontier gunslinger as psychically wounded hero who has laid down his weapon in anger, guilt and grief.

Wearing a scraggly beard, Sutherland's Bauer is a man all but broken by the violence that has now touched his life. The writing enhances this portrayal by daring to change speeds rather than running along at the standard steady, don't-turn-that-dial pace of network drama. This series, known for its adrenalin-fueled pacing, takes the risk of slowing to a crawl at the very start of the hour to capture Bauer's state of depression. And the shift in rhythm makes for that much more of a dramatic bang when Bauer straps the six-shooter back on in answer to his president's call to duty.

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