Only two more weeks of the SBHS remain before Heroes goes on an extended hiatus and the Jack Bauer Power Hour returns. I haven’t quite figured out how I’m handling that, or the fact that Global is now airing Heroes on Sunday nights, but for now let’s stick to our formula. Actually, speaking of formulas, pay close attention to Round Three of this week’s showdown.
Round One: Overall Quality
24 has officially found itself in the middle of its usual 2nd Quarter lull. Much similar to Tony’s return to the show in Season Four, the return to Logan is fine from a character standpoint but lacks a whole lot of drama for me. There was a great moment where he selected an American flag pin out of his box, and the character’s motivations were always compelling, but his turnaround from bumbling idiot to mastermind of last season’s plot wasn’t believable then and it isn’t believable now. I like the character, I like Gregory Itzin’s performance, and I liked the drama that was created through the character of Martha Logan as well.
However, his character shift midseason was just too unbelievable, and it’s hurting my ability to take his current situation seriously. It seems all too convenient, too insular; would a President in that position seriously get house arrest without any public knowledge of the actions at hand? How would that not leak out in this day and age except in some sort of heavily censored media? I know that Surnow’s a conservative, but I didn’t have him pegged for a Stalinist as well.
The rest of the episode centered on Morris’ alcoholism (Snore) and the plot to kill President Palmer. My biggest problem with this storyline is how isolated it all is. We’ve got a boiler room and a small conference room within the presidential bunker, having lost all of the scale of the show entirely. Jack and Logan were isolated in the ranch (Still a great set, but it’s limiting), and CTU seemed smaller than usual. It just felt like this was a complete budget saving episode outside of the explosion at the end, and even that had no emotional resonance. This week’s episode of Battlestar Galactica was similarly small scale in many ways, but it had real ramifications. This was all too pedestrian, and when the bomb went off at the end and Assad was killed and Palmer not…it was just blah.
Heroes, on the other hand, was most certainly the best hour of television that Tim Kring and company have produced thus far. Written by Bryan Fuller (‘Wonderfalls’), the episode was everything an hour of television should be. It was tense, suspenseful, explosive, detailed, nuanced, emotional, expository (In a good way) and even connected some unexpected dots such as the core roles of both George Takei and Christopher Eccelston to the main storyline. On top of all of this, it was most important the indepth characterization of the man we once knew as Horn-Rimmed Glasses.
We got more details regarding Mr. Bennet this week than in the rest of the series combined, and we still don’t even know his first name. We gained a better understanding of how he had entered into his job at “Primatech,” and his relationship to Claire and its development over the years. His motives suddenly make sense; he was going after Chandra Suresh because he represented a threat to his daughter’s secret. The idea that he’s just an employee makes perfect sense, and fits in with his character motivations, and his relationship with the Haitian makes a whole lot of sense.
However, even forgetting the amazingly constructed back story of Mr. Bennet, the show also did great things for the character of Matt Parkman. The character has been floundering, but it has now found itself both a source of income and a purpose. Parkman is the perfect candidate for the buddy program, and I think that his dynamic with Bennet could bring his storyline some purpose and give us a chance to enter new and better territory on a regular basis. Because, if they can emulate the success of this episode, they’re on the right path.
I’ll say it right now: this episode will be the one that gives them a chance at being nominated for an Emmy. NBC is going to have a tough choice, as they have Heroes as the buzzworthy drama and Friday Night Lights as the critically acclaimed one. Between last weekend FNL and this week’s Heroes, NBC is in a fine awards position. This episode should also, if there is justice in Emmy nominations, find itself a writing one as well; Bryan Fuller must be commended for his amazing work.
Round Two: Ratings
First off, for those interested, the Black Donnellys premiere drew worse than the Studio 60 premiere did back in the fall, so…ouch. However, on the Heroes/24 side of things…
NBC’s “Heroes,” 8.4/13, took second for the hour, ahead of “24,” 7.9/12,
It’s the usual victory for Heroes, likely in 18-49 as well although more detailed numbers are not available and I’m tired of waiting. We’ll see how this survives after Heroes’ hiatus.
Round Three: Deviations of Formula
It’s something that 24 has struggled with, although with perhaps better success than we all predicted after the show’s first season. Once you pick a formula (See: Jack Bauer saving the world, one terrorist at a time) and run with it, it becomes more and more difficult to deviate from that construct. 24 has choreographed itself so consistently over the years that it’s sometimes a bit of a drag to watch week by week.
This week was an example of this. Jack spent the hour changing clothes at Logan’s estate for the next stage of his journey, his next setpiece if you will. President Palmer faced a threat to his presidency, which always has to occur at a stage like this. The formula dictates that there’s a shakeup at this point, and that there’s a shift signaled by the arrival of Logan. A similar shift occurred in season four when Tony returned, and the story moved in his direction as opposed to the storyline abandoned at that nameless facility Jack had infiltrated.
While last season was perhaps the show’s greatest move away from this formula yet, with the very personal and character based story of the Logans as its centre, this season is right back into the transition episodes and the same rotating pivotal character structure. This isn’t a bad thing, don’t get me wrong, but it makes things really predictable. I could have downright written this episode myself, to be honest with you; there was nothing that stood out, nothing that really resonated, no moment that made me look past the formula.
What made it perhaps worse is that I had watched last night’s episode of Heroes before 24, and therefore was fully behind moving away from formula. For those who enjoyed last night’s episode of Heroes, let’s remain aware of the fact that it will likely never be this good again. We still have to deal with the character of Niki on a regular basis, and the nature of the ensemble cast means that things will always be spread too thin. One of the reason Lost’s back stories work is that they allow for characterization (Note: My Z key is finicky, so why do I keep using words with the letter in them?) that is normally impossible in an ensemble drama. Too many of these characters are two-dimensional, lacking the kind of history that Claire and her father have within this universe.
Which is why I hope that Heroes has learned its lesson. While large ensemble episodes like next week’s have their role, let’s remember that any good drama is dependent on strong characters to relate to audiences. They need to be willing to deviate from their formula with episodes like this on a regular basis. The formula of 24 is often so rigid, so predictable, that it can drag down even some of the best acting on TV from Kiefer Sutherland. Heroes can’t get itself into that pattern. I often worry that they “To Be Continued” banner could lead to an attempt to build a cliffhanger into every episode, but this week ignored that entirely and had a fairly resolute ending anyways. Heroes needs to be careful not to fall into the same trap as 24, and to be willing to extend itself like this more often.
Now, all of that being said, let’s end the suspense and get to this week’s winner…
It’s Heroes? Shocking! Let’s face it, Heroes came to the table with one of the best hours of television all season, and 24 came with an episode that seemed pedestrian in comparison. All hope is not lost for 24, and we’ll have to see how it handles a lack of Heroes competition starting two weeks from now.