On Writing – Why I Dislike 24 (TV Series)

I trust you have heard about the now defunct TV series 24 starring Kiefer Sutherland. I also trust you have a notion of the popularity of the series and the prices it won.
Well, I don’t like it. At all.
Now that the cat’s out of the bag, please refrain from posting hateful comments. Read the whole post before you form an opinion and know that I have the utmost respect for the innovative structure of the show and the risk it involved. I’m also very aware of the reality of writing for something a whole lot of non-writer folks have a say on. 😉

24 Season 8 Cast

Promotional image for the 8th season of 24 (20th Century Fox)

I recently watched the first episode of 24 after wanting to do it for quite some time due to the series reputation. I was underwhelmed. I pushed ahead and watched three additional episodes. Still no spark.
Why? I don’t care.
The first episode of the series completely failed to involve me emotionally in the story. I don’t care about any of the characters and thus am not interested in the plot. That teaches me something about the importance of that first chapter of any book and the relationship it builds between the reader and the protagonist.

 Here are, in my opinion, the problems with 24‘s first episode (and the three that follows).

In order to care, readers/viewers need some quality time with the characters.
I fully understand the need for multiple storylines in the narrative structure of that show. However, the constant jumping from one storyline to another and the slew of characters don’t allow me to get to know any of them. They are all strangers to me so I don’t care what’s happening to them.
Don’t get me wrong, I know a lot of facts about them as they are squeezed into the short screen time. But facts don’t allow me to know characters on an emotional level. Only time can do that.

Actions need perceivable motivations. 
Mysteries require keeping things from the reader in order to set up tension. Unfortunately, I find that I know so little about the characters and their situation that a good portion of their actions feel arbitrary.
Of course, all characters’ actions are decided by a writer then put on paper. But readers don’t want to “feel” the writer’s presence; readers need to relate and/or understand the characters’ motivations.
But you just said you know a bunch of facts about the characters? Aren’t you contradicting yourself?
Yes and no. See, there is a cleavage between the focus of the facts given to me and the focus of the action happening. In the first episode, Jack Bauer’s complicated family situation (bulk of his facts) have nothing to do with his job (bulk of his actions). Thus, the information I have on him don’t allow me to understand him. It’s useful later on but daunting and meaningless when it is introduced.

Red herrings need to be carefully used.
In line with the aforementioned overuse of mystery, planting too many false leads in an investigation makes it obvious the writer is playing with the reader. Worst, in the case of 24, it made me feel like the writers weren’t sure where their story was going.
Red herrings are supposed to involve the reader by piquing his curiosity and inviting him to try to figure out the solution before the hero. Too many red herrings send the message that its useless to try.
Agreed, it’s usually useless to try to figure out how a story is going to unfold. But readers don’t want to know that.

Beware the suspense tools.
Creepy music, “oh they came so close” moments and other techniques to create suspense should come out only on very special occasions. If the story is truly suspenseful in essence, you just don’t need those.
 In the first episode (if I’m not mistaken), Teri Bauer misses the car in which her daughter is by a curb. Fine. An episode or two later, said car rolls right past Teri Bauer’s vehicle. Sorry guys but I yelled “Gimmick!”

So basically, in my opinion, the first episode of 24 is action for the sake of action, suspense without substance, confusion used as a hook. It’s not storytelling. It’s fireworks.
That first episode failed to drive me in. I took a break after the fourth episode and I don’t know if/when I’ll give the series another try. And if I do, I might watch it from the beginning again to see if a second viewing changes my opinion of the pilot.
I now have a first-hand experience that enforces why I don’t want a weak first chapter for my book. I also learned a thing or two about storytelling (most of them falling under the “less is more” motto).

But the most important lesson 24 taught me is that, sometimes, all people want is fireworks.

About Aheïla

Somewhere in Quebec City, Aheïla works as a Game Design Director by day and writes by night. Known for her blue hair, unyielding dynamism and tasty cooking (quails, anyone?), she’s convinced “prose is the new crack”. She satisfies her addiction daily on The Writeaholic’s Blog and weekly on Games' Bustles View all posts by Aheïla

6 responses to “On Writing – Why I Dislike 24 (TV Series)

  • Lectin Gaezat

    In order to care, readers/viewers need some quality time with the characters.
    Now that is a pet peeve of mine!

    I hate it when a book opens with a person being killed, or the character crying over something. I have absolutely no empathetic connection to the characters, and I have no idea whether I should laugh or cry about it. Most of the time I start laughing because the author just has to start with this…. thingie (can’t use the word gimmick, gimmick implies at least some sophistication )

    I personally start with my characters in non-dangerous situations, interacting with others on a leveled basis so that they all can gain kinship with the reader. It’s the way it should go D:

    • Aheïla

      I agree and disagree with you at the same time.

      We need to build the relationship with the character, yes. However, the book needs to start with a form of tension (note that I’m voluntarily not saying it has to start with “action”). That tension is what hooks the reader and motivates him/her to keep reading.
      The balance between the two is a bit tricky to find.

      I do agree that too big a tension at the beginning (like someone dying) brings the “Why do I care?” question to my mind.

  • Lectin Gaezat

    Tension could always be in the form of building a relationship with other characters. Or possibly showing a character conflict that just doesn’t end up in tears or death. Tears and death cards played too early usually give me a bad taste, unless the death is clearly someone that doesn’t matter to the person or is intrinsically linked to the story plot (ie. detective novels)

    Tension is ovbiously needed. But shamelessly plundering my soul for some (if any) sympathy for a character I have absolutely no bond with… is kind of tiring. What I’d say is that a good book should focus on developing the vested interest in the reader, which is why I love your Unforseen Dives. There definitely is tension, make no doubt about it, but neither is it one that is of tear-jerking angst or senseless-death. That should always come later (like the death of Cassidy’s mom)

    Tension and plot gimmicks (ie. action) are two separate things

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