Saturday, April 14, 2007

Welcome Back, Jack (and Tony, and that Other Jack)

WARNING: This post is rife with spoilers from the most recent episodes of "The Sopranos," "24," and "Lost"

It seems the producers behind “24” decided they had had enough of this lackluster season, too. So they just ended it a few episodes early and started over in classic “24” fashion. Who needs traditional television broadcast schedules, anyway?
But I’m getting ahead of myself in what was a tremendous three nights of television. Before Jack Bauer went all Indiana Jones Monday night, 24 hours earlier Tony Soprano & Family returned to spectacular form in the Season 6 Part II premiere of “The Sopranos.” After floundering through last spring’s 12 episodes, I almost didn’t come back for this final 9-ep run. But if this first installment is any indication, the classic series is going out on top of its game.
Sunday night was like a throwback to Season 1 greatness, back when each episode felt like its own mini-play. Even after all these years (the show’s been on since 1999, though that seems hard to believe), it still manages to surprise. Even though the tension between Janice and Tony had been building for more than a half-hour, that haymaker by Bobby still shocked me. And the ensuing brutal fight between the two heavyweights was as visceral an action sequence as has ever been done on “The Sopranos”—one without a whacking at the end, anyway.
So I was still mulling over Bobby’s touching embrace of his 3-year-old daughter and pondering his fate when “24” came calling. I’d become so unenthused about Season 6, I didn’t even watch it live, choosing to literally clean out my closet instead. Figures—I postpone the best hour in the past three months.
Now THIS is what we’ve been waiting for! In one sweeping gesture, the writers wiped this season clean and started fresh (well, almost, but we’ll get to that in a minute). Jack, reduced to little more than cameo appearances for the past month, was back to his rompin’, stompin’, butt-kicking ways once again. Not only did he end up underneath a big truck a la Harrison Ford in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but he then engaged Fayed in one of “24’s” best-ever fight scenes and ended up killing him like Bruce Willis did to that German guy in “Die Hard.” “Say hello to your brother”: Classic. Agent Doyle (Ricky Schroder is looking increasingly comfortable in this skin, by the way) summed it up perfectly after surveying the Bauer-inflicted carnage that left every terrorist in the Greater Los Angeles Area dead and the nukes back in safe keeping: “Damn, Jack.” Indeed.
Keifer wasn’t the only one reveling in a rejuvenated script. D.B. Woodside gave the best performance in his “24” career as the back-from-the-near-dead President Wayne Palmer. Maybe Woodside actually received an adrenaline shot himself, because he finally ditched that wimpy whisper and started yelling and pounding desks like a real president. I’m sure it pisses off the liberal viewers out there, but I appreciate the fact that Wayne admitted there was a kernel of truth in Vice President Daniels’ excessive bomb-everyone-into-the-stone-ages philosophy (the U.S. was attacked by a nuclear bomb and is just supposed to sit around on its hands?). Both Palmer and Tom Lennox redeemed themselves somewhat in this episode, on both political and character levels.
So now Jack is off and running again, this time to save his beloved Audrey from the clutches of Evil Chinese Guy (his name escapes me at the moment, but he is EVIL). I’ve been telling anyone who will listen (and some who probably don’t want to) that if I ran “24,” I’d send Jack and Chloe to China next season and screw everybody else. Well, it seems I’ll get my wish (or at least part of it) a little earlier than expected. I’m hoping for a “24” twist—that it actually ends well for a change.
This ep certainly didn’t erase all the egregious errors in judgment made this season—Is President Logan dead? Where is Jack’s father? Why has Chloe been so marginalized? Why are we supposed to care about Milo and Nadia? And, while we’re at it, who broke into Nadia’s system a few hours back?—but it certainly starts the process of redemption for a series gone awry.
Then there’s our other beloved Jack, Jack Shepherd, resident physician of the “Lost” island. The good doctor had a reemergence of his own Wednesday night, returning to the beach encampment in what was without question one of the best episodes of the series.
Of course, Shepherd wasn’t much more than a bit player in an installment dedicated to the ever-intriguing Juliet, who along with Other-leader Ben has come to dominate this season in all the right ways. Elizabeth Mitchell continues her Emmy-caliber work as the inscrutable fertility researcher whose character grows by leaps and bounds seemingly with every scene. Mitchell’s range was stunning Wednesday night, giving us everything from heartbreak to comedy to thrilling moments of bravado (her verbal smackdown of Sayid and Sawyer is an all-time favorite “Lost” moment).
It’s no coincidence that Mitchell/Juliet has come along at the same time as this series’ resurgence after a stultifying second season; the character and the woman portraying her are the polar opposite of Michelle Rodriguez’s Ana-Lucia, who was mercifully killed off late last season.
With its multiple reveals (the Others are infertile in the worst kind of way! But they can cure cancer?!?), Wednesday night’s episode was perfect and compelling in every single scene, not a moment wasted. With nary a misstep this entire season (I defy those who say the six-episode run last fall wasn’t compelling), a series I had just about given up on by this time last year has roared back to life and reclaimed its place on the Mount Rushmore of TV in 2007.
It’s just too bad ratings for all three of these shows are down this year. People don’t know what they’re missing. If “Heroes” and “Smallville” keep hitting on all cylinders when they return this month, my head might actually explode.