Tuesday, May 22, 2007

‘A Tale of Two Finales,’ or How, at the Last Minute, Jack Bauer Reared Up and Beat the Crap Out of Those Wimps from ‘Heroes’

***Insert Your Own Spoiler Warning Here***

Since the sixth season of “24” premiered in January opposite NBC’s freshman breakout hit “Heroes,” the two shows have been duking it out for fans and ratings the rest of the season. Why the respective networks would pit two shows against one another that so obviously draw from a similar audience pool I don’t understand, but “24” certainly lost the overall war—both in critical acclaim and popularity.
But at least Jack Bauer went out swinging.
As chronicled here and basically every other entertainment-related web site in the world, Day 6 of “24”—for the most part—sucked. “Heroes,” on the other hand, slowly unveiled what promised to be an excellent storyline, including a series of captivating episodes in January and February, just as “24” was starting to slide. It left off with a climactic confrontation between the main good-guy, Peter Petrelli, and main bad-guy, Sylar, with the latter holding the former in a literally head-splitting vice grip of death. “Heroes” had been perfectly paced up until this point, answering questions with enough frequency to stem frustration while at the same time investing valuable screen time in establishing and developing its wide array of characters.
Unfortunately, “Heroes” creator Tim Kring, a veteran of episodic television (most notably “Crossing Jordan”), apparently took on way more than he could handle with the monster hit he so painstakingly created. “Heroes” took a seven-week break in preparation for its stretch run that culminated in Monday night’s finale, “How to Stop an Exploding Man,” and the time away was not kind. Upon returning five weeks ago, it almost didn’t feel like the same show. Kring had established the ubiquitous “Save the cheerleader, save the world” tagline, but when it came to actually saving the world, he couldn’t quite figure out how to do it.
Instead, we were left with one big freight train of a plot barreling nearly out of control toward a conclusion, as “Heroes” rushed its way to a chunky, choppy, unwieldy final hour in which all its characters seemed to be slammed together by the flimsiest of threads—even for a comic-book style story. Almost every major character on the show, in fact, was reduced to little more than facilitating the plot, and the much-hyped battle between Peter and Sylar ended up being little more than a bar-fight tussle.
In one rather innovative touch, the final couple minutes of Monday’s episode actually began “Volume Two.” However, by the time Hiro found himself in 17th-century Japan, I was having trouble coming up with a reason to keep watching this show next season.

The real action Monday night, it turns out, was over on “24,” which rebounded rather nicely in its last two hours of Day 6.
A few weeks back, “24” producer/writer Howard Gordon—in a refreshing admission of guilt—acknowledged complaints about this season are legitimate, and promised a “reinvention” for next year. That certainly was music to most fans’ ears, but I was still concerned: The myriad strained plotlines of Day 6 had so fouled up the show, I hoped the writers would completely cut the cord on this season. I didn’t want a traditional cliffhanger, because I feared any significant loose ends needing to be dealt with in Day 7 would act like a cancer that would eat its way through the show and, ultimately, kill it prematurely.
Thankfully, I got my wish (basically).
Looking back, I still don’t know exactly how they did it in just two hours, but the “24” production team managed to kill Jack’s dad, capture Jack’s former captor/torturer, recover a nuclear component, and curtail World War III. Oh, and give Chloe a baby (big mistake). And it was pretty compelling—if there’s one thing the team never forgot this season, it was how to stage exciting action sequences.
On top of that, they also made room for Kiefer Sutherland to deliver one of his best scenes in the history of the series. In the final act of hour 24, Jack slipped into the home of former Secretary of Defense James Heller (played by one of “24’s” all-time greats, William Devane) in search of Heller’s daughter, Audrey, who Jack loves “with all his heart.” Finally, Jack was able to unleash a portion of the pent-up rage he’s been carrying for years spent sacrificing for a government who has taken nearly every opportunity to throw its loyal special agent to the wolves. Yet, in true “24” excellence, the show didn’t allow Jack complete immunity. Heller came right back at Jack, correctly asserting that Agent Bauer will never be able fully “retire,” and thus Audrey will never really be out of harm’s way. Jack, to his credit, really and truly heard Heller’s plea/command, and said his final farewell to his near-comatose beloved.
That sound you heard was the last cord splitting.
We left Jack standing out on Heller’s seaside balcony, presumably pondering what in the world he’s going to do now. The writers are probably wondering the same thing, but at least they set up a relatively blank canvas for next season (the only holdover I’d like to see is the fabulous Peter MacNicol as Tom Lennox, who after a sluggish start became the go-to guy of the day’s second half).
Monday’s “24” finale certainly wasn’t good enough to wash away the stigma of Day 6. Only a supreme effort next year will return this series anywhere close to its Emmy-winning form, but one subpar season is acceptable in the long run, providing the show recovers. I’m certainly willing to give this group the benefit of the doubt. They’ve earned it.
Tim Kring’s heroes, on the other hand, have not.

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