24: The Bookend Principle :24

In anticipation of 24: Legacy (which just released its first official trailer), I have decided to write about the legacy of 24. It's never too late to write about a good show, right?

Whether you're a hardcore television viewer like myself; a casual viewer, like most adults; or a light viewer — how Nielsen classifies individuals who appear to only watch a handful of shows and nothing else (you know who you are coughGameofThronescough) — chances are that at some point in each of your lives, you have seen a full episode of a 60-minute primetime drama.

Now pick a show, any show. OK — not any show, but any hourlong primetime drama. Think about an episode you've seen, regardless of whether you're a regular viewer. (Maybe you happened upon a single episode of Motive when you vacationed on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.) Are you thinking about it? Did the end of the episode resolve the conflicts that were created at the beginning of the episode? If it was a procedural show (i.e. case of the week, no plot carryover), then chances are, it did.

And this is one of the main reasons why procedural shows have become so popular to casual viewers (in fact, procedural shows receive the highest ratings among primetime dramas, by a considerable amount). An individual such as yourself or your mom can watch an episode of NCIS (the most popular procedural of the decade), having no former knowledge of any aspect of the show, and the episode will still make sense. This is because everything introduced in the beginning of the episode will be resolved by the end, thus allowing you or your mom to enjoy that lone episode of Motive. That episode, like every episode of a procedural, is a self-contained ecosystem.

At this point, about half of you are probably thinking, "But I picked a serialized show…" Don't worry, I haven't forgotten about you.

Serialized shows, where plot carries from week to week, traditionally work differently than their procedural counterparts. An episode may begin without introducing any conflict, as that conflict could have been previously introduced in an earlier episode. Furthermore, the episode may or may not resolve that conflict, potentially without introducing any new ones. So then, how is that enjoyable? Well to the casual viewer, it's not. But if you watch the series from the beginning to end, more times than not, serialized shows (such as the Netflix hit Stranger Things) are far more enjoyable than procedurals. Like the difference between a book and a collection of short stories.

Which brings me to 24. For those of you unfamiliar with 24, it started in 2001 on FOX ended in 2010 after its eighth season (a tremendous number of seasons for a serialized show), receiving high ratings for each season — except the last one, obviously. Within the world of 24, a complete season consists of 24 hours of in the life of Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), where each episode accounts for one of those 24 hours.

24: The Bookend Principle

On 24, an episode always starts by introducing a potentially catastrophic crisis. At the end of the episode, that crisis would have to be prevented — because if it wasn't, then the United States would go to hell, there would be a nuclear war, an ensuing Armageddon (no zombies though), and the world would end. Now, what makes 24 serialized is that each of the potentially devastating threats that arise in every episode are all stages of a larger (and often ingenious) multi-phase plan enacted by the same, series-long antagonist. Often a terrorist organization or an individual hell-bent on destroying the country sits back and masterminds events while its goons/thugs/hitmen/corrupt-agents/etc. assemble the various components needed to complete the plan. It takes time to sink a country, and Rome wasn't built or destroyed in a day.

And speaking of days, to this day, there has not been another show like it.

This should not be! While it's true that the self-contained ecosystem 24 created for itself was heavily aided by the premise of the show as well as the magnitude of the threats, the concept of a self-contained ecosystem should by no means be limited to this scenario. The vast majority of serialized shows would heavily benefit from introducing a conflict in every episode, and then resolving it, thereby making each episode of the series good and exciting rather than having hit-or-miss episodes or lulls where nothing happens. How often have you seen half of an entire episode dedicated to the funeral proceedings for a character who died in a previous episode? Enough of that. Don't give the characters an entire episode to mourn, because the threat hasn't ended! Villains don't take days off! Crash that funeral. Hold it hostage! There is never any excuse for an episode of a serialized show to have nothing happen.

Off the top of my head, a relevant example would be a show like Mr. Robot, which has such unique elements and mind-blowing twists, but suffers greatly from these long-winded segments in which no new conflict is created and no existing conflict is resolved. Often, you can see an entire episode where virtually nothing happens until the last 30 seconds. There are literally dozens of shows like this, although most are not as sleepy and slow-paced as Mr. Robot. (Don't agree? Sound off in the comments.)

Those of you who picked a show that was serialized: think now about the format of that show, how an episode would start, and how it would end. Do you think it would benefit from having a self-contained ecosystem? What show did you pick? Breaking Bad suffered from exactly the same thing as Mr. Robot. There was an entire episode about Jesse swatting a fly. 12 Monkeys? Sometimes all they do is create new conflicts and new questions and make us wait not one, but three episodes before we even get an answer to the first question. This literally could apply to any show, no matter how good it is. Try it. Think of any show, and then imagine that something of significance actually happened in every episode that didn't leave you wanting to pull your hair out waiting for next week to come.

24: Legacy premieres in 2017, along with the return of Prison Break, a show that followed the self-contained ecosystem format, but to a lesser degree. It's no wonder why they are bringing these shows back. They worked, and nothing else has caught on.


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