More than 1,200 people had the odd experience of watching TV as a shared communal event on Monday, as Fox screened the two-part season finale of "24" at the Wadsworth Theater to what could only be described as a wildly appreciative audience.
It was clearly a sign of studio support for the show, which has rebounded creatively this year. That's no small accomplishment, since the series followed up its Emmy-winning season with what most agree (including yours truly) was a subpar Day Six, then saw its latest flight delayed by the writers strike.
To my mind, the key to the current season has been its villain-by-committee approach. As opposed to trying to sustain a single thread, as in the past, the show has essentially mined a threat for an extended arc, then handed off to a new bad guy that helps carry the story line for the next batch of episodes. The fact that those heavies have been cast with top-notch actors like Jon Voight and Will Patton certainly doesn't hurt, though in terms of inheriting a mess, the roller-coaster format has given the show's fictional president (played by Cherry Jones) a series of headaches that makes Barack Obama's situation look like a relative picnic.
As I stated in moderating the event, "24" also remains a political Rorschach test, seized upon by forces on both the left and right who are eager to frame real-life issues in pop-culture terms. More than anything, the "Does America support torture because it watches Jack Bauer?" nonsense is representative of how the cable networks covet casual news viewers and try to cloak their coverage in anything that they think will help lure them in.
Yet despite the current torture headlines, series co-creator Joel Surnow's outspoken conservatism and former Vice President Dick Cheney's unintended promotional tour for the program, "24" is at its core a thriller. As exec producer Howard Gordon stated, people have been watching James Bond for more than 40 years, with the spy having by now outlived the Cold War that birthed him by a couple of decades.
A small cloud hovers over "24" because of the latest off-screen fracas involving star Kiefer Sutherland, but the show is currently scheduled to begin production on its next season in a few weeks and be back on its traditional January-through-May schedule for 2010.
Perhaps by then, God willing, Cheney will be out of the news.