My week of eminent loss as a television scholar continued last night with the series finales of Law & Order and 24. Both shows redefined narrative television and are cultural landmarks. I was not nearly as attached to these series as I am to so many others, but I did follow them pretty closely at different moments throughout their runs.
Law & Order has been on the air since I was in grade school. That’s INSANE in today’s contemporary television marketplace. In terms of storytelling (technically, it’s the second longest running scripted primetime American television drama next to Gunsmoke), Law & Order brought a new element to the already well-established crime serial – the “law” part. Several shows explored the police end of the chase and capture of criminals, and a few had dabbled with the courtroom, but none had successfully paired the two together. Series creator Dick Wolf wanted something that depicted the justice process optimistically, and thus, more often than not, the criminals captured at the beginning of episodes were successfully prosecuted at the end. For that reason, it’s never been lauded as a realistic representation of the justice system, but it obviously served an important cultural function – fulfilling the needs of enough viewers to keep it running this long.
My take is that it’s a combination of the feel-good message of justice with the episodic nature of the show. As technology permeated the 90s, we started to have more outlets vying for our attention, and following complicated narratives series (say, like Lost) takes quite a bit of emotional and time investment. I guess you could say Law & Order is sort of like the after dinner mint of television – if you’ve ever watched the Law & Order marathons on TNT, you can probably understand the correlation as after several hours of that, it’s the equivalent of a candy high that makes your stomach sick and keeps you from sleeping.
24 holds a soft spot in my heart – it’s a series I followed fairly closely until the sixth season, but never in real time. I much preferred to view it all at once when the DVDs came out. Why? Well, it’s a bit of a patience thing, a bit of a time thing and a bit of a recording thing. I don’t have a lot of patience for extended periods of suspense because it produces too much anxiety; during the semester, my viewing time is almost always limited to shows I’m currently writing about; and recording technology didn’t used to be what it is today.
Point being, 24 appeared at a moment in our cultural history where we were still reeling over the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and Jack Bauer filled a void where viewers felt helpless – who was working against these terrorist agents? And why did it seem like they weren’t doing their jobs? 24 offered answers, with Jack’s character almost universally knowing the right approach to terrorist threats, yet demonstrating his struggles with government bureaucracy, cover-ups, and ill-advised foreign diplomacy. In a lot of ways, the series functioned similarly to Law & Order in that sense, giving us solace that justice would prevail. The series also changed the way we think about crime serials by filming in “real time,” using the ticking clock to count down the moments of a day where a terrorist attack was imminent. In that way, it also helped pull in viewers as the reality television craze boomed in the early part of the decade.
24 made some mistakes, but it also did some things well. Unfortunately, I think the duration of the series, coupled with continually killing off key characters hurt its overall narrative form. Jack started the series by working *slightly* outside the confines of established protocols, and evolved to full-on vigilante. Personally, I found the on and off again moments of rebellion more compelling than the know-it-all Jack Bauer. Ending the series with the president realizing that Jack Bauer is right was kind of key to exposing the outrageousness of how the plots have progressed since its inception. But I also did like the signing off part, though I would have much preferred Tony or Michelle to still be around for it than Chloe.
So farewell to both series. I wouldn’t be surprised to see either resurface in another form - Law & Order still has its spin offs, Jack Bauer is probably headed to the big screen. Both will continue to influence our understanding of pop culture in the next decade.