Last Week in TV Land

The first two hours of the new 24 got off to a rousing start, with former President David Palmer being gunned down in the first ten minutes. It seems he knew something about a terrorist attack on a meeting between current President Charles Logan -- a big jerk, by the way -- and the Russian head of state. Jack Bauer, presumed to be dead, got drawn back in because the terrorists tried to frame him for the former president's murder. They knew, somehow, that he was still in the land of the living. We can say this for 24: it manages to sustain an atmosphere of excitement and crisis that exceeds anything else on TV. It's hard not to get wrapped up in it. A good part of the effect is the personality Kieffer Sutherland has brought to the lead character. Jack Bauer has been a godsend for him. It's the most gripping role on TV right now, and Sutherland is mining it for all it's worth. The idea of setting an entire series in a single day -- suspect and weird at first -- has turned out to be a notion of genius.

The pace of events slowed considerably during the 3rd and 4th hours of 24. Jack was hidden in the airport while the terrorists held sixty hostages and began to kill them one by one. It seemed CTU could never get its forces in place to make an assault. But, finally, the assault was made and because of Jack's secret message, it was made successfully. Now it turns out, of course, that the villains really had something else in mind than what seemed to be the case. They had secreted a huge supply of nerve gas in the airport, and now they're about to release it. On 24 if it's not one thing, it's another. The Nixonian president gets ever more ego-maniacal, and his disloyal chief of staff ever more evil. There's plenty to look forward to next week, especially the means by which Jack will return to directing the effort to smash the plot. The twists and turns are a little frustrating -- and more than  little improbable. But, they do hold one's interest.

Commander In Chief is an entertaining series, but it is relying too strongly on tricked up plots. This week we had a crisis with North Korea which supposedly threatened a nuclear conflict. And what caused it? An American submarine had run into an undersea mountain slightly inside the twelve mile limit off the Korean coast. The North Koreans supposedly knew they were being spied on all the time by American vessels. But an attempt to save the lives of American sailors was going to cause them to launch a devastating war which would, clearly, result in their own destruction. If countries were really that crazy, we'd have a new war everyday, and the world would have long since been incinerated. But the program wanted to show the president handling a crisis so they concocted one that made no sense. You can get away with that kind of thing now and then, but if it becomes the stock in trade of the series, the audience will shortly get weary.

One can grow weary of TV shows that won't allow their characters to say what any sane person would say in order, artificially, to heighten and prolong a mystery. The worst offender now on TV is Lost, which is carrying the device to goofy levels. On this episode, the survivors of the airplane crash finally confronted the "others" on the island. And not a single question was asked about who the latter are, where they came from, what their motives are, how long they've been on the island, and what they intend to do. Kate was even captured by them for a while, but nobody asked her what happened while she was with them, what she observed, or where they live. The effect of this conversation ban puts the main characters into an almost catatonic state, and if it's pushed much farther, a good portion of the audience will cease to care about them. Bizarre conversational habits have been a part of Lost from the beginning, but now they're becoming so strange they're hilarious.

The HBO film Path To War, which depicts the process by which Lyndon Johnson was drawn deeper and deeper into the Vietnam conflict, is not a great movie by Hollywood standards. But it can be strangely affecting if you watch it in the right mood and under the influence of certain conditions.  There's a horror which comes from watching men make hideous decisions which rise out of cankered attitudes they're not really aware they have. In the late 1960s, tens of thousands of people died in Vietnam because a small group of men in Washington didn't have the intellectual integrity to dig into themselves and ask what, really, was driving them to do what they did. They were supposedly our best and brightest. But they were certainly not self-aware. The film makes that very clear. Michael Gambon presents us with a tortured Lyndon Johnson, who despite all his suffering didn't have what it took to force himself to ask what was actually going on.The sad truth is he was in the grip of a kind of inferiority complex, a doubt that his own education at a Texas state college put him on par with the Ivy League Ph.D.s who surrounded him. The fine historian T. Harry Williams said once that the main difference between Lyndon Johnson and Huey Long was that Lyndon was never sure whether he was smarter than Eastern intellectuals whereas Huey always knew that he was. It would have been better to have had a Huey-like man as president during the Vietnam era. . Now we have another small group of men in Washington directing a so-called world wide war on terror. Not a one of them begins to approach Lyndon Johnson in either integrity or intellect. And that ought to be cause for terror in our national heart.

The Sci-Fi thriller John Doe is based on an interesting premise. A man wakes up on an island in the Pacific, off the northwestern coast of the United States, not knowing how he got there. He shortly discovers he knows virtually everything there is to know -- except his own identity. Unfortunately, the production is not up to the underlying idea. What does the man do with his extraordinary knowledge? He wins a lot of money gambling and playing the stock market. He buys an elegant furnished apartment. And, then, he begins to help the police solve crimes. So, at the end of the first episode, we have a smart guy solving crimes. Wow! The series may play on the mystery of who John Doe is as it goes along. But it needs to play more artfully than it did in the opening chapter.

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