24 and The Shield

24 is almost literally what I've been watching all day. My man-flu had worsened when I woke up this morning, so I resigned myself to lying around being ill. 24 was one of those shows I knew I was going to like, but never got around to watching. So I recently started Season One and today watched from something like 8am (in the show!) through til 7pm. It's an amazing piece of work, which still strikes me as fresh five years after its original broadcast, despite the potentially distracting and gimmicky use of split-screen. I'll avoid making the obvious observations (such as it not being in true real-time, thanks to ad breaks... whoops, there I go, making an observation), for fear of repeating five-year-old critiques.

While watching Jack Bauer endure the longest day of his life, I was (a) really admiring the writers' craft in constructing a 24-hour story arc and (b) thinking how much I'd love to do that. Not necessarily a 24-hour arc, you understand, but a series arc. I've already had a go at it with my returning drama series idea and really enjoyed the process. While soap-storylining is obviously a different matter, I'm looking forward to attending The Script Factory's Soap Storylining class in June, to see how much I like that whole scenario, and how much aptitude I have for it.

The structure of 24's Season One is interesting. Bear in mind that I haven't seen it all yet, and that a very minor spoiler is about to follow if you haven't seen the first 19-or-so episodes, but the story reaches a real climax at the midway point - almost to the extent that you wonder how the season can continue. You can see the committee of writers with their whiteboard and a graph showing how the Big Climax arrives around 12pm, then it's time to take it allllll the way back down and build it back up for the show's Big Big Climax. Well, I'm only assuming it's Big Big, but have every confidence in the show. Can't wait to plough through the following four seasons either...

Viewing with a writer's eye, it was a pleasure to analyse how 24's scenes were constructed. One thing it excels at is subverting expectation, which seems key to most gripping drama: never end a scene in the way the viewer imagines you will. 24 does this continually, whether it's a Big Twist like someone turning out to be a Bad Guy/Gal, or a Small Twist like a character reacting in an unexpecting fashion or coming up with an unforseen piece of information which sends the plot spinning off in a new direction.

All of which reminds me of one of my very favourite TV shows, The Shield. I'm not even especially a big fan of cop shows, but with The Shield it doesn't matter. It's all about great characters, rapid-fire pacing and plotting, twists to send you reeling, shocking turns of events and - perhaps most of all - moral confusion. People really aren't good or bad on The Shield: the main character Vic Mackey is anything but an angel, but we root for him, often despite ourselves. That's a really hard thing to pull off in any fiction. It's partly down to Michael Chiklis' remarkably charismatic performance, but credit also has to be lavished on the writers. And of course those are legion on The Shield: check out a great behind-the-scenes featurette on the Region 1 Season Three box-set, which shows the team working on each episode's seven different plotlines, labelled from A to G in order of importance, and weaving them together with the aid of whiteboards a-go-go.

If you haven't seen The Shield before, I urge you to find a way to watch just the first ever episode. If that doesn't hook you, I'll set fire to my legs (certain terms and conditions apply). It is, in fact, a textbook example of how to grab a viewer and feed them some dramatic crack. The Shield is like a virus: a friend persuaded me to watch the first episode, then I did the same to a couple of friends who became immediately addicted and were soon Jonesing for more of my DVD box-sets! Be warned, though: The Shield doesn't pull its punches. At several points, I literally exclaimed, "Oh. My. God!". In all honesty, I still haven't got over certain moments. And what more can you possibly ask from drama?

PS At one point in tonight's instalment of BBC1's The Apprentice, part of the soundtrack from John Carpenter's The Thing was used. Did anyone else hear this, or am I just high on Day Nurse?


Good Dog said...

...the story reaches a real climax at the midway point - almost to the extent that you wonder how the season can continue.

Of course 24 had a climax roughly at the midway point. As is the case with all new dramas, only 13 episodes were initially ordered by the network, with the remaining episodes given the go ahead once it showed good audience figures.

In case the show was cancelled, they had to have one plot thread wrapped up. With that uncertainty hanging over them, season one is the weakest of the lot.

The Shield is brilliant, yes, but not as good as The Wire.

David Bishop said...

Get season 3 of The Shield on Region 1 DVDs. There's a cracking behind the scenes documentary based around the writers' room breaking each of the seven or eight storylines in the season finale down into beats. But whatever you do, don't watch it until you've seen the whole season first.

Jason Arnopp said...

Good Dog - Ahhhhhh, it's all coming together like some kind of jigsaw puzzle. No WONDER the second half feels a little bolted-on! Thanks for that info. You'd think that if you're going to make a show like that, though, you might as well structure it with success in mind...

David - It was Season 3 I meant to recommend for that doc, then. Will edit the post. Aye thang yew!