If lame movies merit DVD-commentary tracks, why not lame — um, sorry, brilliant — newspaper stories? Hence, we have dragged in our auteur to explain himself — that is, his creative process as he slapped together, er, lovingly crafted today’s thrilling episode of “24,” in which Jack Bauer saves the Emmys.
(The story begins. Our auteur sits in austere silence.)
As celebrities prance and preen down the red carpet tonight, a dark, threatening presence surrounds the 58th annual Emmy Awards ceremony at the Shrine Auditorium. This year, a number of acclaimed actors were snubbed due to a new nomination process, and there are rumors nasty rumors that something unpleasant might happen tonight.
No one takes the threat more seriously than Jack Bauer, the no-holds-barred hero of “24,” a show that has picked up 12 nominations, the most of anyone. Now a frightening scenario has been leaked to us about tonight’s ceremony (we have our sources). But we feel confident all will turn out well because Jack who would cut his mother’s eye out if he thought she was a traitor is on the case.
The Auteur: Um. Well, I didn’t do this part. My introduction was a little more deadpan, like it was an actual newspaper story, sort of, and that made everything that came after that much weirder.
I was on the phone with Marty at the network (everyone in the business when you’re explaining how something odd happened, they’re named Marty), and he told me, “Omigod, everyone here loves your vision for this piece. We’ve changed everything. We’ve taken your bold vision in an even bolder new direction.”
This bolder new direction is OK, though it says “24″ received 12 nominations, “the most of anyone,” which isn’t true — it did receive the most of any ongoing series (the miniseries “Into the West” got more). And suggesting Jack “would cut out his mother’s eye if he thought she was a traitor” seems another factual error, given how defiantly he defended Audrey when she was floated as CTU’s mole du jour for an episode, and she’s just annoying Audrey, who everyone in the audience wanted to see tortured. So Jack’d probably not put his mom’s eye out, but he might shoot her in the thigh.
(The story continues.)
The following takes place between 5 and 8 p.m.
5:00:01: Jack Bauer’s black SUV brakes sharply before the Shrine.
He snaps open his cell phone: “Chloe, set up a perimeter. No one comes in or out. And download the entire audience seating assignment onto my PDA.”
“I’m on it, Jack,” Chloe pouts petulantly.
Bauer, knocking out a security guard and sneaking through a side door even though he’s been granted full security clearance, peruses the instantly downloaded list of 6,300 names; immediately, his face is seized with concern. “Chloe!” he barks into his cell phone. “Hugh Laurie is here!”
“So? He’s really good in ‘House,’ ” Chloe counters crankily.
“Perhaps but he wasn’t nominated this year!”
Jack’s face grows dark; behind him, an ominous figure shadows Bauer.
The Auteur: See how artfully I’ve alluded to the big plot twist that comes at the end of the story? “Shadows?” Utter brilliance. See, I thought this thing out, as opposed to the people who actually make “24,” who just up and decided one day to make the President of the United States in league with terrorists.
5:18:30: As host Conan O’Brien concludes his opening monologue, which shows remarkable restraint in featuring only three John Mark Karr jokes and two Charlie Sheen gags, Bauer creeps up behind Laurie’s assigned seat. He leaps over three rows, grabs the man in a headlock and pummels him senseless. He turns the man’s bloodied face toward him.
“This isn’t Laurie!” Bauer bleats.
“It’s a seat filler, moron,” Mariska Hargitay stammers, taken aback. “I saw him go backstage.”
“Backstage?” Bauer cries, grabbing his cell phone. “Chloe! Set up a perimeter around the green room!”
The Auteur: Not 20 minutes in, and Jack’s already set up two perimeters and beaten up two guys. Genius.
5:27:25: Bauer, gun drawn, lurks backstage as Alan Alda leaves the podium after accepting the Emmy for outstanding supporting actor in a drama. Bauer gratuitously cold-cocks Alda with his gun butt, does a tuck-and-rollup to the green room, then lurches into the green room, where Laurie sips a cup of tea. Jack shoots him in the thigh, grabs him by his tux lapels.
“What are you doing here?” he demands.
“Dude, dial it back; take a Zoloft,” Denis Leary, also lounging in the green room, drawls sardonically. “He’s a presenter.”
Bauer snaps open his cell phone. “Chloe, we’ve been sent on a wild-goose chase. Get me the coordinates for best-comedy-actress snubs Lauren Graham, Marcia Cross and Mary-Louise Parker. They have the means, and they have the motive well, at least they have the motive. They must be behind this.” He sheepishly turns to Laurie: “Uh, sorry about that.”
“No worries,” Laurie says. “I have to limp on my show; now, I won’t have to act.”
“Jack Graham and Cross are both in Temecula,” Chloe responds irritably. “Parker well, her character sells pot. Do you really expect her to have the gumption to protest when she’s already won an Emmy and two Golden Globes?”
The Auteur: So much is going on here — the ongoing mystery, faux Emmy verisimilitude, wry commentary on the year’s Emmy controversy, blurring the lines between TV and reality, snarky gossip and a truly tortured attempt to unify these disparate entities. But, if you watch the deleted scenes elsewhere on this DVD, you’ll see that even more took place in this scene. I wrote, and we shot, a beautiful scene in which Jack’s sometime-sidekick Curtis made a brief appearance. He was found unconscious in the green room, delivered a line of exposition that I later decided was unnecessary, got to shoot someone and then was consigned to the same off-camera oblivion that Curtis himself found himself for most of the season. It was a poignant, poetic meditation on race, class and the eternal struggle of the contract player — and it stopped the story dead in its tracks. So out it came. This was my decision — the network begged me to keep Curtis in, given that they’d already paid him and everything, but I, clinging to my artistic vision, refused.
Oh, and have you picked up on the oh-so-subtle word choices? Mariska Hargitay — inherently funny. Temecula — absolutely inherently funny. This is comic gold, people.
5:35:59: Bending the rules of physics, Jack speeds up to a Temecula address and, gun drawn, kicks down the door and begins shooting.
“What are you doing?” Graham demands, emerging from the kitchen with a bag of microwave popcorn.
“I’ll ask the questions here,” Bauer barks. “What do you know about the plot to attack the Emmys?”
“No one can hurt the Emmys any more than the voting body already has,” Graham retorts.
“Don’t get smart with me,” Bauer says, grabbing her roughly.
“Why’d you establish such a remote base of operations?”
“These people you just killed were my only friends with an East Coast feed of the Emmys, you jerk,” she replies, then brightens when glancing at the TV. “Oh, look: ‘The Colbert Report’ won for best writing for a variety series!”
“Chloe, we’ve been set up!” Jack yelps into his cell phone. He looks darkly at his image in a two-way mirror; on the other side, a shadowy figure monitors his movements.
The Auteur: OK, OK, I know — I said Marcia Cross was with Lauren Graham in Temecula, and she’s nowhere to be seen in this scene. Well, we shot the previous scene when talks were ongoing with Cross but things looked to be a pretty sure bet. And then she pulled out. But Graham, and I’m sure you’ll agree with me, carries this scene beautifully; we didn’t need Cross after all. The microwave popcorn bag was her idea, and it was a brilliant touch, just the subtle bit of business that humanizes her character — or, rather, her, since she’s playing herself. Also, I think she was just hungry when we shot this.
Also, we include a little throwaway line so that no one forgets that this is a story about the Emmys, which was the whole point, but, being the Emmys, they are sort of easy to forget about, even when you’re writing specifically about them. And: the second oblique hint as to the upcoming radical plot twist: a two-way mirror. So as utterly shocking and unpredictable as the big plot twist is, at least you won’t be able to say we didn’t warn you.
6:22:15: As lucky as Jack was with traffic on his drive to Temecula, he’s equally unlucky on the way back to the Shrine: The on-ramp from Interstate 15 to the 10 is the site of a major pileup. Nothing is moving as rescue vehicles arrive. Jack looks at his watch. His face darkens. He flips opens his phone and calls for a chopper to evacuate him.
6:40:30: Jack climbs onto a rope ladder dangled from the copter, which lifts him high above the accident.
6:46:47: Back at the Shrine, Ellen Burstyn’s acceptance speech for outstanding supporting actress in a TV movie is longer than her bravura 15-second turn in “Mrs. Harris.”
6:52:00: As he swings through the air above L.A., Jack wonders if he should have charged his cell phone.
The Auteur: OK, again, the network and I had some creative differences here, and apparently the network won. I had Jack stuck in traffic for a half-hour, and, if you consult the timeline, that’s in keeping with the stuck-in-traffic scenario. (Had Jack really summoned a helicopter, he’d been back at the Shrine in three minues.) So when I presented my vision for this scene to the network, Marty was ecstatic. “Omigod,” Marty told me; he said, “you’ve radicalized the whole concept behind 24! You’ve taken it through the looking-glass! Sitting with Jack in traffic for a half-hour with only a brief cutaway to Ellen Burstyn is cutting-edge, transformative television.”
I had to agree.
“We can’t do it.” Before I could protest, Marty said, “Look. I know, everyone says that networks are afraid of innovation. But it’s not that. It’s just that we’ve already paid for the helicopter.”
6:57:22: Just as Jack bursts back into the Shrine, an explosion erupts onstage during a musical tribute to ’80s-sitcom hairstyles. William Shatner, Meredith Baxter and host O’Brien perish in the blast.
Jack flips open his cell phone: “Chloe, contact the director; tell him the dead-celebrity montage needs to be updated.” His face darkens.
The Auteur: So this didn’t work out as well as I had hoped. I mean, the explosion is truly spectacular; don’t get me wrong. But while “Meredith Baxter Birney” sounds funny, “Meredith Baxter” just doesn’t, and much to my chagrin someone actually fact-checked this story and figured out that the “Birney” comes from two husbands back. Had the network confronted me about this, I would’ve pointed out that she was, in fact, “Meredith Baxter Birney” (see? say it to yourself three times fast! Comic genius!) back when she had a regrettable hairstyle in an ’80s sitcom. As for Shatner — well, enough said, and he actually sings badly, as well. He was a real trooper on this shoot, but then, if you’ve seen him lately on VH1 or TV Land or Comedy Central or the History Channel or Discovery or wherever he’s knocking one off, you know he’ll pretty much do anything.
7:03:16: As order is restored, Jack orders Jane Kaczmarek to take over as emcee. Her extemporaneous Mel Gibson one-liners get huge laughs; her Hurricane Katrina jokes are considered a bit dated.
7:18:18: Jack, realizing he’s overlooking a crucial clue, tries to call Chloe, but his cell-phone battery is dead. “Damn!” he says, “I knew I should’ve recharged this thing at some point in the past five years!” A dark expression clouds his face; he sets off in search of a pay phone.
7:41:05: Bauer finally locates a pay phone outside the nearby car dealership shrouded by a giant Felix the Cat statue and calls Chloe.
The Auteur: Verisimilitude, and ironic juxtaposition: There really is a giant Felix the Cat statue atop a car dealership near the Shrine Auditorium. We had to install the pay phone, however.
“What Emmys have yet to be distributed?” he demands. As she recalcitrantly recites the list, Jack’s eyes widen; he abruptly stops her. “Chloe,” he gravely intones, “there’s a mole inside CTU!” He drops the phone and runs, gun drawn, back to the Shrine, shooting a number of journalists inside the press tent along the way, just in case.
7:46:47: Just as Kaczmarek is about to introduce the presenter for outstanding actor in a drama series, Bauer tackles her and grabs the envelope. “You!” he shouts, training his gun on a figure lurking in the shadows, sporting a cummerbund over a hoodie sweater. “Don’t move!”
The figure skulks onto the stage; Jack tackles him, wrestling the hood from his head, revealing … Kiefer Sutherland.
“You don’t understand!” Sutherland bellows. “I’ve been nominated five years in a row and have nothing to show for it! I knew I wouldn’t win if Hugh Laurie was nominated!
“So I called Chloe, impersonating you, and asked her to download the Emmy mainframe into my PDA,” the anguished Sutherland continues.
“All my acting on that show is shouting into cell phones, shooting people in the thigh and responding to depressing information with a dark expression!
“I manipulated votes so what?” Sutherland adds. “So Kevin James gets a nod; so seven lead actresses from canceled shows get nominated; so that lame ‘Will & Grace’ gets 10 nominations! That’s a small price to pay to ensure my own corporeal glory!”
“You’re insane,” hisses Bauer.
“Chloe knows you better than anyone, and I convinced her I was you,” Sutherland responds. “That should be worth an Emmy, right?”
7:57:01: “24″ is named outstanding drama series. Bauer himself addresses the audience: “I’d like to thank those who couldn’t be here tonight,” he says, his visage darkening; he realizes he’s now one of them.
The Auteur: What can I say? Pure genius: Ironic, shocking, contemplative, true to the spirit of “24″ and bust-a-gut funny. “Kaczmarek” — funny, funny, funny. Whenever I’m low and considering ending it all I’ll just think of Jane Kaczmarek’s name and in it somehow find the strength to continue on. And finally, the long-awaited plot twist, better even than making the President of the United States in league with the terrorists: Making Jack Bauer himself, or his doppelganger, the bad guy! Elucidating the Conradian duality within each of us, the story ultimately asks us to look deep within ourselves, find that which is truly evil and, then, embrace it fully, because that is what makes us human.
Or something like that.