Monday, March 20, 2006

The Taking of CTU

I also have to mention how much I've enjoyed the last few weeks of 24.

They did a great thing at the halfway point and had the terrorists bring one of the nerve gas devices into the heart of CTU, slaughtering much of their personal and leaving the remaining series principals' locked in a few sealed rooms -- with those seals degrading quickly the following week.

They've also brought in Vice-President Hal Gardner, who's come to advise President Logan with his own agenda. He wants martial law declared in Los Angeles, instead calling it a nonthreatening euphemism, with no plans for how and when it might be ended. When the chief of staff questions him, Gardner tells him, "You can take that up with my working group."

Our fearless first lady, Martha Logan, is going to have to try and rein in the nefarious Vice-President Garnder -- or, as I call him, Vice-President Cheney.

I have to say, it is kind of amazing, given 24's conservative bona fides, the degree to which they've pilloried President Bush and now Cheney this season. Remember in the first few episodes how Logan was more concerned with his legacy than anything else? Add to that his completely inability to make any decisions on his own, instead preferring to delegate everything to subordinates.

And now we have a scheming vice-president with an independent staff cooking up plans so he can manipulate the nation to his own end. Gosh, wherever did they get that idea?

Now, for the victims. It was of course a sad moment when Edgar went down, most especially because the camera cut to Chloe's complete horror, looking on from inside the sealed room it was too late for him to enter. (How much do I love Mary Lynn Rajskub? Let me count the ways . . .)

But that was nothing over last week, as the survivors had to find a way to clear out the gas before the seals on their rooms were completely obliterated. Jack couldn't get through to the computer controlling the A/C, and so it was up to disgraced Lynn McGill, played to a T by Sean Astin, overcompensating for his youth and lack of experience with an insistence on formality and protocol. And of course, this ends up being his flaw, as he was too embarrassed that his access card was stolen by her sister and her druggie boyfriend (and then sold to the terrorists, who used it to get into CTU and plant the gas) to tell anyone about it until it was too late.

So Lynn has a chance to redeem himself by holding his breath long enough to get through the contaminated areas to the computer to unblock the A/C so Chloe can have it flush out the gas. Only two problems: Lynn won't have a sealed room to get back to, and the gas won't be flushed out before he has to breathe again -- so he will die. He'll have to sacrifice himself to save the others.

But of course, that would be too neat and tidy. So there's a CTU guard in the room with him (he was in custody, after all), and the guard, Harry, will die as well. And Harry's got a wife and kids at home. Now, there isn't really any choice, because help won't come for another 15 minutes, and by that time they'll all be dead. So it's a question of two of them vs. a few dozen in total.

It was heartbreaking enough when Harry had to call his young daughter on the phone and she asked when he was coming home. But the best moment was after Lynn had come back from the computer, they'd saved the day, and finally couldn't hold their breath any longer. Harry let go first, took some breaths, and was surprised -- the gas didn't seem to have any effect. "I'm okay," he said in wonder. "I'm okay!" And then, a few seconds later, he started to go into convulsions.

Lynn followed suit a few moments later, watched on closed circuit by the remaining survivors in their respective rooms. And that was a hell of a sacrifice on his part, perfect closing-out for his character. But I was still thinking about Harry and that brief hopeful moment where he thought it might have gone the other way.

Now that's some writing.

And then, on top of all that, the writers are further re-jiggering things for the remaining hours of the day by bringing in some new characters to mess up things at CTU. There's a blond woman from Homeland Security, along with her creepily efficient/power-hungry assistant, played by Stephen Spinella (how cool is that?). They're heading over to take control, because as the woman explained, CTU can no longer function on its own. Stephen says he has configured their servers to DHS standards (because, when terrorists have sixteen remaining canisters of nerve gas, we all know the most important thing is that everyone's servers are configured to the same standards).

And then Stephen asks Blondie, Will I have to consult Bill Buchanan on everything? I don't want to have to check with him before I fire someone. And she tells him he won't have to. So you know that's not going to end well.

And again, I have to say, the writers are really following the news this season. In past seasons, the main question would be which one of these new people is really working with the terrorists. Now, I'm struck thinking how much this reflects what happened after Hurricane Katrina, with the Department of Homeland Security continuing to bungle relief efforts (they just recently started looking for bodies again, some seven months later).

The problem is we have bureaucrats in charge of security in our government who are more concerned with preserving bureaucracy and their own power than they are in serving the people who pay their salaries. In the case of a natural disaster like Katrina, this priority on bureaucracy is criminal negligence. In the case of an ongoing terrorist attack, it might well aid and abet the terrorists.

We'll have to see how it plays out.

Conscience Is a Killer

I haven't been keeping up with it, but I have to say: this season of The Shield has been frickin' awesome.

I am continually impressed with the writers, who in the fifth season continue to manage a consistent level of sharp characterization and high dramatic tension. It's even more impressive that they've kept to their formula for each episode: each week starts out at a high point of confrontation, upping the stakes, making you wonder how the heck they will get out of that one. And the tension is just ratcheted up from there.

I was a little disappointed that they gave CCH Pounder's Claudette lupus -- too much a typical storyline (how can she balance her disease and her job -- and will she die?) for a woman character on a police show. However, the writers have completely redeemed themselves with the last two episodes, which first saw the Strike Team totally freaking out about Claudette upon her return to the job (Shane wonderfully kept referring to her, "Claudette might see us," "Claudette knows this truck," etc.).

And then there's last week's episode, where she had her great big confrontation scene of the season (so far), taking the deputy police chief and the interim captain to task for the "epidemic of bullshit" in the Farmington station. She wasn't the only one surprised later on when the new chief came in, cleared her medically, and offered to make her the permanent new captain.

At first, I thought this was a bit too sudden and pat, what after the delicious price Claudette had to pay in seasons 3 and 4 -- when she was the chosen successor to Councilman-elect Aceveda -- for refusing to put her conscience in a drawer. (This also led to a wonderful moment between Michael Chiklis and Pounder on the DVD commentary for that episode, as Chiklis pondered the idea that Claudette's conscience is her flaw.)

(Side note -- if you haven't been watching the series at all and want to get into it, the last three episodes of the 3rd season -- starting with "Fire in the Hole" -- are as fine an introduction as any.)

But then there is the little matter of Forest Whitaker's Lt. Kavanaugh, whose far-reaching investigation into the Strike Team, their finances and marriages seems to have been undermined at long last. First, Vic managed to sleep with Kavanaugh's nutty ex-wife (telling him, in perhaps the nastiest line ever in so many ways, "Your wife's pussy tastes like sweet butter"); more importantly, Lem -- the most reluctant and idealistic member of the Strike Team, and the only one over whom Kavanaugh has actual leverage -- decides to take a deal that will send him to prison, to seal off the investigation and protect the other guys (one wonders, of course, whether Vic or particularly Shane would do the same for him).

The problem is that Kavanaugh has made a deal with Antwone Mitchell, the gang leader they took down last season, played with relish by comedian Anthony Anderson, to send the Strike Team to his prison -- effectively signing their death warrants. Vic tries to make a deal with Antwone, only to have it completely and devastatingly fall apart AFTER Lem has signed the deal and is about to report to court to turn himself in. Antwone vows that he will kill Lem and the rest of them, whatever correctional facility they're sent to.

Last week's episode ended with Lem meeting up with Vic and the guys instead of going to court, and he and Vic heading off in the car -- so Vic can hide Lem until they figure out how to get him out of the country.

Meanwhile, Kavanaugh went to see Vic's ex-wife, Corinne, and she let him into her house even though only in her bathrobe. Now Corinne hates him, what with him lying about having an autistic son and getting her to give over the remnants of the $65,000 Vic gave her. But it sure looks (from the previews) like Kavanaugh is going to make his moves on her -- whether or not she goes along.

So here's what I think is going to happen. It's pretty clear that Lem is going to have to die. He can't go to prison, he's not going to live on the run in Mexico or wherever. Remember, he never wanted to rob the money train in the first place (which is why you should really see those eps from Season 3 if you haven't). He's the only one who tried to redeem himself (transferring to juvy when the Strike Team broke up), and it's a sick irony that he's the only one Kavanaugh could nail. It's sad too, because Kenneth Johnson has done some fine work in a supporting role this season, and throughout the series, particularly in those eps I mentioned ("Fire in the Hole" as well as "All In," which cuts right down to the bone). He will be missed.

However, there is a silver lining here, because for a while I thought this was going to be the last season of the show. And, with Lem's exit, The Shield can come back for another round. Kavanaugh might just come back as well, if Lem or Vic doesn't take him out on Tuesday.

And, most delightfully, the writers have set up the series' ultimate confrontation. You'll have Vic and the remaining Strike Team guys trying to hold on to their jobs and their pensions. Kavanaugh may well still be on their tail. And with Claudette as captain, finally the Barn will have a leader who won't put up with bullshit and who won't compromise her conscience with Vic or anyone else. (Remember, Glenn Close's fierce Captain Rawling was aces on the first point, but she was too cozy with Vic despite her mistrust. Although, technically, it wasn't Vic but her "making the DEA eat shit" over Antwone that brought her down.)

I cannot wait to see Captain Wyms and the Strike Team boys go head to head. How much does it suck that it won't be until January?

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Enlightenment Strikes Back

A major salvo against "the new totalitarianism," published in the French weekly Charlie Hebdo and just translated into English (hat tip: Hit & Run).

Good to see the writers and intellectuals taking up their pens. A sample:

After having overcome fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism, the world now faces a new totalitarian global threat: Islamism.
We, writers, journalists, intellectuals, call for resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunity and secular values for all.

The recent events, which occurred after the publication of drawings of Muhammed in European newspapers, have revealed the necessity of the struggle for these universal values. This struggle will not be won by arms, but in the ideological field. It is not a clash of civilisations nor an antagonism of West and East that we are witnessing, but a global struggle that confronts democrats and theocrats.

Like all totalitarianisms, Islamism is nurtured by fears and frustrations. The hate preachers bet on these feelings in order to form battalions destined to impose a liberticidal and unegalitarian world. But we clearly and firmly state: nothing, not even despair, justifies the choice of obscurantism, totalitarianism and hatred. Islamism is a reactionary ideology which kills equality, freedom and secularism wherever it is present. Its success can only lead to a world of domination: man's domination of woman, the Islamists' domination of all the others. To counter this, we must assure universal rights to oppressed or discriminated people.

We reject "cultural relativism," which consists in accepting that men and women of Muslim culture should be deprived of the right to equality, freedom and secular values in the name of respect for cultures and traditions. We refuse to renounce our critical spirit out of fear of being accused of "Islamophobia", an unfortunate concept which confuses criticism of Islam as a religion with stigmatisation of its believers.

We plead for the universality of freedom of expression, so that a critical spirit may be exercised on all continents, against all abuses and all dogmas.

We appeal to democrats and free spirits of all countries that our century should be one of Enlightenment, not of obscurantism.