20th Century Fox/20th Century Fox Home Entertainment .
R4 . COLOR . 1020 mins .
MA15+ . PAL
(Note: the following review contains no plot spoilers for either this second season of 24 or the debut season that precedes it. The images that accompany the review are all spoiler-free captures from the first episode. Those who have not seen either season may read on safely!)
A title that even a breathalyser can display.
After the massive success of the first season of Fox’s real-time thriller 24, it was inevitable that the network would be back for another helping. The resulting second season aired in Australia earlier in 2003, this time a bit closer to the US air date but still far removed enough to give ample opportunity for those who like to ruin others’ enjoyment of a TV show to pass on critical plot points ahead of time. So the hardened 24 viewer knew what that meant - no frequenting Internet TV forums or newsgroups, no talking to American fans of the show, no watching Channel 7’s spoiler-laden “coming next week” promos and absolutely no venturing anywhere near Entertainment Tonight for the duration. This was serious stuff, after all.
The success of 24 relies heavily on an all-stops-out pace, where there’s rarely a moment set aside to breathe as the characters hurtle from one dire situation to another, battling danger, conspiracies and absolute nutters along the way. But it also packs a lot of its visceral thrills into the many twists and surprises that are revealed as things progress; red herrings abound, but so do unexpected revelations and an arsenal of how-the-hell-are-they-going-to-get-out-of-that cliffhanger situations that makes the Batman TV series look like amateur hour by comparison (okay, arguably that one was amateur hour, but that’s for another discussion!)
"Kim, I'm... behind you! Behind you!"
For season 2 there have been some changes to the way 24 is made - most notably the absence of director and executive producer Stephen Hopkins, who’s gone off to resume his movie-making career. Principal director this time is Jon Cassar, an experienced TV man whose resume includes Nikita, Profiler and, err, Baywatch Nights. And while Hopkins’ mastery of tension is sorely missed this time around, Cassar and the other directors make it clear early on that they’re not about to settle for pale imitation. What season 2 lacks in knife-edge suspense it gains in its sheer audacity; incredibly, the stakes have been raised this time around in terms of pacing, plot developments and often-impactful violence. In many ways it’s a darker proposition than ever before, something which irritated some viewers - letters to TV guides complained about the unsympathetic nature of Kiefer Sutherland’s character Jack Bauer, completely missing the point of both the character and the show. Season 2 is willing to play with viewers’ expectations, and that’s a very welcome thing. Even the heroes here are true anti-heroes, and the cold-blooded killing and drawn-out torture are not just tools of the enemy here. If you like your thrillers to be spelt out for you in black and white terms, go watch something else.
That said, there’s a sense of audacious fun running through this season that was missing from the first. Part of this is thanks to the ability of the producers to plan the entire 24 episodes in one go, whereas in season 1 the story had to be resuscitated after episode 13, only that many episodes having initially been commissioned. That meant a major lull in the middle of the season, but this time there’s no chance of that happening - though if you get the impression later in season 2 that they’re just making things up as they go along, you’re very likely right. A lot of this is very, very silly, but keep in mind as your jaw drops again and again in disbelief that it’s supposed to be this way. The tone may be deadpan, but this is supposed to be fantasy, not reality. Sure, many of the situations that crop up are contrived, and some are just plain ridiculous. But that’s the joy of the show - it’s like having a decade’s worth of espionage thrillers crammed into a single season, and screw credibility.
If there’s any major fault in season 2, it’s the final episode (don’t panic, we’re not telling!) Events leading up to the finale aren’t thought out quite as well as they maybe could have been (remember, the last half of the season was still being written and filmed while the earlier episodes were going to air in the US) and the conclusion of it all, which should have been a knockout, turns out to be poorly judged and anti-climactic, with none of the shock value and emotional impact of the close of the first season. Still, they get it right often enough throughout that it’s hard to complain, and you can rest assured that it’s never, ever boring.
Kate Warner (Sarah Wynter) executes her first Shocked Expression for the season.
24 fans who are equipped to receive digital TV will already have seen this season in its correct aspect ratio, but for the majority still watching analogue, this full 16:9 version of this shot-on-35mm series will be a revelation after suffering through a centre-cut 4:3 version on Channel 7. Like last season, this one’s a marked improvement on DVD compared to its off-air counterpart, though if you’re expecting pristine vision then you’re in the wrong place; a substantial amount of post-production processing has been done to the picture throughout, including desaturation of colour, a slight greenish tint, generous amounts of grain and contrast manipulation. It all works perfectly for the mood of the show, giving it even more of a feature film look, but if you’re curious about what it might have looked like before the post-production gang got to it, check out the deleted scenes, which are presented pretty much as filmed. Our only real complaint is that it’s often over-processed and a little too dark at times. Still, that’s the way the producers wanted it.
Also like last time, all of the split-screen sequences are restricted to a 4:3 frame so that they would be completely visible on broadcast television; aside from those, good use is made of the wider frame, especially considering the need to accommodate a square subset.
Compression throughout the DVDs is fine, without anything complaint-worthy popping up to distract from the action. Fox has made good use of the space available on the dual-layer discs here, and that pays off.
While season 1 was equipped with a Dolby Surround soundtrack, the appearance of the Dolby Digital logo in the end credits of season 2 had many hoping for a 5.1 soundtrack this time around. And that’s exactly what we get - an extremely well-mixed surround soundtrack that’s head and shoulders above the usual TV standard, this is coming close to feature film quality in terms of intelligent channel usage. Dialogue stays in the centre as you’d expect, with music and effects spread across the front speakers. The subwoofer springs to life for elements of the music score and, occasionally, some action sequences, but it’s otherwise quite restrained. But no such restraint is evident in the split surrounds, which are extremely effectively used without ever being gimmicky or overbearing.
Dialogue clarity is much better than in season 1, and fidelity across the board is terrific. A marvellous soundtrack, and considering that it’s on a rapidly-produced TV show an absolutely stunning achievement.
David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) and assistant Lynne Kresge (Michelle Forbes) do what they do best - look very, very worried.
The paltry array of extras on the season 1 set is a forgotten memory here; this time there’s a dual-layered disc loaded with extra material as well as extras spread across the six discs that make up the series itself. They’re not perfect in execution (and nor are the disc menus, which are often counter-intuitive) but a decent effort has been made and there’s a wealth of worthwhile bonus material to be taken in by avid fans of the show. We probably don’t need to say this, but DO NOT put disc 7 in your player until you have watched the entire season!
Audio Commentaries: Wisely not going the whole hog by supplying a commentary for each and every episode, the DVD producers have opted to give one episode per disc the commentary treatment, each one with a different group of people. Key members of the cast and production crew contribute to these, with mixed results; sometimes it’s all a bit over-serious, but there’s plenty of good info to be found. The best of the bunch by a mile is the disc 1 commentary, which has actors Carlos Bernard and Michelle Forbes sharing mike space with Australian actor Sarah Wynter, who is a genuinely funny and highly enjoyable commentator. The trio don’t take things too seriously, and that seems somehow more appropriate for the show; it’s certainly great fun to listen to. The show’s devotees will, of course, be thrilled at the diverse range of info provided across all six commentary tracks.
Deleted and Alternate Scenes: Here’s a somewhat more controversial inclusion - not because they’re offered in the first place, but because of how they’re offered. Each episode (except the ones with commentaries) gives you the option of watching the deleted and alternate scenes from that episode flown back in at the appropriate points. A great idea, but there are several problems. For one thing, seamless branching is not used; instead, separate titles have been authored on the discs that use title branching to retrieve the scenes before dropping back into the main video stream. This means big pauses, still frames and black screens while your player goes hunting. And then there’s the scenes themselves; quite a few are alternate takes rather than deletions, and having these flown back into the story means that you can see the same scene played out as many as three times (as happens in the 2am-3am episode on a scene that runs over three minutes - and one of the deletions is essentially the same scene that’s in the final production anyway!) Also, the audio on the added scenes is in straight Dolby 2.0 (which means your decoder needs to switch from 5.1 every time a flown-in scene appears) and the colour balance is completely different. So ultimately, this feature is best avoided when watching the episodes, especially for first-time viewers. You are able to view the deleted scenes by themselves from the special features menu of each episode, a much better option. Then, on the extras disc, all 44 deletions are collected together, this time with commentary from Jon Cassar with either cinematographer Rodney Charters or writer Howard Gordon. It’s a generous collection of deleted material that’s well worth watching, but the watch-them-in-the-episode feature is too flawed to be useful.
On The Button: A 13-minute featurette (in full frame, the only non-anamorphic extra here) that takes you through the setup and filming of a large-scale stunt sequence from early in the season (we won’t tell you what it is, because that would give away a critical plot point). Fascinating for those who like their behind-the-scenes material, and a really nice inclusion.
24 Exposed: Now here’s the main meal after the entrée of the other extra features! This 89-minute documentary, split into two halves, is an absorbing and frank behind-the-scenes look at the production of season 2’s final episodes, produced by a director and crew with unfettered access to the production (to the point, in fact, that they end up being cast as extras in the final episode while filming the doco you’re watching!) No pat-on-the-back crapola here; instead, we see how truly stressful the production of a show like this can be, director Cassar more than once losing his cool on the set. We also see just how committed an actor Kiefer Sutherland is, and get a sense of the sheer scale of mounting such a complex TV series, along with confirmation that sometimes they do indeed make up the plot as they go along! Brilliant stuff, and a must for fans.
Multi-Angle Scene Study: A short scene from an episode is presented with the two different camera angles accessible by use of the angle button on your DVD player’s remote. A great idea, but it would have been nice to see it put to use on a scene that was a little bit more dynamic than what’s been chosen.
Booklet: Apparently there will be one in the retail release, but our review discs did not come in the full packaging.
Seasoned 24 viewers will recognise the look on Kim Bauer's face. Uh-oh.
24’s second season is a cracking good time, a flamboyant and audacious thrill ride that’s the television equivalent of a page-turner from start to finish, even if it does slip up occasionally along the way. Well made and featuring a superb cast, it’s the very definition of entertainment - though the squeamish should be warned that this one’s rated MA for a very good reason.
As we said last time, DVD is the perfect format for 24 - you can sit down to watch as many episodes in a row as you like (and you’ll find it hard to stop at just one or two) without the distractions of long ad breaks and a week’s wait between instalments. With a solid batch of extras included for added value, this second-season set comes highly recommended.