Elements of Realism in 24 and Homeland

20 Nov

The striking difference between 24 and Homeland is present from the very beginning of each episode, as 24’s ticking clock throws us in to a tense world of violence and confusion while Homeland’s opening credits use jazz and both historical and diegetic sound-bytes to create an impression of intrigue and melancholy. At the same time it would seem easy to put these two shows in to a single genre category: anti-terrorism spy shows. Similar to what any investigation of the police procedural will reveal, the spy drama is in fact a far more diverse and varied genre than such simple labels allows, and finding the ways 24 and Homeland are similar and different to each gave me further perspective on how show premises enables the creation of particular beats and arcs that appeal to certain viewer sentiments.


One of the first obvious dissimilarities between 24 and Homeland is their use of technology as plot device. 24 exists in an absurdly technologically determined narrative universe. In episodes 5.3 and 5.4 of 24 Jack is wrapped up in a hostage situation in an airport that seems to have no ways out. The terrorists have bombs strapped to themselves and enough hostages to compel any obedience, and there are enough of them Jack can’t pick them off one by one. The show’s solution is to have his tech team back in the office research the detonator frequency using only the information from a grainy but then magically enhanced cell-phone picture, where their method is to cross-reference the tiny image with what is apparently a “detonator database” with enough detonators in it that the brute-force search fills up just the right amount of time to keep the episode tense). They then download an application to Jack’s phone which will allow him to trigger the detonator remotely with only a click of a button. Suddenly a seemingly impossible situation is made preposterously easy by eliminating the master-detonator-switch bad guy through the raw power of made-up modern technological brilliance, though the already made-up technology is given the restraint of being uncomfortably slow just so the audience still has an artificial sense of danger. Homeland, on the other hand, has a far less absurd approach to technology. Surveillance and databases still play a major role in the show, but they are far more realistic. Sergeant Brody comes very close to discovering one of their microphone set-ups when re-arranging furniture, and a minor oversight in their set-up gives up a major clue in the investigation, that Brody is in fact Muslim and has been praying in the garage they simply forgot to wire up. Things like a tiny concealable drive that instantly downloads all of a phone’s files are cool but not that far-fetched in the modern world.


The spy show that maintains an element of realism allows for a focus on character development, perhaps because a restricted number of potential deus ex machinas requires tighter plotting would argue that the structuring of a show Elements such as the avoidance of technological determinism for a more realistic approach makes Homeland a close approximation of what a realistic spy show would constitute. Homeland functions in a world where the spies are continually caught up in bureaucracy and political games that hamstring the operations. 24 works in a world with intense hierarchical structures, but then avoids any real consequences for Jack when he breaks them by always manage to fight another day in an upcoming season, no matter how many laws he flaunted in a previous series. In contrast, Carey breaks restrictions but still lacks resources, and so is forced to do “real” spying by using induction and reasoning to work through the restricted data presented to her. By the end of season one Carey is broken by the system, an outcast willing to under-go a mind-altering procedure all because her mental instability upset her ability to walk the line between seeking out justice and playing the bureaucratic game, even as she has broken the case and even discovered the final crucial clue. Her simultaneous triumph over and defeat by the constraints around her makes the first season of the show a fascinating testament both to the power of the individual will over fate and the intense ability of the world to then crush those wills regardless. 24 is generally a testament to how ruthlessness peppered with compassion is the form of masculinity.


Another major difference between the shows comes from their use of violence. Violence in Homeland is normally the terrible result of the CIA and Carey’s failure to think ahead of the terrorists, whether it means an informant is killed before they can testify or a bomb goes off in a public square. In 24 violence is an on-going battle between Jack and various assailants, as he willingly tortures and murders to stop the terrorist plot, in some seasons racking up a body count that rivals that of the antagonists (by the end of the series Jack had around 250 on-screen confirmed kills that he was directly responsible for). It is interesting to note how violence is justified and enabled by the two show’s elements of fantasy. Homeland works hard to maintain a verisimilitude in the proceedings, and so perhaps too much exploitative violence per episode would ruin the rigid tension between the viewer’s knowledge of Brody and the rest of the world’s that keeps the show going. As long as one of the show’s main characters is unpredictable and potentially dangerous the threat of random violence is less necessary, as the viewer is already held in constant suspense by the mystery of the proceedings. 24 achieves tension thing by conditioning the viewer that something can and will go wrong at any time, always weaving the resolution of a conflict with the set-up for another violent Jack encounter. The entire premise of 24 seems to be that things can escalate at any moment, so the viewer is instead enthralled by how Jack will tackle the challenges he faces. This eventually lead to the show having to up the ante with simulated disaster after disaster to keep the stakes high enough that even knowing Jack is super-human can’t comfort you enough.


Ultimately these differences in realism come from the shows’ self-instituted constraints in pursuit of very different dramatic goals. Despite 24’s slick editing, innovative structure, and early critical acclaim it is essentially a show about giving you a dramatic weekly thrill. Every episode has a cliff-hanger, and seasons are split in to smaller pieces each of which create dramatic encounters for Jack to solve. It creates a satisfying week by week experience but even watching two shows in a row reveals how slow the side plots progress, hot kitschy many of the supporting cast’s characterizations are, and how the show clearly enjoys manipulating the viewers’ emotion. In contrast, Homeland works hard to create episodes that have satisfying or troubling emotional arcs for its characters, two great examples being when Carey runs in to Brody at the support meeting and another being the famous cabin episode. Sustained suspense wouldn’t leave room for these often tender and surprising moments of growth for the cast, and so Homeland does have to dispense with the crazy leaps of logic and perpetual crisis in favor of a more controlled meditation on loneliness and duty. What results is a great contrast between escapism and well realized drama in a genre that is normally associated with the outlandishness of Jason Bourne, Sydney Bristow, and James Bond, even as both shows place themselves in a contemporary war on terror moment. 

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