Catherine and I were watching an episode of "Lost," the one where the pregnant woman has been attacked (or dreams she has) by a vicious person who, by dint of tricky camerawork, isn't shown.
I turned to Catherine and said, "Wouldn't it be funny if the attacker turned out to be.... Nina?"
Catherine and I have been availing ourselves of several triumphs of popular art recently. "Lost" isn't one, I'm afraid: it's garden-variety excellent television. But "24" is another thing altogether. Every detail of it is well done. Every camera angle and lighting set-up, every sideways glance, every aspect of it shows that it's been painstakingly put together.
"24" follows the Billy Wilder First Rule of Narrative: Grab 'em by the throat, and never let 'em go. But what makes it the first great work of the century is that it goes beyond that. It would be easy to dismiss it as a superbly crafted wham-bang cliffhanger, but underneath the rhythms of tension and near-resolution that we've by now become accustomed to (and that borrow heavily from Scheherezade's storytelling technique in The Tale of a Thousand Nights and a Night)
is a series of meditations and explorations on the deepest things in life.
What, in the modern world, is a career? What does it demand? What is a family, and what does it demand? What does loyalty consist of, and is it even a virtue at all? In Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen,
the central tension is between power and love. The "evil" dwarf Alberich must forswear love in order to forge the Ring of Power, and the "noble" god Wotan must barter Freia, the goddess of love, in order to build his fortress Valhalla. Wagner's point was to show how seductive power is, and how it almost always triumphs over love in the short run. But the innovation in "24" is to pit love against not destructive, world-dominating power — the contest that takes a business executive further and further away from his wife and children — but against the power to prevent evil. What if you had to sell Freia to stop
the terrorists? What if you had to forswear love in order to forge a ring that would protect
the millions of innocent Nibelungs against Alberich's scheme? Would it be worth it?
The series presents these questions to all of its main characters, and not even the Bad Accent Evildoer of the Season can distract us from contemplating them. It's not enough for me to look at Catherine and say, "I'm so glad that I don't have to make that kind of decision." Someone does have to make it in order to give me a measure of temporal safety.
There are some miscalculations in the show: the music, with its constant computer-french-horn blare, tries too hard to pump up the cliffhanging element. And the main theme never fails — never, ever, ever fails — to remind me of Madonna's "La Isla Bonita." It's a great song, but just at the moment when I should be wondering how on earth, or if on earth, Jack will save his daughter, I find myself singing, I fell in love with San Pedrooooo...
Can't be what the producers had in mind. And besides the aforementioned Bad Accent Evildoer of the Season (Dennis Hopper deserves to have every award he's ever won taken out back and shot), there's Dennis Haysbert's facial ticks, not to mention the series's fondness for prominent breast display, which somewhat compromises the down-to-the-molecule authenticity of these depictions of bureaucrats, computer geeks, and soldiers.
But what am I carping for? It's a brilliant show. It's just one more item in television's canon that outdoes anything Hollywood is capable of, and does it every week. And by the way I must point out that, although I'm far from prudish about nudity or profanity, television's best shows — "24," "ER," "Law & Order," "The Practice" — stand as a living reproof to the old Hollywood line. Nudity and profanity are almost never essential to the plot or to an authentic depiction of these characters.
For my birthday, my parents gave Catherine and me tickets to see "The Lion King," whose regional tour stopped off here a few weeks ago. We've all heard about it for years, and for once Disney has come up with something that actually surpasses the hype. We have Julie Taymor to thank for that, but we also have the Disney suits, who after all could have insisted on a production that was safe and familiar, and that asked nothing of its audience.
Instead, we have a melding of pop culture (fizzy Disneyishness, Elton John, lovable sidekicks) with folk culture (traditional African costumes and dance styles) with high culture (those dance interludes that make you think you could be at an Alvin Ailey company recital, the brilliant co-opting of puppetry and costume for the animal characterizations).
Catherine and I had just been in Vienna, where we saw "Marriage of Figaro," Mozart's comic opera that turns into a beautiful meditation on human frailty and forgiveness. Catherine said that was the best stage production she'd ever seen. It was a Vienna State Opera production, with eye-popping interiors, a spine-chilling garden scene, terrific actor/singers who actually played their roles and seemed well-cast for them. But after "Lion King," she had second thoughts. Certainly, it's the best Broadway production I've ever seen. Best stage production in other categories still belongs to Otto Schenck's shattering realization of Wagner's Ring for the Met, with honorable mention to Austin Lyric Opera's stark "Andrea Chenier" a few years back, and, a few years before that, their stunning and delightful "Magic Flute," with costumes and set designs by Maurice Sendak, the author and illustrator of "Where the Wild Things Are."
Interestingly, the event of the season for stage-lovers was a production of "Magic Flute" as well, for the Met, with costumes and set designs by ... Julie Taymor. It was, by all accounts, as great as "Lion King." We've got to see that production sometime. Meanwhile, we're still feasting on this wonderful show: the abundance of invention in every corner of every scene, the merciful lack of those puny Broadway voices, the good comic timing and spot-on skills of the actors, the intricate and beautiful ballets, hip-hop dances, and Motown send-ups, the at times overwhelming evocation of the great seasons of human and natural life.