When I heard that Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) had retired from the secret service in the new series of 24, I was relieved. "At last!" I thought. "The rugged spy-catcher can enjoy his autumn years, safe in the bosom of the America he helped to protect".
You see, a typical series of 24 involves the USA being besieged by freedom-hating enemies, takes place in one day, involves several necessary violations of civil liberties and unfolds in action-packed 'real time'. It's pretty relentless and tiring and I imagined that, in contrast, the post-retirement series would be a slow-moving and reflective affair (I call this imaginary programme Twenty Four because the programme makers would have taken the time to type up whole words).
An episode of Twenty Four might open with Bauer unpacking the contents of a kitchen cabinet looking for his NutraSweet, only to find that the packet was, in fact, already out on the counter. It would feature 20 minutes in which Bauer attempted but failed to programme his DVD-recorder, a long section in which he left a rambling message on his daughter's answering machine, and several interludes during which he stared wistfully out the window sipping a cup of tea. A whole batch of episodes towards the middle of the series would feature the droopy-faced Brat-packer lying on the couch eating cereal and watching Friends and the dramatic high point would involve Bauer finally getting the DVD recorder to work towards the end of the season. He would pump his fist in the air in triumph.
Thus had I imagined the retirement of the average superspy. But I hadn't counted on those pesky international terrorists. How could I forget? And as usual they were everywhere and before long Jack was pushing one exotic foreign gentleman down a flight of stairs whilst embedding an axe in the chest of another. Then a helicopter exploded, a crusty old police chief was telling him to get off the case, a whole new ensemble cast (including His Highness Freddie Prinze Jr) were floating about looking suspicious, and a cute child with freakishly large eyes was asking where Grandpa was (she also drew a picture of Jack, which looked nothing like him). It was retirement Jack Bauer style – no computer lessons in the community centre for him!
As usual 24 is fun and it happens far too quickly for us to notice just how much our intelligence is being insulted by all the goatees, foreign accents, fake countries, implausible setups and half-baked characters. The main problem though, is that hawkish civil-liberty crushers in the US seem to think that it's a documentary and use unlikely Jack Bauer-style scenarios to justify torture, rendition and racial profiling. At one point, the entirely fictional Jack Bauer was appointed George Bush's defence secretary (I believe at the time he was known as Donald Rumsfeld).
For more detail on that, you can try asking RTE's US correspondent Charlie Bird. Then again you might have to wait until you can find a moment when he isn't being glum.
Charlie Bird's American Year should be a triumphant tale of America in transition, but instead it's a bit like the Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock featuring a downbeat Charlie Bird counting out his life in coffee spoons. Yes, against the backdrop of Obama's first year, Charlie Bird curses at computer printers, eats alone, fails to connect with his American colleagues and sighs a lot. Bird is a likeable chap but this is an odd behind-the-scenes programme. Unlike most shows of its ilk in which Irish or British journalists effusively enthuse about the American dream and talk hammily to triumphant human stereotypes about the culture clash, this programme sees RTE's sad-eyed foreign correspondent wandering around Washington like Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave, grappling unsuccessfully with modern technology, being bemused rather than amused by Americana, and openly wondering if he's made a mistake moving away. This is interspersed with some American news stories which shone a little light in the solipsistic darkness – an encounter with some enthusiastic gun nuts (a light-hearted romp), Charlie's half hearted visit to Guantanamo Bay (a blessed relief), and an interview with disgraced Abu Ghraib jailer Lynddie England (positively life-affirming).
I don't blame Bird really. When RTE first posted their star reporter to America everyone was anticipating an Obama-centred 2009. Instead we had an inward-looking year of church and banking scandals and so we left Charlie on the other side of the Atlantic like the boy on the burning deck, calling faintly, "Hello! Anyone out there? I think I saw Obama today. Can I go now?"
In fact, you'd have thought that on seeing the first cut of this programme RTE would have instantly called Bird home ("Jesus! You mean he's still out there? We just assumed he'd come back."). As they didn't do that, I'm guessing that his placement in Washington was some sort of punishment. He must be in exile. Maybe there was a terrible misunderstanding at the 2008 RTE Christmas party, concluding with an RTÉ executive yelling: "Good lord Bird! What are you doing!? Put that down this instant! That's not a hilariously over-the-top conversation piece! That's my wife!"
Of course, some wives will put up with anything, as Julianna Marguilies demonstrates in The Good Wife, where she plays Alicia Florrick, the long-suffering spouse of an imprisoned district attorney (played by Chris Noth). After years of being the perfect foil for her philandering husband, Florrick must become a hard-nosed bread-winner again, and she's chosen to do what any wife would do in that situation – star in a legal drama.
Okay, according to the plot, she actually goes back to her original job as a lawyer, but we all know she's really starring in a legal drama. Evidence for this? Well, in this episode a water-tight prosecution case is busted open by Florrick's refreshing approach to legal defence (they'll rue the day they underestimated her!) and she's surrounded by loads of good-looking people who stride around purposefully in pant-suits. Have you ever been involved in a real court case or met any lawyers? Exactly. These people are clearly actors.
As are the cast of Your Bad Self, the new sketch comedy show on RTE... and that's a good thing. We Irish are a witty bunch, but we're terrified of social misunderstandings. So our television comedy often comes with a wink, a nudge, and a pair of fake plastic breasts in order to reassure everyone: "This is a joke. I am telling a joke now. Do not panic. What? You thought I was serious? Did you not see my winking eye and plastic breasts?" Good actors can often be better than comedians at the straight-laced performance of comedy. Your Bad Self is funny because the cast (including Domhnall Gleeson, Justine Mitchell, Michael McElhatton and Peter McDonald) treat the sketches like high drama. It also had a long development process which meant scripts could be refined to maximum funniness. This is preferable to the traditional method of developing comedy at RTE: repeatedly throwing a funny person at an audience like sh*t at a fan. They do it with a cannon nowadays, apparently.