Monday, February 27, 2006

Why Jack Bauer and Harry Potter are More Similar Than You Think

Like anyone else hooked on the show “24,” I’ve got Jack Bauer on the brain. Unlike many fans of the show however, I came to the world of CTU late in the game. Therefore, I’ve been hauling in the DVD’s on Netflix, recording the current season on TiVo, and racing to catch up. This means that I’m cramming in about 12 hours of Bauer every weekend. That kind of input makes you go a little crazy.

I find myself dreaming about sockets and protocols. Wondering who Division is going to send down to bust me for skipping my Advanced Trademarks seminar. When someone takes too long swiping his debit card at the grocery store, I scream, “We’re running out of time!” I’ll admit, I’ve got a problem.

However, one of the good things to come out of my daily ponderings of “24” is that I’ve stumbled on a striking similarity between Jack Bauer, CTU Agent extraordinaire, and Harry Potter, boy wizard. This may seem like an odd pairing, but just check out the evidence.

Both Jack and Harry are impervious to fear. Time and time again, the two heroes throw themselves into terrifying situations with no hesitation. This is probably a quality that exists in most heroic characters, but it is hard to recall any action hero running headlong into danger more often than Jack Bauer. And there is certainly no precedent for a 14-yeard old boy confronting a 50-foot basilisk, as Harry did in the second book. The only other combination of youth and bravery that even compares to that would be the time that Chunk found the strength to befriend Sloth in “Goonies.” Or any kid that made it through a stay at Neverland Ranch.

Signature skills. Both Jack and Harry have a plethora of heightened skills that enable them to save the day when everyone else fails. Among those varied abilities, the two heroes have signature skills that stand out and define their greatness. Bauer’s are killing, torturing, and pistol-whipping, as evidenced by websites that track his total kills and tortures every episode. Every Monday on “PTI,” Tony Kornheiser gleefully announces that he will be tuning into “24” later that night and keeping tabs on Bauer’s number of pistol-whippings. For all of Bauer’s stamina, decisiveness, and helicopter-piloting skill, it is his handling and use of weapons (including his hands, feet, and head) that stands out the most. As for Harry, his signature skill is clearly flying on his broomstick. That was made obvious in the fourth book (and movie), when he was nudged toward using his broomstick to defeat the dragon in the Tri-Wizard tournament. Throw in his amazing record as a Seeker in Quidditch and there is no doubt about this one.

They each have overlooked skills. Again, while they are known for killing and flying, Jack and Harry both possess mind-blowing skills that aren’t as obvious to the casual observer. Potter is very underrated with magic. That sounds weird, since he’s a wizard-in-training at Hogwarts, but the books clearly indicate that Harry is an inferior student as compared to his friend Hermione. Yet whenever the going gets tough, it is always Harry pulling out some fantastic spell or dueling with dark wizards. His flying, recklessness, loyalty, and bravery are all more obvious skills, but he can handle a wand as well as anyone. With Bauer, nobody realizes it, but his use of technology is ridiculous. He sets up his own remote video cameras, hacks into data fields, repositions satellites, and sends encrypted materials over his cell phone, and he does it all in record time. Also, Bauer’s ability to read building schematics that are downloaded to his PDA is nothing short of phenomenal. Give him a 20,000 square foot power plant with four floors and 40 rooms and he will diagnose that thing in 15 seconds. Amazing!

Both are heroes born out of tragedy. If you watch “The Office,” then you that this is not only the requirement for a superhero, but also for any hero, according to Dwight K. Schrute. (The famous quote: “A hero is born out of a childhood trauma, or disaster, that must be avenged.”) Regardless, both of our heroes fit the bill. Potter’s tragedy is obvious and works as one of the central plot points throughout the series. The death of his parents when he was a baby is the backbone of the entire story. He is, after all, “The Boy Who Lived.” Jack Bauer’s “born out of a tragedy” credentials are a little cloudy. For starters, as far as we know he never suffered a “childhood trauma or disaster,” so that makes things tougher. Plus, other than the failed Victor Drazen mission (in which he lost his whole team and left third season villain Stephen Saunders for dead), there wasn’t much indication of tragedy leading into Day One. So all of the heroics from the first season were just Bauer being Bauer, pre-tragedy.

Still, it is obvious that Jack Bauer took it to another level once he suffered from tragedy. When he thought his daughter was dead (reported to be found floating in the harbor), he went on a one-man killing spree the likes of which we hadn’t seen since John McLain was running loose in the Nakatomi Plaza building. Then, after finding Kim alive, Bauer returns to CTU only to discover his wife, Terry, dead on the floor. Ever since, he’s been a terrorist-fighting machine.

Both consistently get blamed, underappreciated, and doubted far more than should be even remotely possible. This is easily the most infuriating part of both “24” and the Harry Potter series. How many times does Harry need to save the day before he gets the benefit of the doubt? How often must Jack prevent millions of people from dying before CTU stops freaking out and trying to take him into custody every time something goes wrong? It’s infuriating. Alas, the problem with trying to write a series, whether it is for television, film, or in the form of a novel, is that you have to balance a continued storyline with the need for constant dramatic tension. There is no better form of conflict than pitting the antagonist against the world. It is just that it gets old after a while. Just once, I’d like to see Bauer disobey orders, get results, and then have everyone thank him for doing a great job, instead of yelling at him for failing to follow their directives.

Neither have any respect for protocol. Of course, part of the reason they are always being blamed and reprimanded is because both Bauer and Potter have a strong disdain for rules, regulations, protocol, and bureaucracy. For Bauer, there is “not enough time!” to always follow the book, and for Harry, he needs to do his work after hours, patrolling the halls during curfew.

They both have significant physical scars. Harry has the famous mark on his forehead, the scar that starts hurting whenever Lord Voldemort is near. Bauer has the track marks on his arm from the haunting heroin addiction that he overcame during Day Three and that eventually cost him his job at CTU.

Both are willing to die for others. Obviously. Harry has risked his life numerous times, most notably for Dumbledore in the last book and the time that he saved Fluer’s sister in that lake. I’m sure there are other instances, but I can’t think of them off the top of my head. As for Bauer, he risks death all the time, but no occasion was more dramatic than when he was willing to pilot a bomb into the ground. He called his daughter to say goodbye and everything. Luckily for The World, George Mason, who was dying from radiation poisoning anyway, took over the plane, allowing Jack the chance to escape the plane and risk death another day.

(It is worth mentioning that in Season Three, Bauer was not only willing to die, but he was willing to kill everyone else too, if need be. In 24 hours, he put a gun to his own head, to his partner Chase’s head, and to his boss Chappelle’s head, and pulled the trigger each time. That is a rough day.)

Both have been rumored to eventually be killed off to end their respective stories. Kiefer has stated in interviews that the Bauer character might have to die to either end the series or to allow the show to continue in a “realistic” fashion. Likewise, there is talk that J.K. Rowling might end the Harry Potter series with the boy hero making the ultimate sacrifice. I included this not only because it is yet another similarity, but also to say that these are horrible ideas. Trust us, writers, when we watch “24” and read Harry Potter books, we are suspending reality. You don’t have to kill off the main characters to make it “more realistic.” Forget about all that. The reason Harry and Jack are so popular is that people love heroes and they love the continuity of knowing that no matter what happens, at the end of the day, the hero will prevail. Killing off Jack Bauer and Harry Potter would deprive us of our two best, and most surprisingly similar, heroes.

Adam Hoff is a columnist for the Webby-winning He dressed up as Harry Potter for Halloween last year. This year? You would think Bauer, but that wouldn’t be much of a costume, because he dresses up like Jack Bauer every day.

“Mayer Test” Dooms CBS’ Love Monkey

(Editor’s Note: Mere days after this article was penned, CBS cancelled the show. What foresight!)

After first seeing previews for “Love Monkey,” I decided to pass. After seeing Tom Cavanaugh appear on David Letterman while looking like Will Ferrell’s coffee-addicted character from “Kicking and Screaming,” I made a vow to keep the show from ever appearing on my television screen. However, like anyone else with a TiVo, somehow I wound up recording something that I didn’t really want to watch, and the next thing you know, I’ve seen the first three episodes.

For some reason, the show appeals to me. I don’t know why, and even if I did, I wouldn’t write about it, because that’s not what this article is about. Instead, let’s focus on why this show is doomed to fail.

Failure in this case has nothing to do with going off the air. I suppose in the television industry, that is the only kind of failure that matters, but I insist on living in a fantasy world. One where successes and failures are measured with different yardsticks. In this case, Cavanaugh’s latest excuse to talk really fast (“Ed” being the first) is going to fail because it is misfiring on the most important level. It is a show that bills itself as being about one thing, while in reality it is another. Let me explain.

It is obvious from the first five minutes of the pilot that this is a show about music. More specifically, a show about a music snob. Tom Farrell (why do shows so often give the lead character the same first name as the actor? Is it so that people can remember the name easier? Some sort of marketing tie-in? A coincidence?) is an A&R exec living in New York City and he loves music. He knows the historical significance of every club in Manhattan, has an ear for talent, and worships all the right bands of yesteryear. He gets fired from his major label because he believes “in the music” and winds up at a small, indie label, where he can presumably sign only bands that sound like The Arcade Fire. He is a music snob, through and through. (Don’t take this as a criticism of music snobs. I find myself being one all the time and I think it is fine.)

So that’s what the show is about: a music snob living in Manhattan, playing hoops with his boys (the most excruciating scenes in every episode), hanging out with his friends, chasing women, and living for the music. Sounds fine. In this era of Napster and iTunes and mp3 players, it is about time we had a major network show or big studio film about music junkies. There is only one problem: the show strayed from this premise in about eight minutes and 30 seconds.

Early in the pilot episode, the character of Wayne is introduced. He’s a young singer/songwriter that catches Ferrell’s attention, prompts a bidding war between Ferrell’s new and old labels, and then goes on to be the centerpiece of the indie shop. The character is fairly likeable, is played by an actual singer/songwriter (always a good start), and enables the show’s writers to launch directly into the sort of mentor/protégé relationship that Jerry Seinfeld and Kenny Banya could be proud of. Again, there is one problem: the Wayne character fails the crucial “Mayer Test.”

The Mayer Test symbolizes the line between acoustic genius and pop music. The chasm between Saddle Creek Records and MTV. The gap between “amazing” (the adjective of choice for anyone under the age of 25) and “cheesy.” When John Mayer burst on the scene, he straddled the line like no other musician. Clearly talented with an obvious appreciation for music’s history and roots, Mayer had all the chops to become a music snob favorite, right up there with Ben Harper, The Shins, and Elliott Smith. Alas, Mayer’s looks, voice, and lyrics (starting with “Your Body is a Wonderland”) launched him into the MTV star stratosphere and turned him into a heartthrob. More Justin Timberlake than Jeff Buckley.

It doesn’t matter that Mayer has since revealed himself to have far more “street cred” in the Music Snob World than originally anticipated. From appearances on The Chappelle Show to collaborations with Kanye West to surprise appearances with Buddy Guy at “Blues Night” at the Hollywood Bowl, Mayer has evolved into more than just a cross between Peter Cetera and Dave Matthews. None of that matters. All that matters is that when he first came out, he put music snobs to a decision: embrace him or ridicule him?

Mayer got the boot. His romantic lyrics and whispering voice were never going to fly with music snobs. To fly the John Mayer flag would have been tantamount to turning in a membership card. Therefore, the Mayer Test was born.

The Mayer Test has been used many times since and has left talented musicians like Jason Mraz, Gavin DeGraw, and Amos Lee on the other side of the fence. Sometimes the reason is obvious, like overproduced music aimed at radio airplay. Sometimes you can’t really point to any one thing. You just know that a band or artist failed the test. And you know who would be given the same treatment? That’s right, Wayne, acoustic wunderkind and Tom Farrell protégé.

The Wayne character is almost a John Mayer clone, so it is only appropriate to invoke the Mayer Test in this instance. He croons, strums love songs on his guitar, wears chic clothing, and does a duet with a pop star. In short, he fails the Mayer Test in a big way. No music snob would ever fly the Wayne flag. Not in a million years. Music snobs make sure that people can see that the Arctic Monkey’s are displayed on the “Current iTunes Track” feature of iChat. They exchange 1,000-word emails about My Morning Jacket with fellow music snobs. They pretend to like the Antony And The Johnsons album because it got a high score from Metacritic. They deem the song “Handle Me With Care” to be the pinnacle of music because it features the trio of Jenny Lewis, Conor Oberst, and M. Ward (can’t say I blame them). They consider “Garden State” one of the greatest movies of all time because of the soundtrack. The one thing they don’t do is download a song like “Confidence” by Teddy Geiger-cum-Wayne.

As established earlier, the Tom Farrell character is a music snob. Therefore, he shouldn’t be fawning over Wayne. He shouldn’t be racing to see him live after hearing the demo. He shouldn’t be trying to launch a record label with Wayne as the centerpiece. He shouldn’t be doing any of these things, because Wayne fails the Mayer Test. As such, Tom Ferrell wouldn’t like his music. He wouldn’t think twice about it.

Because Wayne fails the Mayer Test, so too does the show “Love Monkey.” They’ve given us a show about a true music snob. There is an audience for this. You and I both know at least a dozen people who qualify and perhaps we are music snobs ourselves. We know this character. And we know that this character wouldn’t embrace Wayne’s music.

That critical disconnect will doom the show. It is confusing and distracting to hear someone talk about Dylan and The Clash and the purity of music and then act like he’s just discovered the next Thom York in the form of a crooning teenager that sings “Love is a marathon.” In fact, it is more distracting than watching Cavanaugh’s awkward jump shot, witnessing Lorenz Tate’s demise (didn’t he just make “Crash”?), observing Christopher Wiehl’s wooden acting, seeing “Kitty” from Arrested Development play the role of a normal woman, or even noting that Jason Priestly looks like he ate Luke Perry. The crucial failing of the Mayer Test trumps all of that.

There are a lot of small problems with this show, but one big one. It’s all about a music snob, who, well, isn’t one.

Adam Hoff is a columnist for the Webby-award winning and the foremost authority on sports, pop culture, film, and television in his entire apartment.