Jack Bauer vs. Lucas North

Promoting itself as the first and only show to be shot in ‘real time’, 24 was more than original when it hit our screens in 2001. It’s plot is simple. Jack Bauer works for America’s Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU to the regulars). He’s a maverick agent who refuses to play by the rules, yet he is the government’s most valuable weapon. A series comprises one day consisting of 24 episodes, each an hour long, giving us a minute by minute breakdown of the CTU team as they attempt to avert yet another national, and often global, disaster. The countdown clock, the infamous ticking and the classic split screen are just some of the iconic features that have made 24 the international hit that it is today. With each minute of air time corresponding to a minute of viewing, you might think there’d be time to get bored. You’d be wrong. Each episode has the style and force of an action film, providing the audience with unadulterated thrills as Bauer almost single-handedly saves the nation.

For all this excitement you could be fooled into thinking that 24 is all style and no substance. Far from it. Despite his super-human qualities and his uncanny ability to go for an entire day without so much as a nap or sandwich, Bauer is as developed a character as you could ever hope to find. In his quiet moments the pain of his responsibility weighs heavily on his face and in the past we have seen how he must, in classic wanted-man style, push away everyone he loves in order to protect them and himself. Bauer did once have a wife and daughter; the less said about them the better. As for his brother and father, well, that’s a family counselling session you wouldn’t want to miss. 24 can be raw and emotional, and it just so happens that this is set against the backdrop of a slick government agency which must protect and defend the world’s most powerful nation.

With all this in mind and no current access to Sky One, I agreed with heavy heart to watch BBC One’s Spooks. Of course, I had heard of the BAFTA award winning drama but, because of my deep love for 24, I had simply disregarded it as a cheaper, less innovative British version of the American hit, a group of MI5 agents working at Thames House headquarters in London who attempt to save their country.

The contrast is noticeable. Spooks views like a low-budget indie film next to 24’s Hollywood Blockbuster feel, and yet I was surprised to find this made it no less enjoyable. If anything Spooks has the realism which many of many have criticised 24 for lacking. Despite my love for Bauer’s unstoppable presence, one could be just a little incredulous at how much this mere mortal can do. Spooks feels a lot more believable. It also doesn’t shy away from killing off characters (I must point out that neither does 24, though it has slightly more to choose from). On only the third episode of the current series I was shocked and yet secretly thrilled to see a major character die; Spooks hadn’t let me down.

Whilst 24 could quite easily have the American national anthem superimposed over it, Spooks keeps things a little more low key, protecting Queen and country whilst maintaining a very British stiff upper lip. Harry Pearce, head of MI5’s counter terrorist department, retains a stoic expression through even the most traumatic of national security incidents.

Another reason that Spooks has received such acclaim amongst its viewers is its unwillingness to shy away from topical, often controversial issues. It keeps themes current – rather than fighting a fictional Middle Eastern terrorist group as 24 would, the Spooks team tackle Al-Qaeda and other real-life threats.

Although Spooks does not focus solely on terrorism, neither does 24. There are always multiple stories running in parallel and the lengthy running time of each series means that there is more than ample time to get the viewer lost in an intricate maze of plot twists and turns. Whilst the ingenious writing is one of my favourite aspects of 24, it is also one of the most alienating features of the show. 24 is not something you could simply join half way through and hope to pick up.

Spooks too is a fan of the complex, long-running plot, but it does not shy away from keeping some episodes contained and neatly wrapping up storylines as it goes along. This is a mercy for the 24 viewer accustomed to keeping a notebook handy for jotting down key plot points, lest they be forgotten some 14 hours later.

It could well be that when I came to Spooks, my familiarity with American culture and 24’s heart-pounding rollercoaster style had desensitised me to the subtleties that Spooks had to offer. I will definitely continue to watch Spooks and whether my opinion will change, only time will tell. Thankfully, unlike Bauer, I have more than 24 hours to decide.


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