JARGON on "24"

Some cult television shows are distinguished by a special vocabulary or set of phrases that show up repeatedly, and begin to take on a resonance, whose power is surprising or ludicrous to a non-believer.

A classic example is the show "Star Trek", in which such phrases as

Set phasers on stun!
I'm a doctor, not a magician!
I'm hailing all frequencies!
seemed to become fixtures on the show. One could be forgiven for imagining that the scripts were written on typewriters with special keys for such phrases.

And now we are faced with the fourth season of the frantic show 24, which in some ways seems to be simply a new permutation of the same stock dramatic devices that were somewhat arbitrarily strung together in previous seasons. To see, for example, that Jack has a new girlfriend in the first minute of the show is to know that that girlfriend will be kidnapped within an hour.

But more to the point, when you are trying to fill up air time with excitement, but all you have is a bunch of people talking on telephones, and typing on keyboards, and staring at computer screens really really sternly, it helps to be able to bark out phrases that seem to carry great import, and take the place of action.

Of course, when you're looking for something on the computer, and you don't find it, your boss could suggest something helpful, such as "try harder" or "look in some other places," but last season, Tony's sure fire response was widen your parameters!. This season, as a "hostile" is running away, the dangerously similar-sounding advice is widen your perimeter!.

Since telephones and computers play a crucial role in the show, there is a lot of calling and communicating; but if you call the FBI you are actually coordinating with the FBI. If you're just looking something up, you're better off saying you are going to access some information or key up a database. Of course, if the information is on another computer, you must open up a channel or, if security is a concern (imagine that!) you had best open a secure pipe. And if you want to sneak a peak at information, you just have to hack into a channel. However, your clever opponent may have put a block on his call. If he's really really clever, you might be able to read his signal but then discover that the code has been braided. That sure sounds like an elegant form of hopelessness! Meanwhile, you might be well advised to build a firewall around your station.

Of course, all of these actions that seem so exciting on TV could also be carried out on your own cell phone if you just call up the right menu.

Occasionally, the assorted clerk-typists at CTU stand up from their desks and vow to act. This action occasionally consists of the hard-nosed announcement that we're not ruling anything out. Once it is ascertained that everyone in the world is to be suspected of everything, the stalwart player announces we're working up everything.

At other times, it is necessary to deal with "the grid", which is something like the fictitious ether of an earlier century; it's often necessary to reconfigure the grid or set up a security grid

It may be the case that the grid is something like a radio; this would explain why, when you go on the grid, you can pick up lots of chatter by known terrorists and nasties.

Aside from Jack (and whichever red-shirted fool is designated to come along with him and get killed for his sins), the only other people who get to do fun things are the interrogators. This season, they had to find out if the son of the Secretary of Defense had been party to an ambush. They first considered checking all his phone records (I suppose all phone records now include a brief subject line, ala "SUBJ: Call to arrange ambush date and time" - but they decided to go the torture route instead, because checking the phone records would take days! Is this the same CTU where, 5 minutes after a train bombing, the name of the bomber is known, and 15 minutes later, he's caught? The same CTU that can push a button and take the video feed of a surveillance camera in a hospital?

Well, let's set aside that rant, and note that the torture consists of playing loud noises; the interrogator announces that he will saturate his auditory. Of course, this is the same kind of language that dictates that when you send people out to spot a suspect, you really tell them I want a visual.

Now all the bosses in 24 are, at best, well-meaning but unimaginative bureaucrats who obstruct Jack Bauer's quest to single-handedly terminate the show in under an hour. (I suppose this means that in the movie version of 24, we'll need to let Tom Cruise star.)

So you'd imagine that the phrase activate the protocol was hatched by one of the bureaucrats, even though everyone slings this term around as though it means something and they know what that meaning is, both of which are assuredly false. However, it was one of the interchangeable bureau chiefs who announced that she would choreograph the jurisdiction, and another stuffed suit who "adaged" that

We'll cross that bridge if the scenario presents itself.

Despite being a bureaucracy, the CTU has the most efficient meetings ever observed. Although everyone is dragged from their station, so that we now how important the meeting is, no one bothers stopping to get a cup of coffee first; they must know from experience that the entire meeting could be transcribed on a bandaid. The chief is simply going to announce that there is bad news, that measure will be taken, and that it is probably Jack Bauer's fault, now get back to your work stations.

When a bureaucrat is really, really concerned, he's liable to shriek Make something happen!, a command that, on 24, seems beyond overkill. One finds much more enjoyable the ludicrous decree I want status reports every 15 minutes!. Thankfully for actors and viewers alike, the status reports never actually seem to be given;

If you measure the gravity of a situation by how often status reports must be given, then it is indeed a surprise to realize, given the terrorist plots, biological warfare threats, prison riots, bombings and actual thermonuclear device activations, that 15 minutes is the smallest interval ever observed. What would it take to get the interval down to, say status reports every 10 minutes?

One's imagination really begins to fail at this point, although I suppose if, say, the grid were to open a braided backdoor channel into a secure pipe, we might have to go flat out to constant status reports, with everyone at CTU muttering "Now, I am widening my parameters. Nope, no hostiles there. Now I am opening a pipe - still nothing. Now I am praying for a commercial..."

Last modified on 29 December 2007.