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Is It Really Better to Burn Out than Fade Away?

By Michael Murray | TV | April 24, 2009 |

By Michael Murray | TV | April 24, 2009 |

One day, Burt Reynolds will die. My guess is that it’s going to be an eccentric passing. I imagine the antique actor taking off his shirt and then, in an effort to display his still marketable virility to the public, stepping into the Baboon compound at the San Diego zoo to tragic consequence. And when this happens, when the good Lord calls Burt home, we will have “Final 24” there to try and unravel the mysterious final hours for us.

“Final 24,” which airs at unpredictable intervals on A&E, attempts to document the final 24 hours in the life of a doomed celebrity. Obviously, this premise is catnip to those of us who have a lurid appetite for celebrity dissolution. Craving the most intimate and vulnerable details of our celebrities, we hope for some sort of proof that in spite of their beauty and wealth, they are, just like us, of this earth. And of course, the ultimate evidence of this is found in their death, and so, just as we pursued them in life, we pursue in death.

The hour long show uses dramatic reenactments, interviews and archival footage in an effort to give a credible context and shape to the stars last day on the planet. Through multiple points of view, both personal and forensic, we get something that’s akin to an oral history. So far, “Final 24” has investigated the deaths of Anna Nicole Smith, Sid Vicious, Hunter S. Thompson, Nicole Brown Simpson, Tupac, and River Phoenix, amongst others.

The show opens with a shot of a blood red sunset, through which the face of a ticking clock emerges. Slightly creepy music plays and a disorienting array of images—a highway near a cliff, a New York skyscraper, a bullet hole in a window—are thrown at us in a series of lightning fast edits. The distressed graphic “Final 24” appears on the screen before us. It’s an introduction to the show that induces a sense of panic and dread. In short order a British voice—luridly seductive but still clinical— emerges, telling us the date and what is about to happen. The clock begins to click down from 24, a heart monitor beeps, and we enter into the celebrities’ last day.

A recent episode featured River Phoenix, the actor who died on the sidewalk of hipster Mecca The Viper Lounge in1993 from a massive drug overdoes at the age of 23. He starts the day at 7:00 in the morning, and we find out he was addicted to drugs and having a particularly brutal day on the set of the movie he was filming.

Interspersed between interviews are biographical segments that give context to his present state of vulnerability. As the clock ticks down from 24 hours, we learn more about the forces that were pressing upon Phoenix, pushing him to the fateful moment when life gave way. There’s a crushing inevitability to the show, and it feels like there could have been no other outcome, that the fate of the star had long since been decided and that each step only took him one breath closer to his final destiny.

Again and again in “Final 24,” it’s implied that celebrity itself was ultimately a contributing factor to the star’s demise, and that their fame was really a Faustian bargain. As River Phoenix lay convulsing on the sidewalk in front of the club, people stood around watching, not knowing exactly what to do. He was a big star. Should they rat him out and expose his addiction to the public and press? And so they stood about, paralyzed by the dilemmas that River Phoenix’s fame posed. It was heartbreaking to listen to the original 911 call that his brother, actor Joaquin placed, in which it became painfully evident just how young and terrified everybody was on that night.

In a weird way, “Final 24” attempts to make sense out of death. Nothing in the final day feels arbitrary, but ordained, if not by forces that the celebrity had long since set in motion, then by a higher power. There’s an element of Greek tragedy to the show, and to our relationship to celebrity. Our stars are larger than life, inhabiting an imaginary plane that hovers somewhere above the rest of us, and like the demigods of Greek myth, their fate seems written in the stars, unfolding in ways that they can never truly understand or control.

Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.