Jack Bauer, the rogue counterterrorism agent who makes a rather wan and uneventful return Monday night in Fox’s “24: Live Another Day,” nevertheless remains a person of interest in the fictional stories we tell about our shared anxieties regarding terrorism, war and personal safety.
Jack (Kiefer Sutherland, in the role he was born to play) arrived in the first episode of Fox’s “24” a mere eight weeks after the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. A fourth hijacked plane, as everyone recalls, was headed toward Washington and brought down in apparent act of unfathomable courage by its passengers. That day and those events are sometimes still best described as key scenes of a convoluted action-adventure movie or TV show. It’s how some of us still process this kind of stuff (how many times since have we blown up the White House or the U.S. Capitol?), keeping our fears at bay with a constant resupply of high-stress television.
Uncomfortably, in one of those coincidences that give network executives splitting headaches, the debut of “24” (broadcast on Nov. 6, 2001, after an extra week’s delay to put even more distance between the show and the nation’s shock) featured a terrorist who made an escape and created a diversion by destroying the plane in mid-flight. To a rational observer, “24” seemed like the last sort of thing America needed at that particular moment.
That prediction, of course, turned out to be dead wrong. What we’ve needed in terms of early 21st-century television entertainment is a steady drip of adrenaline from shows that seem increasingly willing to throw everything against a wall in a manic attempt to see what sticks — whether the show is about counterterrorism agents, crime-scene investigators, meth dealers, vicious law firms, Beltway crisis solvers or a medieval, imaginary continent at war with itself.
Whenever you hoot and holler at a show for its wild acts of implausibility (such as recent, off-the-rails-bonkers seasons of Showtime’s “Homeland,” which shares creative development DNA from “24” showrunner and writer Howard Gordon) or marvel at a show’s cruel efficiency at sacrificing major characters (such as “The Good Wife’s” recent shooting death of Will Gardner, its male lead), you are in some way offering your thanks to “24,” which lighted the way for producers and viewers to a land where they’ll now habitually try anything in the name of momentum and buzz.
“24” was a sensation of the Bush-Cheney years, a successful fantasy story that extolled the (still ambivalent) benefits of covert counterintelligence, domestic spying, constant surveillance and arbitrary acts of torture. Sutherland’s steely, singularly focused Jack was the ideal 9/11-era protagonist, more so when he was efficiently stripped of emotional attachments so as to devote himself fully to “24’s” subsequent panic attacks over new threats. His wife was shot and killed at the end of season 1; his exceedingly danger-prone daughter, despite her best efforts, could not break through his dutiful allegiance to the mission.
Even viewers who clucked in disapproval during the passage of the Patriot Act, the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, and the revelations of abuses and torture committed in the name of battling terrorists, found a thrilling and satisfyingly cathartic release in “24.” (Others called it torture porn — and still watched it.)
Jack Bauer’s days wore on, and his paranoia wore thin. The series was initially made up of eight separate 24-hour days, each transpiring in a single season, clocked in real time, although calling it “real time” was just one part of “24’s” elastic regard for believability.
While Jack coped with — and tried to protect from harm — a continuously shifting array of presidents and administration officials, American voters elected their first black president (something “24’s” world already had done, twice), a Democrat whose platform included a scale-back on two war fronts and a promise (largely unkept) for more transparency in the nation’s anti-terror efforts.
In that brief aura of hope and change, Jack Bauer in some ways became an instant relic of the early 2000s. More notably, “24” ran through its best plots, bringing it to the point where its relentlessness grew tiresome and redundant, measured by that urgent chink-clink of its digital clock. Once-devout viewers started to peel away. The last episode aired in 2010, with Sutherland and the show’s producers and writers acknowledging “24’s” contemporary resonance and a job well done. Last anyone saw him, Jack was an international fugitive who went into deep hiding.
So is Jack reemerging too soon for nostalgia’s sake? Or is he newly relevant in a world that can’t keep a lid on its most valuable secrets?
“24: Live Another Day,” is billed as a work of “event television,” back for 12 one-hour episodes instead of the (duh) 24 episodes that seemed inviolable to the format. Now, in the perfect expression of our culture’s “tl;dr”-style hostility to commitment, even poor “24” has to do its job in half the time, by showing us only the hours that matter.
No show more richly deserves to be told to hurry up than “24,” which became infamous for the wildly advanced high-speed technology enjoyed by its characters (dubbed by the original online TV recappers as “Whatever Technology”) while the rest of us schlubs still waited for broadband upgrades in our apartment buildings. If keeping their story to 12 hours somehow frees “24’s” writers to dream up two or three fewer exasperating plot tangents, then it’s for the better.
We reunite with Jack on a dreary day in London, 11 a.m., with the local CIA office (headed by Steven Navarro, played by Benjamin Bratt) on full security alert because U.S. President James Heller (William Devane) is paying an official visit to the British prime minister (Stephen Fry) and Parliament to defend the controversial use of American drone bombers based on British soil.
Yes, President Heller is the same guy who was “24’s” secretary of defense a decade ago, whose daughter Audrey (Kim Raver) was once a love interest for Jack but is now married to her father’s chief of staff, Mark Boudreau (Tate Donovan). “24” is asking a lot for us to remember who all these folks are, or why they might matter to Jack, or why they now hold him in contempt. On the other hand, this is precisely what we’ve said we want from broadcast network shows — to be treated like adults who don’t need everything explained and re-explained to us. Somehow, we’ll figure it out (or look it up while we watch).
The CIA captures Jack in a raid on an abandoned warehouse. Only one freethinking agent (Yvonne Strahovski as Kate Morgan) realizes that Jack probably intended to get captured in order to infiltrate the office, so that he can . . .
Well, from here, let’s just say that “24” moves according to its own familiar beat. By the second hour (both of Monday’s episodes adhere to the minute-by-minute chronology; the fast-forwarding will happen later), it’s clear that “Live Another Day” is not much interested in broadening the show’s scope, feeling or characters.
It does, however, have an abiding interest in the latest news about spying, vis-a-vis its own version of notorious document-leaker Edward Snowden: Chloe O’Brian.
Chloe (played with expert antisocial quirk by Mary Lynn Rajskub) was formerly Jack’s go-to techie at the fictional Counter Terrorism Unit where they both sacrificed their careers and reputations for the greater good.
Now she is also a fugitive, a hacker nested in with a group of like-minded Wikileaky nerds, taking her fashion cues from “Orphan Black” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” It’s impossible to imagine any sort of “24” without Jack yelling at Chloe, so, once again, here they are in Kirk/Scotty codependence: He begs her to work technological miracles; she tells him it’s impossible. It’s only in these moments that play up Jack and Chloe’s ostracized existence that “24” feels like it has anything new to say about the present, or a slightly new idea of how to entertain us.
By coming back before we had a chance to really feel Jack Bauer’s absence, “24” simply looks like many of the one-hour prime time dramas still jockeying to replace it, such as NBC’s excruciatingly dumb “Crisis,” in which kidnappers are holding the privileged children of Washington insiders (including the president’s son) hostage, in order to make their parents carry out criminal acts; or CBS’s somewhat less ludicrous “Hostages,” in which the family of a surgeon is held by terrorists who attempt to force her to kill the president during a scheduled heart operation; or even Fox’s bizarrely convoluted serial-killer/cult drama “The Following,” which seems to be written with the aid of a dart board and a blindfold.
Whenever you feel exhausted by today’s TV dramas, whenever a key character meets with sudden death or you throw your hands up in exasperation, there’s a little bit of the “24” legacy at work.
Whenever you feel yourself watching a show from a place of hypervigilance and mistrust, you’re most likely leaning on “24’s” lessons in betrayal by supporting characters: Which one of you can’t be trusted? Which one of you is not who they say they are? Which one of you is — in “24’s” unforgettable parlance —“dirty?”
Whenever you roll your eyes at the swiftness with which TV characters can download files, trace digital phone lines or scan surveillance footage for facial ID matches, that, too, is a lingering gift from the “24” heyday.
Even when a viewer seeks refuge in a pre-Internet period piece (such as AMC’s spotty “Turn,” about Revolutionary War espionage, or FX’s astonishingly good “The Americans,” where the Soviet spies of the early 1980s are barely getting their heads around the rudimentary notions of a World Wide Web) that’s still a reaction to the world “24” helped make, where the screen on the wall and the phone in the pocket are as important as the main characters who operate them.
“24” left many viewers with a lasting aversion to the lull or the quiet moment. It eschews the idea of a resting pulse. It’s a drug habit we can’t kick.
But this time it is far less potent. At 47, Sutherland wears Jack’s evident fatigue (and extra wrinkles) like a badge, even though the script never gives him much to work with in the way of emotion or depth. All this running around has amounted to very little, other than to spawn more shows that usually ran smack into cancellation. In the long run, Jack’s unyielding race to prevent disaster mostly just prevented viewers from getting attached to him on a human scale. In that very crucial regard, it’s hard to welcome back a man you don’t really know.
24: Live Another Day (two hours) premieres Monday at 8 p.m. on Fox.