TV Preview: Jack Bauer returns for another day at the office

LOOSE IN THE BIG APPLE: Kiefer Sutherland with Freddie Prinze Jr. (or is it Keanu Reeves Jr.?).
LOOSE IN THE BIG APPLE: Kiefer Sutherland with Freddie Prinze Jr. (or is it Keanu Reeves Jr.?). (Richard Foreman/fox)
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By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 17, 2010

Jack Bauer's looming irrelevancy in the Obama era was called off a few weeks ago, on Christmas Day, when a novice jihadist set his underwear on fire on a Northwest Airlines flight.

Blindly hoping to leave the '00s behind, we were instead sucked right back into the abstract anxieties of the threat-level orange, Dick Cheney world, with its iffy intelligence and inconveniences to Western lifestyles. After Undiebomber's apprehension, the cry (for blame, for help) went out almost immediately: Who is supposed to connect the dots? Where in the process did they fail to connect the dots? Why can't anyone connect the damn dots?

Well, here's "24" again, with a renewed sense of dot-connecting purpose (fictional, yet symbolic) and a two-night premiere, Sunday and Monday -- a rollicking four-hour chunk in which the series seems on track to rediscover some of its original verve. Eight seasons in, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) conveniently bears the weight of whatever paranoias, metaphors, comparisons, wonky op-eds and wishful thinking the news cycle may wish to heap upon him.

Which is what he was doing almost a decade ago, too. Recall if you will that our endless journey with Jack's incremental frenzy began just weeks after the events of 9/11, when the Fox network fretted about airing "24," its real-time action-adventure show -- it literally opened with the explosive sabotage of a jetliner.

But "24" benefits from the vibe of the times. It acted, and still acts, as a parallel world in which to work out our collective angst about suspicion, profiling, torture, disaster, evildoers, politics, jihad, the trade imbalance (Russian mobsters, Chinese magnates, Mexican drug cartels), airports, guns and so many bombs -- be they plastique, dirty or nuclear. "24" is about national security and, most of all, national insecurity. More than a reprieve from reality, it can be a distraction from it. As Sunday's reboot makes clear, "24" is as good as it ever was, and as bad as it ever was.

Jack! Wake up!

After a tepid and disjointed previous season set in Washington, "24" moves to New York, where the president of the Islamic nation of Makebelieve-istan, Omar Hassan ("Slumdog Millionaire's" Anil Kapoor), is having a summit at the United Nations with U.S. President Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones, who survived last season).

Makebelieve-istan is ready to call off its nuclear testing program in exchange for new trade agreements. Naturally, a complicated assassination plot is in the works, involving Russian gangsters and Hassan's brother, Farhad. (We know he's bad from his fey hairdo.) In fact, from the very first clink-clink of "24's" clock, the plot unfolds with a reliable precision. A wounded thug with vital information is running for his life through the afternoon rush-hour streets of New York and Jack Bauer is snoozing on a sofa, blocks away.

In a matter of minutes, Jack will be back in the clutches of "24's" cruel writers, but here, for the briefest glimpse, is my favorite part of "24": Jack in oblivious repose. It is a moment to consider a whole other kind of show. What if the people who make "24" (and the executives at Fox who air the show) had the courage to leave it at that, or instead treat us to a sort of meta-"24," much like Andy Warhol's 12-hour film of the Empire State Building, in which nothing happens?

What if we watched Jack nap for an hour or two? What if he woke in the third hour, went to the bathroom, then got online for a while, then fixed something to eat, then returned to the couch and then proceeded to "watch" hourly installments of a show that is rather like "24," and yelled at the screen, outraged by the very preposterousness of the reality being presented to him?

"Jack!" screams a little girl, perched on our beleaguered hero's chest, and he snaps awake.

"Sweetheart, we already talked about this, remember?" Jack says. "You're supposed to call me Grampa."

"You don't look like a Grampa," she says.

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