24: Live Another Day – Will Jack be Wack?

{This is part one of a frankly ill-advised two-part attempt to drum up interest in 24: Live Another Day, the 12-episode limited series reboot of 24, airing May 5 on Fox. I have not seen the episodes in advance. Spoilers for past seasons abound.}

24 was the first TV show that became an absurd addiction of mine. I’d been holed up with snacks, a laptop, no friends to hang out with, no vices to engage in and the complete second season of this show on DVD for a weekend in 2006. That was all it took for the debilitating 24 fever to take hold. I remained hooked. I only watched seasons 6 through 8 week-to-week, catching up on earlier (and, as I’d learn the hard way, better) seasons on DVD over time. At its best, it resembled watching a marathon of 12 smarter-than-usual action movies without getting burned out.

Now, four years after the series finale – with our hero a fugitive from the U.S. despite being the only one right about the Great Evils looking bring about war and chaos – it’s back as 24: Live Another Day. While the real-time conceit will remain, time will elapse between episodes, a new and probably wise change. Everything else looks about what I’d expect. Berserk terrorist plot? Yeah. Kiefer Sutherland shouting like a crazy person? Yup. Jack performing action-hero feats that by some miracle look plausible when enacted by a non-muscleman, wiry dude? You bet. Tech genius Chloe O’Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub) dropping epic sarcasm? Mmmmhmm. Explosions, chaos? Check. Oh, and “DAMMITS?” You better believe it.

Look, I know how fucking ridiculous this sounds. And I’ll even back you up further by listing a few of the most insane things this show has done:

  • In season 2, they disposed of a nuclear bomb by dropping it in some desolate desert region where the fallout somehow wouldn’t spread to a wide enough radius to kill anyone, or you know, poison the atmosphere for YEARS. That was one of the PLAUSIBLE seasons.
  • A terrorist cell once burrowed into the White House by drilling through somewhere in the Potomac River and kept its residents hostage for 2 hours, in season 7.
  • At one point, Jack’s daughter Kim (Elisha Cuthbert, lately of Happy Endings) was lost in the woods and being hunted by cougars. THERE WERE MANY CLOSEUPS OF THE COUGARS. She survived.
  • Jack has survived beatings, shootings, stabbings, torture, car crashes, near-exposure to nerve gas, biological weapons, and ANOTHER NUCLEAR BOMB (that one was in season 6).
  • Jack killed or maimed approximately 500 people in the show’s run. Some extreme examples: Ripping a guy’s throat out with his teeth. Snapping a guy’s neck with his ankles. Biting a dude’s ear off. Dealing with a Russian assassin who’d swallowed a piece of evidence by cutting in through the stomach and tossing the guy’s guts around the room like streamers after finding it.
  • As a non-Jack bonus, in season 8, an unhinged, totally awesome FBI agent Renee Walker (played by the excellent Annie Wersching) decided to deal with an ex-con informant who had a locator bracelet on his wrist by severing his arm at the elbow with a table saw. It went like this: “I told you, you cannot cut bracelet.” “Not gonna cut the bracelet.” GRAB, SAW, BLOOD SPLATTER, SCREAM.

Mostly, this violence was not gratuitous. The torture of terror suspects was another story. Except for moments where you already knew the torturee to be guilty of something heinous, it was always a rough watch. Once it became known that 24 co-creator Joel Surnow was conservative, the show got labeled a macho rightie fantasy, even though Surnow left around season 4. His successor, X-Files vet Howard Gordon, was notably liberal in his politics.

24 never really shook that reactionary image. It didn’t help that several seasons featured fundamentalist Muslim terrorists. That said, most of said terrorists were eventually revealed as pawns of white, conservative American or European men, usually defense contractors, oil men or politicians. For fuck’s sake, in season 5, a blatantly Republican president was the primary villain, and featured Bauer at one point screaming, “OUR GOVERNMENT HAS NO INTEGRITY!” I could list other counterpoints to the show’s stereotypes but I’d be here all day. After a while, the ethical quandary of torture became a major issue of the show, and Jack abandoned it (well, until they murdered his girlfriend and he went craaaaaaazy and did stuff like the aforementioned gutting).

For what it’s worth, every violent action of Jack Bauer – justified or unjustified – had brutal consequences for him and anyone he cared about. His family members are dead or estranged. Every person he’s called friend or lover is dead or considers him a damaged-goods insane vigilante. (Which is partially true – an assassination attempt on a corrupt warmongering Russian president at season 8’s end forced him to run for his life.) He got addicted to heroin, spent two years in foreign prison and was frequently betrayed or sold out by the intelligence agencies he worked for. No deed of any kind, good or otherwise, went unpunished for him.

Sutherland’s ability to portray emotional devastation was often overshadowed by the show’s bombastic nature. But even when 24 nosedived into implausibility and, ahem, difficult politics, his acting kept it grounded. You always cared about him, and for various supporting characters – notably Chloe, the aforementioned Renee Walker and, in earlier seasons, President David Palmer. (The brilliant performance of Dennis Haysbert as Palmer was one of the best portrayals of a politician in recent TV history, not to mention the first black president in mainstream media not played by Morgan Freeman.)

Jack Bauer is one of the truly iconic fictional characters of the past 20 years, and Kiefer Sutherland pulled off one of TV’s best performances to play him. (Season 5 earned him a SAG Best Actor award, the same year the show won the Emmy for Best Drama.) For all its absurdity, even in later seasons, peak 24 episodes boasted a blend of realistic (or at least realistically filmed) action, suspense that John Frankenheimer would applaud, political commentary that actually questioned American bellicosity instead of glorifying it, compelling character-driven drama and even touches of caustic wit.

Maybe 24: Live Another Day will suck. But I don’t think so, in large part because the 12-episode format leaves less time for the dumb subplots that almost always torpedoed earlier seasons around the halfway or three-quarter points (cougar-besieged daughters, secret babies, traitors among the good guys, plot-extending law enforcement incompetence, etc.). Also, the issues it seems to address – drone warfare, enhanced interrogation, the exposure of U.S. military/intelligence misdeeds by Chloe (who’s now a goth Snowden, apparently), the manufacturing of crises by those in the fiscal business of making war – are relevant to contemporary America and don’t appear to be viewed through any remotely right-wing lens, based on the trailer. You might not be convinced by this argument. But I know I’ll have my eyes peeled when Jack comes back, and I’ll drop further thoughts whether it rules or it sucks.

Liam Green can be reached on Twitter – @liamchgreen. Also, for those interested in looking back, the power rankings of 24 seasons from awesome to shit are as follows: 5, 1, 3, 7, 8, 2, 4 and 6. DO NOT bother with season 6. It’s the fucking worst. 

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