With comments from the head of the Fox broadcast TV network this week to the effect that he is looking forward to another season, it’s clear that the return of 24, which wrapped up a 12-episode limited series run last week, has been a real success. Given that the show had seemed near played out when it ended its eight-season run four years ago, the question is why the longest-running espionage TV series in history seems still to have a lot of life left in it 13 years after it first ran.
I think it’s a combination of the revitalized quality of the show and the very disquieting nature of the times we live in. (Naturally, some spoilers lie ahead.)
It’s certainly a period of great geopolitical intrigue and arguable security threats. Which is why the latest version of 24 played well, even though it had seemed that all potential plot lines for the show had been exhausted.
Kiefer Sutherland made a successful return as the iconic Jack Bauer in 24: Live Another Day, shot and set entirely in the city of his birth, London.
But when we have Israel invading the Gaza Strip as Hamas blows, seemingly quite bizarrely, right through a ceasefire — and when we have the bizarre shootdown of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine, an act for which Russia is being blamed for its support of Ukrainian dissidents , even as it’s clearly an act that could have been game-changingly disastrous for Russian interests — a show featuring wheels within wheels within wheels intrigue will always resonate with the times and have a strong audience.
But back to the version of 24 which just finished airing.
24: Live Another Day (with apologies to the misfired 2002 James Bond extravaganza Die Another Day) returned not with another frenetic, frequently convoluted and occasionally confused round of 24 “real-time” episodes in a standard seasonal format but as a limited event series with 12 episodes. (But still the real-time format.)
Cutting the season in half proved to be a godsend for a show that burns through plot like no other. (Time was that more happened in two or three episodes of 24 than a full season of Mad Men. And the viewer still usually had no real idea what the season was ultimately about.)
Of course, that was sometimes true for the writers as well, who admit winging it on more than a few occasions, leading to a lot of confusion, plot repetition — look, it’s yet another mole in America’s premier counter-terrorist agency, the Counter Terrorist Unit, a CIA offshoot! — and misdirection for the sake of misdirection. Not that it wasn’t entertaining. I will admit that I enjoyed even the worst of 24.
Because the show had not only tremendous velocity but also tremendous energy. Once it got rolling the sheer momentum of the thing swept along. And the writers always found a decent way to wrap up even the least of its seasons, such as the widely disliked Season 6 which nonetheless concluded a frequently over-the-top storyline about Jack and his villainous brother and super-villain father (well played by the terrific James Cromwell) in intriguing fashion. The finale of which proved key to the renewed 24 we’ve just seen.
Jack has gone to the Santa Monica home of his old boss, Secretary of Defense James Heller (a terrific William Devane), to visit his fragile yet stalwart lady love, and Heller’s daughter and close advisor, Audrey (tremulously yet strongly played by Kim Raver). They had become an item in an earlier season when Jack, burnt out and cast out by CTU, reinvented himself as a special advisor to the SecDef. The Hellers returned to play very central roles in 24: Live Another Day.
Audrey has been returned from China, where she’d gone looking for the abducted Jack, in poor psychological and physical shape, leading her father to tell Jack a few hours before the end of Day 6 that, no matter how good his motives may be, he is simply a menace to her and to anyone he becomes close to and that he is to stay away from her. As in forever.
At the end of the day, and season, Jack goes to Heller’s Santa Monica home to see Audrey, only to be told again that he and his ways are too toxic and that he must stay away from the former defense secretary’s daughter, revealed to Jack to be in a near catatonic state. Heartbroken, his defiance of Heller and resentment of the man for not living up to the idealized father image he had formed of him swept away by the realization that he can neither properly care for Audrey nor stay away from the life that brought death to his wife and disrupted his family and relationships, Jack ends the day at the edge of the cliff in Heller’s backyard, looking at the wave-lapped rocks below and the slowly brightening Pacific Ocean horizon to the west as he contemplates what, if anything, to do with his future.
It was a quiet yet bold conclusion, showing in the intense scene between Devane as Heller and series star Kiefer Sutherland as Bauer both how damaged Bauer is and how compelling a character he continued to be.
Season 6 proved to the first for which 24 was not nominated for best dramatic series at the Emmys, ironically coming right after the show’s brilliant Season 5 swept the awards. Though it was not to return in a big way to the awards sweepstakes — Sutherland went on to receive two more Emmy nominations for best actor, giving him seven Emmy nominations so far for playing Jack Bauer — 24 did recover some of its mojo as a show in its final two seasons.
Still, the premise seemed tired. How many moles could there be in a supposedly top-notch intelligence outfit like CTU? How many sudden reversals could occur in any one day? How many times could the story loop in upon itself? And, most controversially, how many times could Jack solve an intelligence quandary by simply torturing the suspect not so happily at hand?
By the end, 24 — which was conceived and in part produced before 9/11 (the first season featured a plot to kill the first black candidate to get within hailing distance of the presidency, future President David Palmer, spun up by a vengeful Balkans warlord — had become a poster child for those in the post-9/11 era who believe that torture is an acceptable and even efficient means of gathering intelligence and that existential threats to America are ever imminent, justifying any means to reach an end.
That Jack himself felt remorse over some of his tactics, that the show more often than not revealed the true villains to be more on the right than on the left didn’t matter as much as the torture motif and the ever present “ticking clock” scenario.
The latter never bothered me. After all, 24 is a politically-tinged action thriller. It’s not meant to be a complete depiction of the world of intelligence, it’s meant to entertain. And that it always has done, whether on top form or not. Spending a lot of time watching the gathering, collation, and analysis needed to turn information into intelligence can be a less than riveting experience.
If some fairly prominent people in politics took the show at face value, that’s more a reflection on their ignorance and hysteria than any fault of the producers and writers.
The torture business was more problematic, as I’ve discussed in the past. As I wrote here on HuffPost when the series ended four years ago, “The problem with torture in the real world as a means of gaining information is not that it is immoral and never works in gaining information; it’s that it’s immoral and is very erratic. The problem with torture on 24 is that it always works. That’s just ridiculous. You would think that once, in all this time, a bad guy would figure out that, given the press of time, all he had to do was send Jack Bauer and colleagues rushing off in the wrong direction in order to wreak absolute havoc upon America.”
Incidentally, most Americans agreed with Bauer’s hardball approach, as public opinion polling on the fate of Guantanamo Bay has shown.
In fact, support for keeping Gitmo open has actually increased since 24 ended its run as a yearly series in 2010. Then 39 percent of Americans backed the closure of the notorious prison at Guantanamo Bay, while 60 percent opposed the move long promised by President Barack Obama. 51 percent favored closing Gitmo after Obama took office in 2009.
Now just 29 percent want to close Gitmo, with a whopping 66 percent of Americans in favor of keeping it open.
So, if anything, the country is even more supportive of the hardball Jack Bauer approach now than when 24 was in its heyday.
But, reflecting a better sense of history, not to mention a less lazy mode of plotting, 24 has largely dropped the torture motif, both in its final regular season in 2010 and in the just concluded limited event season of 2014.
Not that Bauer has softened, mind you. As portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland, he is still the very smart, sophisticated, and resolute bad-ass he was back in the fall of 2001 when the show first began its run.
Even when the story is tired, Sutherland, who has one of the great voices in cinema, is a compelling and complex presence, equally adept at delivering convincing action and drama. His Jack Bauer continues to be one of the iconic performances of television’s ongoing golden age. Not for nothing has Sutherland received seven Emmy nominations (with one statue) for his portrayal of Jack Bauer, leading the pack of what are said to be iconic anti-heroes in this decidedly anti-heroic age.
Jon Hamm, who plays Mad Men‘s Don Draper, has just matched Sutherland with his own seventh Emmy nomination. (But he’ll probably have to wait till next year for his first statue.) Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad‘s Walter White, has six (with three statues so far). James Gandolfini earned six Emmy nominations, and three wins, as Tony Soprano. (He proved to be the acting nemesis of West Wing star Martin Sheen, who six Emmy nominations for playing straight-up heroic President Josiah Bartlett yielded no statues.) Coming up fast in the iconic anti-hero sweepstakes is Kevin Spacey, with two nominations in two years for his Frank Underwood on House of Cards. He’s president now, too, as perhaps the ultimate anti-Bartlett.
Whether all these figures are anti-heroes, or in some cases something else entirely, is a matter for another day as we get closer to this year’s Emmy Awards, which will be announced on August 25th.
Sutherland’s Jack Bauer seems to me to be more the troubled hero than an anti-hero. And in that he remained a potent presence in the successful run of 24: Live Another Day.
The show presented a mostly good blend of old and new, tried and true.