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Jack in the Box

The unlikely, semi-terrific, possibly problematic return of ‘24’

It was the clock that started it. As detailed in Alan Sepinwall’s exhaustive The Revolution Was Televised, the defining network drama series of the ’00s didn’t begin with the grim visage of Jack Bauer or the brutal depiction of torture; there was no grand plan to rid the world of fictional terrorists, one shattered kneecap at a time. All of that came much, much later. Instead, the story of 24 — a story that improbably continues on Monday with the debut of a much-hyped miniseries called 24: Live Another Day — began with the clock.

At the turn of the millennium, Joel Surnow, a middle-aged Hollywood survivor who had done time in the trenches of Miami Vice and The Equalizer, looked at his future and sighed. As an undistinguished toiler in the pre-Sopranos universe, the only path he could see ahead of him was paved with 22-episode seasons; every year the same challenge, every year the same grind. He was employed but not inspired. It was stability, but it felt like a straitjacket.

To most writers, the logical conclusion to this existential crisis would be to pursue a series that simply filmed fewer episodes. But Joel Surnow is not most writers. As he told Sepinwall, “I’m basically a journeyman TV writer, so it’s 22, 22, every year of my life is 22. And I thought, ‘What if it was 24?’”1 At a brainstorming breakfast in 2000, Surnow and eventual cocreator Bob Cochran kicked around dozens of ideas that could potentially fit into a rubric that had never been attempted before:2 a series that told its story in real time, one hour after another. After flirting with various comic scenarios, they eventually settled on anti-terrorism — not for any political reasons, but because of the baked-in urgency. After all, even a brain surgeon has a bedtime. But someone trying to stop a presidential assassination? Yeah, that’s the guy who’ll be popping NoDoz like Tic Tacs.

Yet even after finding, in Fox, a network willing to take a chance on such a nontraditional structure and, in Kiefer Sutherland, an actor able to carry the weight of the world while simultaneously trying to save it, 24 was far from a sure thing. The series premiered in 2001, just two months after the attacks of 9/11. After considering scrapping the series entirely, Fox executives hastily reedited a key scene in which a villain parachuted out of an exploding airplane. Though the series was praised on arrival for its ambition and visual flair (those split-screens!), it quickly became clear that the clock alone couldn’t serve as the story engine that Surnow had imagined. He and his writers — including an ambitious X-Files vet named Howard Gordon — burned through the planned assassination plot in eight hours. The remaining 16 were puffed up with body doubles, moles, and a performance by Dennis Hopper — as a devious Serbian mastermind — that could politely be described as “insane.” It wasn’t until the very last moment of the season that the show revealed a storytelling flair as daring as its structure: Jack defused the villain’s plot, but his wife was killed in cold blood. It was the sort of dark dive that network TV shows just didn’t do – and, potentially, with good reason. 24 came off like an entertaining, likely unrepeatable stunt. A ticking clock can make just about anything seem life-or-death, but it doesn’t necessarily make it meaningful.

Though the ratings were decent enough to warrant a second season,3 what saved 24 wasn’t the clock but the calendar. 24 was conceived and green-lit before 9/11, but was uniquely situated to respond to it. Surnow had named Jack’s place of work the Counter Terrorism Unit almost as an afterthought, but in the show’s second season it took on a new, aggressive significance. While the Bush administration attempted to soothe a scarred nation with a promise of “fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here,” 24 eagerly relocated itself from Los Angeles to the bottom of the deepest, most paranoid crevices in the national psyche. In the world of the show, it didn’t matter what our troops and diplomats did over there. “They” were already here, embedded in our offices, our neighborhoods, our homes. And Jack Bauer was reborn as a one-man “Mission Accomplished” banner, using his relentless, righteous fury to root them out and make them pay.

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On the surface, the enemies were always “terrorists,” a shadowy, often brown-skinned cabal of people out to destroy America and its much-lauded way of life. But dig deeper and it’s clear that Jack’s real nemesis was due process. The overheated nature of 24’s conceit doubled the drama but tripled the fiction. As Jane Mayer reported in a fascinating 2007 New Yorker story, the “ticking time bomb” situation almost never occurs in real life but, as Bob Cochran told her, “on our show it happens every week.” The perpetually imminent threat gave Jack free rein to rip violently through his enemies and, in a larger sense, the Constitution. In Season 2, Jack narrowly averted a nuclear catastrophe in California. In Season 5, the nation was crippled by nerve gas attacks. In Season 6, a mushroom cloud took out Valencia. There was no time for hesitation, let alone legal niceties. Torture quickly became a costar on 24; Jack’s many interrogations of suspects usually began with shouting and ended with shooting. 24 considered justice an obstacle course and security a video game. The end invariably justified the means because the alternative was absolute ruin. Consequences were for another day — and that day was always at least a year away.

Still, at its best, 24 was undeniably entertaining. In the strongest seasons, there was an infectious mania to the show’s soaring Jenga tower of betrayals, backstabbings, and bullshit. (I’m partial to Season 5, in which Jack took down a duplicitous president and the show itself won the Emmy for Best Drama series.) It was as if the writers were as sleep-deprived and stressed as their keyboard-bound counterparts at CTU: Sometimes their frayed brains resulted in flights of improvisatory genius, other times there were cougars. (This is a show that gave us not one but two black presidents years before we had one in real life, and then clumsily killed them both off. On 24 the Oval Office was only slightly less dangerous than Thunderdome.) One of the primary pleasures of 24 was watching its harried creators racing to defuse the bomb they themselves had armed.

But the more outlandish the show became, the more irresponsible it also began to appear. Its conspiracies were wildly complex; its morality decidedly less so. 24 was a vindictive series, perfectly synced to a scared, vengeful moment in U.S. history. It’s a point that goes deeper than politics: Surnow is an outspoken conservative who pals around with Rush Limbaugh and created Fox News’s short-lived Daily Show knockoff ½ Hour News Hour, but he stepped down as showrunner after Season 4, leaving the job to the far more liberal Gordon. No matter who was in charge, 24 gave voice and volume to troublesome thoughts that had echoed within the minds of many in the days and years after 9/11, regardless of political persuasion. 24 treated the so-called “global war on terror” as a straightforward, winnable conflict between dogged good and unrestrained evil. It presented homeland security not as a delicate dance between law and order but as a simple binary between action and inaction.

Early in 24’s run, it was possible to consider Jack Bauer as the latest benign link in a long and proud tradition of cocksure protagonists who refuse to play by the rules.4 He was unquestionably the action hero the country craved in those years, but not necessarily the one we needed, especially as his extralegal tendencies increasingly began to mirror the inclinations of those in the highest echelons of power. John Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer credited with (or, as the case may be, discredited by) the drafting of the infamous “torture memo,” used the show as a convenient hypothetical for his positions. In 2007, at the height of the show’s reach, Mayer wrote that 24’s emphasis on the ticking time bomb as a plot device “exploited an insecurity shared by many liberal societies — that their enlightened legal systems had made them vulnerable to security threats.” It was an insecurity that made for compelling, if wildly inaccurate television.

Building a series around a central fallacy is certainly not a crime. In fact, it’s common: Cheers was a show about drinkers who never got drunk. But instead of reflecting real life, 24 increasingly began to influence it. In that same New Yorker article, Mayer chronicled a meeting between Patrick Finnegan, the Dean of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and 24‘s brain trust. Finnegan and a number of experienced, real-life Army interrogators had sought the sit-down in order to voice their concerns over the “toxic” effect the show was having on the military. Mayer writes that the group thought that “the show promoted unethical and illegal behavior and had adversely affected the training and performance of real American soldiers.” Apparently, younger recruits were paying more attention to Jack Bauer’s methods than to those prescribed by international guidelines. In the popular imagination, this image had far more traction than this one.

It wasn’t the politicization of 24 that doomed it the first time around, however. The show was always going to sink or swim on the back of its inelastic premise: filling 24 hours of television is hard enough; setting them sequentially within a single, awful day is close to impossible. Outside of the increasingly Terminator-like Jack Bauer and Chloe O’Brian, his flinty conscience played with surly charm by stand-up Mary Lynn Rajskub, 24 had never much cared for the nuances of character. Who can find the time when there are missiles forever aimed at Air Force One and the clock is ticking? But while 24 was burdened by its conceit, it was ultimately sunk by its context. Fear and fatalism have a shelf life. Dudgeon can only stay high for so long. At a certain point, Jack Bauer transformed from a full-throated freedom fighter to a sad and creepy renegade, forever shouting power at truth. By the time Barack Obama took office in 2009, the country had grown weary of constant war and wary of Bush-era policies. Rather than choose to poke at old wounds, the new administration decided to move on. Those responsible for waging the war on terror vanished from our screens as surely as Jack Bauer did in 2010 at the end of a dispiriting eighth season. His time hadn’t run out. It had passed.

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Four years after it went off the air, and freed from the insistent tick-ticking of its doomsday clock, 24 now actually looks quite a bit ahead of its time. Its unconventional structure presaged our national obsession with serialization5 and demanded a fairly radical programming change that is now quite common: 24 was the first traditional broadcast series to be scheduled in two distinct chunks across a season, allowing episodes to air uninterrupted by reruns and, in the process, draping them with the same sense of momentum and spectacle as their cable competition. These are strands that, a decade later, have coalesced into Fox’s entire broadcasting strategy. Resurrecting 24 while ditching its more problematic elements — particularly its baggy length; the new miniseries will span just 12 hours — is continuing evidence of Fox chairman Kevin Reilly’s investment in the sort of good business sense to which the TV industry has long been immune.6 But can such a strident series adapt itself to our murky present? Can Jack Bauer save a world that has moved on from both his methods and his madness?

24: Live Another Day begins with the familiar sound of the Islamic call to prayer, making it clear from the start that the producers — including Howard Gordon alongside O.G. 24 writers Evan Katz7 and Manny Coto — have no intention of ducking these questions. In fact, they seem to delight in tackling them head-on. The action has shifted to London and it’s there, amid the mosques of Spitalfields, that the story begins. A CIA strike team — led by The Wire’s Gbenga Akinnagbe — is massing to take out an international fugitive. There’s all sorts of charged imagery at work: gun-toting Americans tramping over foreign soil, the prospect of yet another Muslim extremist serving as glorified target practice. But it’s all a misdirect: The fugitive in question turns out to be as American as extraordinary rendition. It’s Jack Bauer. And for once, we don’t know what to make of him.

Kiefer Sutherland is 47 now, and while his physique looks years younger, his face, haggard and haunted, appears much, much older. This serves his performance well. When we catch up with him, Jack has been on the run for four years; the damage he has done to others has settled over him like a dark cloud. Though the trappings are familiar — government offices still favor concrete and glass; government officials still sport chic blonde hairdos and grungeworthy goatees — everything else in the world of 24 has gone topsy-turvy. The first thing Jack Bauer does is lose. The second thing he does is rescue someone from the clutches of state-sponsored torture. He doesn’t appear to be fighting for anything anymore. He barely seems capable of saving himself.

The clock is once again ticking, but it’s unclear who or what is at stake — and that’s a very good thing. The first two hours of Live Another Day are marvels of exposition, introducing a half-dozen compelling new characters — including Yvonne Strahovski’s savvy CIA agent and future Jedi John Boyega’s wronged pilot — and reacquainting us with old friends cast in fascinating new roles. The thoughtful moderate James Heller (William Devane) is now president, dealing with protests from all sides due to his continuing reliance on the drone program to eliminate suspected terrorists. And Chloe O’Brian, once the devoted company woman, has been reborn as a sort of screamo Edward Snowden, using her tech skills to aggravate governments instead of protect them. When Jack sighs that he doesn’t “have any friends,” you believe him. He also doesn’t appear to have any clearly delineated enemies.8 He’s been reimagined as a bullet in a remote control world; he still shoots straight, but everything around him is wobbly. Jack is, quite literally, too old for this shit. But that doesn’t stop him from sinking into it.

While Gordon & Co. have quite intentionally stirred the pot, they haven’t weakened the tea. This is still 24. There’s a literal adrenaline shot to the heart in the first hour. Concussions are shaken off in seconds, bullet holes are merely flesh wounds. Cell phones remain ubiquitous yet only occasionally traceable. Government officials rely on the counsel of one, possibly two obviously untrustworthy advisers. (With the career he’s had, it’s a wonder Tate Donovan hasn’t yet been cast as Benedict Arnold.) Chloe does things with computers that haven’t been attempted since the ’90s. As always on 24, action speaks louder than words and a lot more clearly. When some shadowy hackers bray about freedom of information, Jack, like a wind-up pundit, barks back about treason. (He’s still better at countering punches than criticism.) The body count can be tallied in dog years.

A few years ago, Howard Gordon and his longtime collaborator Alex Gansa raised both their profile and their game with Homeland, an initially sober show that some interpreted as an apology for the high-on-its-own-supply 24. (In The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum called it the “antidote” to Jack Bauer’s poison.) Where 24 had been all blunt trauma, Homeland was a series racked by PTSD and survivor’s guilt. But the calamitous third season of that show proved that any attempt to tell stories about contemporary security and terror is still fraught with peril. Slowing things down doesn’t make it any easier and, besides, speed is not necessarily a crime when it comes to televised storytelling. The issue for me was that, in the past, 24 appeared to be sprinting to avoid the blowback from all the fuses it lit. So far, this new version is nothing but blowback. Jack can barely see through the smoke from all the fires he’s caused. Will he reach for the extinguisher or go back to playing with matches? Once again, the clock is ticking. 

Filed Under: TV, 24, Fox, kiefer sutherland

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Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald