The return of 24 is a momentous occasion. Canceled four years ago during the still hopeful early period of Barack Obama’s first term, 24 and its hero, Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU) agent Jack Bauer, had become a painful reminder of the previous administration’s go-it-alone cowboy approach to fighting terrorism. Each new season of 24 was greeted with countless op-ed pieces debating the show’s political viewpoint. Was it a conservative revenge fantasy fueled by post-9/11 anxiety, or a cautionary liberal screed about forsaking civil liberties in pursuit of safety? Or maybe it was combination: Jack Bauer was an apolitical soldier who did the dirty work without questioning why. The only thing he implicitly demanded was to be left alone as he did his job. (You have to look at Dirty Harry and its sequels to find 24’s cinematic equal when it comes to refracting the country’s rather thorny views on justice.) Presented as a political thriller with a ticking-clock gimmick, 24 was really an Existential action series that tapped into the PDA-BlackBerry-iPhone rush of 21st century life. Jack Bauer’s daily planner of saving the world was a cracked reflection of our need to get everything done today. Along with The Sopranos, 24 was the American TV drama that best defined the Aughts.
After four years off the grid, 24 looks both different and the same. A lot has happened since Jack last saved the country. In the show’s absence we’ve been treated to both Homeland and Zero Dark Thirty, neither of which might have existed without the success of 24. Homeland (which is co-produced by 24 co-creator Howard Gordon) doesn’t even bother to create a make-believe agency to employ its single-minded heroine Carrie Mathison. She simply works for the CIA, and is trying to prevent another 9/11. Homeland differs from 24 in its pace (slower) and its emphasis on relationships. It’s less a straightforward action thriller than a tragic love story with political intrigue as its backdrop. ZD30 is often seen as owing its existence to Homeland, but the movie’s torture-saturated opening passages are very 24.
The new season of 24 is aware of all these developments, and addresses them in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The first thing you’ll notice during the two-hour season premiere of the limited-run “series event” is a pre-title sequence. The next thing you’ll notice is a distinctly different color palette. This season is set in London, which calls for overcast skies even at 11:00 AM. The sequence is a cat-and-mouse pursuit with Jack Bauer trying to evade capture. The show begins in midstream, with explanations to come later. “Where are we on real-time tracking?” a humorless-looking Benjamin Bratt asks to a roomful of CIA analysts. And with that acknowledgement of “real-time tracking” we’re plugged back into world of 24.
The limited-run approach to this season is a smart move. It’s an implicit acknowledgement that even the show’s best seasons had hours that felt like padding. By keeping the real-time conceit while condensing the action to twelve hours, 24 aims to dispense with loose ends and red herrings and be all killer, no filler. (Will we even have time for a mole this season?) At the same time, modifications to the formula suggest that the show feels it has something to prove. The change in location puts everyone on the defensive, as Jack Bauer is now a foreigner. Branded a terrorist by his own country puts him in the position of the many foreigners he profiled in earlier seasons. Will the show play off Jack not being afforded the same rights he sometimes violated in order to serve the greater good? This murky uncertainty is expressed by trading the sunbaked look of Southern California for the melancholy of an overcast London day, and the changing of CTU to the CIA moves the action one step closer into the arena of real world political intrigue. (Both Homeland and the great Covert Affairs have given the FBI and the NYPD a run for their money as the dominant settings for workplace dramas.)
The pre-title sequence ends with the seemingly too easy capture of Jack by a tactical team of agents. The last shot of the sequence is a straight-ahead close-up of Sutherland, then a cut-to-black as we see the familiar digital read-out that ticks down to “24.” (If memory serves me correctly, I don’t think the show ever began with a pre-title sequence.) It’s a terrific star image that stirs feelings of nostalgia, comfort, patriotism, and dread.
In movies, Sutherland’s calling is for villainous roles (Freeway, Dark City), but on TV he’s perfect as a flawed hero. His face is now lined with regret, but we can still see determination in his walk and posture. In the second hour, there’s a moment where Jack is walking down the hallway of a shady apartment building, and his forward motion is both forceful and captivating. He’s still a physical actor, but he’s become more economical in his movements. (There are moments when Sutherland suggests a younger, jumpier Clint Eastwood, or William Petersen in To Live and Die in L.A.) Instead of disarming a bad guy in five moves, Jack Bauer now only needs three. And Sutherland has changed up his line readings. He still delivers them in his trademark breathless rush, but they’re filtered through gritted teeth. (A couple of lines are so clipped with tension that I had trouble making them out.) The most daring thing about the first two hours of is the decision to keep its hero silent for thirty minutes. Jack Bauer, the fount of expository action, is now a quietly commanding presence. The first hour is all about getting re-acclimated to the show’s rhythms. It turns out the CIA is having to be on their toes this particular day because the President is in London trying to finalize a treaty with the British that would allow the construction of a new military base. He’s encountering resistance (and protest) over the United States’ use of armed drones.
The President is former Secretary of Defense James Heller (William Devane), who you may recall has a stormy history with Jack. It’s great to see Devane back in the Oval Office. TV viewers of a certain age will remember him as President John F. Kennedy from 1974’s The Missiles of October. There’s also a good helping of his great performance in the grindhouse classic Rolling Thunder, where he played a Vietnam POW. The combination of these previous two Devane roles transforms President Heller into 24’s version of John McCain. (This makes sense, seeing as 24 had both an African-American man and a strong-willed woman occupy the Oval Office in prior seasons.) The one wrinkle they give Heller is the onset of Reagan-like senility. In a meeting in which he prepares to meet with the British Prime minister, he tells an anecdote where he mixes up Theodore Roosevelt with Franklin. It’s an innocent gaffe, but telltale sign that he’s vulnerable. He wants this treaty to get finalized as part of ensuring his legacy.
But back at the CIA black site, Benjamin Bratt’s Steve Navarro is looking to interrogate Jack before a transfer order to “special activities” comes in from the President’s Chief of Staff Mark Boudreau (Tate Donovan). Bauer being in London the same day as the President can’t be a coincidence, and Navarro wants to find out what he’s up to. Bratt’s rather humorless acting style serves him well in the role of CTU/CIA head honcho. I liked his mixture of annoyance and exasperation when dealing with—wait for it—female analyst Kate Morgan (Yvonne Strahovski), a disgraced field agent who thinks the capture of Jack Bauer was too easy.
And so it was. In the first hour’s one genuinely shocking moment we are shown “special activities” interrogators working over Chloe O’Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub). Seeing Chloe being tortured as the scene cuts to the digital readout for a commercial break is classic 24. The moment is so upsetting that it takes us an extra second to register the fact that, within the context of 24, the question of whether torture is effective is one that no longer needs answering. Torture happens. And the benign-sounding “special activities” unit is where it happens. And it’s in that matter-of-factness that 24 is commenting on how far we’ve come from season one, when scenes of Jack torturing suspects sparked all those water cooler discussions and op-ed pieces. When Jack is being transferred and finally springs into action to save Chloe, he at one point asks one of the agents what they did to her. The response is: “Nothing you haven’t done.”
This being 24, Jack isn’t just breaking out Chloe because he’s loyal to her. He needs her to help him get information. The line of the night is delivered in Jack’s van, where Jack gives Chloe a cell phone with a tracking device. When the Serbian mercenary working for Jack asks about Chloe being his friend, Jack answers, “I don’t have any friends.” This might be the most honest thing Jack has ever said.
If the first hour is about acclimation, the second is about momentum and revelations. Chloe is part of the free information movement and is working for a WikiLeaks-like group led by Michael Wincott’s Julian Assange-type character Adrian Cross. Cross sounds like a potential breakout character when he Bauer exchange terse justifications for their actions. Jack is looking for a former member of Cross’s team who came across a wire that hinted an assassination attempt was going to be attempted on Heller while in London.
And with that, 24 reveals that it’s about Jack making amends. It seems as though this season will spin off that great final scene from the unjustly maligned season six finale in which Jack confronted Heller about questioning his loyalty. As you may recall, Heller’s daughter Audrey had been in love with Jack and even went to China to try to rescue him. She paid the price for her loyalty to Jack by being tortured. Heller forbade Jack to see her again. Season six ended with Jack pledging his heart to Audrey, who was in a catatonic state. In the new season, she’s mentally healthy and married to Heller’s Chief of Staff (Donovan). It seems Jack’s determination to prevent an assassination attempt on the man who had banished him is a sort of penance. In this context, this turns Jack into a spiritual brother of Nicholas Brody of Homeland.
Meanwhile, we are starting to get a clearer picture of agent Morgan. Her husband was also an agent, but a treasonous one, which puts her in the position of having something to prove. Her workplace antagonist is the smug, by-the-book Erik Ritter (Gbenga Akinnagbe). The friction caused from bureaucratic protocol preventing key individuals from doing what needs to be done has been a hallmark of every season of 24, and one of the major components of a conservative action-movie value system. Conservative action icons like John McClane, John Rambo, and “Dirty” Harry Callahan will get you results as long as you don’t get in their way. What makes 24 different from those fantasies is it attempts to deal with the consequences of going it alone. Agent Morgan is just the latest in a trend of female heroines who can more than keep up with men when it comes to getting the job done. I’m just glad they didn’t saddle her with a mental instability problem.
You’ll notice I’ve yet to talk about the plot developments of the first two hours. That’s because, for the moment anyway, they really don’t interest me and if you're reading this, you probably watched the episode so you know what happened. Sure, the climatic scene at the end of the first hour where an American drone was hijacked and used against our own people was tense, but it felt like a prelude to something bigger. The big reveal of Michelle Fairley as the Big Bad at the end of hour two was a much better kicker. (While I’m sure everyone is thinking about Catelyn Stark of Game of Thrones, I was thinking of Ava Hessington from Suits.) For the moment I’m more interested in how Jack is going to do what needs to get done without any kind of support system. (He has Chloe, but even she’s operating on her own.) The subtitle for this season is Live Another Day, which recalls the bond entry Die Another Day. (Sorry, there won’t be any paging of Dr. Freud this season.) The Bond connotation is apt: Jack Bauer is in Bond’s backyard, but is not enjoying any of Bond’s perks. He’s doing Bond’s dirty work. He’s doing ours, too. Jack’s back, and somehow it feels like he never left.
Odds & Ends
- Anyone notice the inverse of having agent Morgan have a male tech do her clandestine research? The mirroring of vintage Jack & Chloe was a nice touch. Does this mean Giles Matthey’s Jordan will be Morgan’s sacrificial lamb? Or will he turn out to this season’s requisite mole?
- Tate Donovan is doing a marvelous of playing Boudreau very close to the vest. He’s enough of a puppet master that we aren’t completely sure of his motives of keeping Audrey in the dark about Jack. Donovan creates just the right mix of insecurity, protectiveness, and possibly something more sinister when barking out orders.
- My favorite moment of the night was Jack’s confrontation with the low-level drug dealer who was protecting the man Jack was looking for. The scene felt designed as a reminder to viewers that before Taken there was 24. When confronted with a roomful of bad guys, Jack calmly said: “Look I can tell you consider yourself a pretty intimidating group. You probably think I’m at a disadvantage. I promise you I’m not. Give me Derek Yeates and I give you the opportunity of walking out of here without getting harmed. I suggest you take it.”