It’s hard to write an advance review of 24: Live Another Day without spoiling something.
This long-delayed, 12-episode revival of Fox’s action hit is, like every other season of 24, obsessed with plot, plot, plot, plot, plot. If I even tell you who’s in the damn thing, I’m ruining something. This series from Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran is all about what happens next: the complications, misdirections, and sudden, often ludicrous twists; the surprising but spot-on bits of casting unveiled with a magician’s fanfare. (When a key bad guy is revealed at the end of the second episode, you’re staring at the back of the character’s head for a long time, then suddenly you get a different angle and go, Oh my God, it’s [REDACTED]! I love [REDACTED]!), at which point the sadistic showrunners cut to black.)
Suffice to say that Live Another Day is set in a depressive blue-tinted London, where president James Heller (William Devane) is visiting, and that U.K. citizens are protesting the United States’ indiscriminate use of drones against foreign targets, and that a rogue hacker group appears to be looking for ways to protest the drone strikes by … oh fine, spoiler alert; like you really want to know what they’re up to, and whether I think it’s the show’s real agenda or a red herring? You don’t.
Anyway: I can tell you that the show is (as always) an object lesson in never trusting anything or anyone, that Kiefer Sutherland is back as counterterrorist badass Jack Bauer, and that he’s aged like marbled beef. When Sutherland won his first Emmy in this role 12 years ago, I joked that the award should have been named Outstanding Delivery of Expository Monologues While Shit Is Blowing Up. Sutherland looks leaner and more grizzled than before; the older he gets and the deeper his crow’s feet become, the more oddly dignified the character seems. Even when Jack is using his own handcuffs to strangle a man, there’s a fastidious grace to his movements, and when Jack politely tells six gunmen who’ve got the drop on him that they shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking he’s outnumbered, you laugh, because you know Jack’s not bragging or trying to psych them out. It’s the gunfighter’s version of compassion. There’s no way his current adversaries could know how many impossibly tough spots Jack has escaped from. He’s like Clint Eastwood’s Outlaw Josey Wales offering a would-be duelist a chance to walk away.
There are other characters, including CTU agent Steve Navarro (Benjamin Bratt), who seems like a straight-shooter, and Kate Morgan (Yvonne Strahovski), an analyst who just got fired after a personal and political scandal but can’t stop herself from doing her job anyway, in her own way, even if it means ignoring orders. Like Jack, and like Carrie Mathison on Homeland, the character is a brilliant but volatile maverick who has no office-survival skills; from the instant you realize this, you’re waiting for the moment when she and Jack realize they’re kindred spirits.
As always, the show photographs Jack as if he’s a homicidal wraith, often holding on wide shots as oblivious enemies wander through the frame, then panning left or right to reveal Jack hiding behind a pillar or on the other side of a door frame. Jack doesn’t speak until halfway through the premiere, and his silence is more exciting that most action stars’ bloodiest flourishes. That he begins the tale as an outsider makes his stony quiet more intriguing. The character has often been scapegoated and demonized by his own people. At the start of Live Another Day, he’s on the outs (a carryover from the end of the series finale four years ago) but still very much the good soldier, the ronin who still carries his master’s idealized image in his head.
He’s also as confounding a lead as anyone on the tonier cable dramas. That 24 defines him as a good guy even when he’s jabbing pencils in people’s necks or kneecapping the wives of tight-lipped officials to force them to talk makes the show a more volatile and complicated viewing experience than most action series, or action films. Jack is the closest thing we’ve got to a foreign-policy mascot right now. The recent incarnations of Jason Bourne and James Bond would have been unthinkable without Jack’s example. He’s the military industry complex’s attack dog. Even when he’s masterless, he remains loyal to the other dogs that were once part of his pack, and can’t switch off his instincts. He eats meat, and he can smell fear.
The series’ politics have been rightly criticized for pandering to right-wing fantasies about war, namely that torture is inevitable and necessary because nothing we do can possibly make us more evil than our enemies. (See Jack’s money quote from season five: “If you don’t tell me what I want to know, then it’ll just be a question of how much you want it to hurt.”) But the show is also a trigger for left-wing paranoia. We figured this out back in season two, which predicted the Bush administration’s use of 9/11 as a pretext for a needless Mideast war fueled by nuclear fear-mongering. The government of 24 is filled with cynical and often financially self-interested careerists who are ripe for exploitation by defense contractors and other corporate fat cats who think war is a dandy way to boost profits.
Live Another Day’s drone story extends Bush-era mechanized warfare into the age of Obama. It’s another example of 24’s knack for mixing left- and right-wing assumptions into a ferocious action film cocktail. The one thing every American can agree on is that corporations and governments are filled with people who twist privilege to serve selfish agendas, and that only fools trust without verifying. “I’m doing this to protect the integrity of this government,” rogue CTU officer Christopher Henderson told Jack in season five. “This government has no integrity,” Jack replied. Welcome to one more day.