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Bauer power: ‘24’ movie prequel freshens show

Regular episodes of "24" don't begin until January, but fans can get a taste of Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer character in the TV movie, "24: Redemption," airing Nov. 23.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

After a one-year hiatus that featured a writer's strike and Kiefer Sutherland's real-life trip to jail, "24" is poised to return for a seventh season of Sutherland's Jack Bauer fighting for freedom in his own cringe-inducing way. The episodes start in January, as usual, but this year the producers are offering an extra helping of Bauer power: a two-hour movie prequel that airs Nov. 23 on Fox.

While it's a safe bet that the season will feature another day of Bauer trying to save the United States from both external threats and shady domestic officials, he spends the two hours depicted in "24: Redemption" in Africa.

Instead of worrying about terrorists with weapons of mass destruction attacking Los Angeles or wondering if anyone besides the ever-faithful Chloe isn't secretly working for the other side while cashing paychecks from CTU, Bauer is a world away, dealing with new characters and an entirely different set of problems. The new enemy is a rebel army in Africa, and the people who need his protection are innocent schoolchildren trying to stay safe amidst the chaos.

That change of venue marks a great start to the upcoming season. No show was in more in need of a makeover to freshen things up, and giving the viewers a chance to see Bauer operate in such an unfamiliar setting is a welcome change of pace.

Guns, violence, danger who woulda thunk it?Nobody is tuning into the show to see Bauer playing solitaire by the fire as a happy domesticated family man, and it's not giving much away to say that such activities aren't among this season's storylines. The show is always going to be somewhat predictable, since it isn't like the network is going to show a 24-hour period where Bauer is sleeping off a hangover or having a colonoscopy.

But while viewers expect to see action, Bauer's storylines have become so obvious that they're cliches at this point. There are traitors in CTU? Some of his superiors don't believe him? Government agents are working against him? People around him die? All of that is constant; the only difference is whether the threat is biological, nuclear or political in nature.

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Moreover, "24" tends to spend its time taking its viewers to dark places. There is violence, there is fear, there are tragic deaths and impossible choices and the ever-present torture from both the good guys and the villains. Not a lot of the hour-long episodes end on an uplifting note. Even most of the finales are bitter as much as sweet, since while Jack Bauer always saves the day, he never gets the hero's welcome, and usually winds up worse off than he was when the day began.

That darkness was appropriate when "24" first hit the airwaves. It was just a couple of months after 9/11, and most people supported doing whatever it took to hunt the perpetrators down. The terrorist threats that occurred in the early seasons hit very close to home, and it was comforting to think that people like Bauer were out there, even if it he himself is fictional.

Since then, however, the fighting in Iraq has grown far less popular, and stories like those surrounding the Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay expose the difficult and morally questionable real-life choices that the country, its soldiers, and its leaders face. That means Bauer is now exposing an uncomfortable aspect of ourselves that we already see in the newspapers.

The best, as well as the worstThough "24" makes the news because of its depiction of torture and tactics that make people uncomfortable, it's easy to forget that when the show has been on top of its game, it has shown the best of the United States along with the worst.

Long before President-elect Barack Obama was a national political figure, David Palmer was a fictional minority president popular enough that he easily could have been elected in real life. Jack Bauer's concern for the welfare of his daughter in the early seasons was touching, even if she found herself getting into scrapes that were sometimes more bizarre than the larger terrorist plots.

But Palmer was killed off, Kim Bauer is never seen now, and Jack Bauer's famous loyalty to his friends isn't much of a factor these days because most of those friends are dead. There are fewer characters with whom the audience has a long-term history, so the impact of any individual death or disgrace is less.

Because of that, it's nice to see the writers place Bauer somewhere different. "24: Redemption" shows Bauer struggling to escape his past, even as every force in the universe is conspiring to make him both discuss and repeat it. Violence can't help but follow wherever he goes, but so, too, does the quest to protect the innocent even when that involves making messy choices. In "24: Redemption," the choices he makes help set up what looks to be a pivotal season for "24's" future.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.