(Warning: Spoilers for Sunday and Monday's two-part "24" premiere follow.)
If the world inhabited by Jack Bauer and the rest of the Counter-Terrorism Unit on Fox’s “24” was real, there’s no way that Kiefer Sutherland would have been nominated for an award at Monday’s presentation of the Golden Globes, nor would the awards show have been held anywhere near Hollywood. Both his character and the location would have been far too dangerous for comfort.
Even before “24’s” new season began on Sunday, Bauer’s Los Angeles had been the victim of a biological attack, and narrowly escaped a couple of nuclear devices. The organizations charged with fighting the threat were mostly good only at invading civil liberties. The army, government, and even CTU itself have always been loaded with moles and traitors. It’s a wonder anyone on the show still lives in California at all.
The sixth season may be even worse. Just four hours into his day, Bauer has already seen a nuclear device detonate in an L.A. suburb. He’s escaped from captivity, rescued a terrorist leader-turned-CTU-collaborator, and then killed a series regular, Curtis Manning, to keep him from executing that former terrorist.
He’s also told CTU leader Bill Buchanan that he’s quitting, although since he hasn’t told President Wayne Palmer — yes, the brother of legendary President David Palmer. Since the nuke has actually gone off, and since star Kiefer Sutherland is still under contract, odds are fair that Bauer will be back on the job next Monday night. The negativity is probably just the result of the two years of silence he spent in a Chinese prison.
That’s good news for the show’s writers and producers, as they try to buck the trends working against “24’s” continued success. The show’s plots have gotten increasingly elaborate as the writers try to top the threats of previous seasons, and the plot twists and betrayals are becoming less believable even in the fictional realm of television. The basic recipe still resonates: the world is under attack by terrorists, and only Jack Bauer can save us. The question is, how much longer can he do so without the show becoming more farce than fantasy?
A modern superheroOther producers have tried to create serial dramas to challenge “24,” but focusing solely on the serial format ignores two factors that have helped the show maintain its audience. In Bauer, the show has created a superhero for modern times, and it’s put Bauer in what amounts to a prime-time soap opera. It has all the plotting, intrigue, and classic plot maneuverings of any daytime program, with violence taking the place of sex as the primary way of keeping score.
As this season begins, Jack Bauer comes right off the plane straight from years of torture in a Chinese prison and is his old self again in a matter of minutes. Of course, the man who has done so much for the United States is handed right off to another group of villains, this time an Arabic organization that is hell-bent on destroying America. And of course, the leader of said villains immediately tells Bauer valuable secrets of his master plan, then leaves him alone with a single guard so he can escape.
Normal human beings would require months of rest and rehabilitation before they could even dream of rejoining an elite fighting force like CTU. Almost everyone would at least require a sandwich and cold beverage. Not Jack. Stab him, beat him, pour toxic chemicals on his open wounds — that won’t stop him. It’ll just make him mad. Mad enough to kill someone with his bare teeth, in perhaps the goriest scene in the show’s six-year history.
Despite the graphic violence that’s a perennial part of the show, “24” serves as a sort of TV comfort food. The audience knows how it’s eventually going to end, and the writers have been good at maintaining the delicate balance between predictability and surprise.
It’s safe to assume that at the end of the day, a lot of good guys will be killed and Jack Bauer himself may be shot, tortured, or taken captive, but the country will be safer than it was before. The show is just real enough to be compelling, and just fake enough that it’s not scary. The audience knows that Jack is probably safe, but there’s always that twinge of doubt, as well as the knowledge that no other series regular can rest easy.
Fans of the show have already seen Jack’s wife killed, watched him become a heroin addict to get close to a needed source, have seen one president and one ex-president killed and another president guilty of plotting against the country. His friends keep getting killed off, he always gets the girl but never keeps her, and his daughter constantly needs saving from random dangers.
Last season’s plot twist concerned President Charles Logan, who turned from incompetent weasel to manipulative evil-doer in a . The change took everyone by surprise, even the actor who plays Logan, and didn’t make a whole lot of sense. If something similar happens this season — if Wayne Palmer turns out to be evil, or his sister is really working for the terrorists, that may be a sign that writers are desperate to keep viewers guessing by any means necessary.
But it’s also obvious that the fears the show exploits are real.
The Los Angeles that Bauer inhabits is a lot more dangerous than the real one, serving as what many would view as a worst-case scenario of the war on terror. The enemies of the United States seem to be everywhere, have access to every kind of weapon, have sleeper cells in every city and elaborate contingency plans anticipating every failure.
And yet, even in this realm, the world is generally safe because Jack Bauer makes it that way. His co-workers fall by the wayside, traitors are everywhere, and the government is corrupt or incompetent, yet Jack Bauer protects Los Angeles almost as well as Superman does Metropolis. He has 20 more hours to work before the city can rest easy again.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.