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Jack gets through another rough day on ‘24’

How long can Fox keep the show’s formula from getting stale?
/ Source: contributor

Season 5 was just a typical day in the life of Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), the modern superhero who has done more work for less thanks than any television character in recent memory. He saved the country once again, exposing a corrupt president and keeping the West Coast free from nuclear attack and (for the most part) deadly nerve gas.

It was also a typical season in the life of a "24" fan. With the possible exception of last season's "Lost," no show offers its viewers less payoff in the season finale. The show is notorious for ending its season on a down note: Bauer's wife was killed in the show's first season, and subsequent years have seen a biological attack against President David Palmer  (Dennis Haysbert), Palmer's forced resignation, and Bauer's need to fake his own death to avoid being killed by his own countrymen. Some entertainers look to leave the audience laughing; "24" looks to send them off with a shake of the head and an "I'm never watching this show again!" rant.

This season, it's Bauer himself who finds trouble, spirited away in an improbably fast assault that took him from an abandoned building at a Los Angeles airfield to the torture chamber of a Chinese freighter in the time span it takes most people in L.A. to drive five blocks. Season 5 ended happily for all of the good guys … except Bauer and his love interest Audrey Raines (Kim Raver), as the two destined for a relationship that's always being threatened by Bauer's tendency to vanish without a trace.

Three more years of bad daysThe ending makes logical sense: Sutherland has signed on for three more years as Bauer, and the show's producers want to give the show a new wrinkle next season. Having him break free from the Chinese will at least be something different. (It won't please the corporate types at Fox, though — making the new "enemy" a country with the fastest-growing economic market in the world isn't the best way to boost those DVD sales.)

But while the ending to this season offers new possibilities, it's hard to see the show staying fresh for much longer without a concentrated effort from the writers to break the mold. The dirty little secret of "24" is that for a show that endeavors to offer dramatic twist and turns, it's one of the most predictable hours of television on the air.

Any "24" fan can tell what's probably going to happen next season. Bauer and the country will be in trouble. The Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU) in Los Angeles will be tasked with saving the day. A cadre of loyalists will be there to support his efforts, although the death of show regulars David Palmer, Michelle Dessler (Reiko Aylesworth) and Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) this season means that Bauer won't have as many names programmed into his ever-present PDA.

But Chloe O'Brien (Mary Lynn Rajskub), the queen of the computer whose system never crashes, will be back. Bill Buchanan (James Morrison) looks like he'll return to run CTU, as will Curtis Manning (Roger Cross). On the government side, Homeland Security's Karen Hayes (Jayne Atkinson) seems to be a sympathizer, and there's always Mike Novick (Jude Ciccolella), who's now worked for two different presidents and betrayed both.

Don't get too attached. A bunch of them will die, since CTU breeds moles and traitors like most offices produce gossip. And several of the dead will be people the audience has been conditioned to care about, since the show tosses its minor stars overboard whenever things get stale. Nobody gets to retire on "24" — as soon as a character's story arc has run its course, it's time for the nerve gas, car bomb or bullet. CTU's pension costs must be the lowest in the history of mankind.

Brainwash BauerOf course, that could change next season. One way of doing so would be to have Bauer return after an extended stay in a Chinese prison, with the expectation of his former captors that he would be a brainwashed agent of Beijing.

One of the character's attributes is his ability to get people to trust him who have no logical reason to do so; sometimes it seems like he could talk Fox News into running a gushing Bill Clinton biopic. If his trustworthiness is brought into question, both for other characters and the audience in general, it would go a long way towards keeping this show at the forefront of the pop culture landscape. It would be something different, at least for those who never saw "The Manchurian Candidate" or its mediocre 2004 remake.

But it would be a huge risk as well, because it would mess with the central appeal of the show; the notion of Jack Bauer as hero.

The appeal of "24" was initially its format, as the program broke new ground in spending an entire season focused on just one day in the life of its central character. Soon, however, the attraction became the character itself. In a post-9/11 world where the country was looking for heroic figures, Bauer fit the bill as a protagonist who was capable of protecting the USA from whatever the bad guys had in store.

So far in the "24" universe, Bauer has saved truth, justice and the American way in pretty much every conceivable fashion. He's stopped nuclear bombs and nerve gas, biological weapons and armed assaults. He's taken on corrupt presidents, drug lords, and terrorist masterminds. He's faked his own death and survived a suicide mission. Oh, and he's executed a former boss in each of the last two seasons, which is something Buchanan should probably be worried about.

For most people, a record like that would bring vacation plans and a job change. For Bauer, it tends to bring the same old thing happening again a few months later. So far, that's been successful at gaining a wide viewership, but at some point it's going to go the way of the "Die Hard" sequels and the audience is going to start rolling its eyes and wondering how the protagonist always seems to find himself in such a mess.

On the show, Bauer has an incredible power of persuasion, and always seems to convince everyone not explicitly evil to trust him within a few moments of their introduction. The show's writers and producers may need to utilize that power to convince its audience of its relevance next season. If not, at some point the audience may switch to a program that offers its viewers a better payoff than beloved characters ending the season in mortal danger. In television, as on "24," the clock is always ticking.

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