Review: Jack Bauer returns in '24: Live Another Day'
When FOX announced the long-hinted resurrection of "24" as a 12-episode miniseries called "24: Live Another Day," I immediately wondered two things:
1)How would Kiefer Sutherland's feral hero, Jack Bauer — a character as deeply rooted in the George W. Bush era as, say, Josiah Bartlet was in the Bill Clinton era — come across in 2014?
2)Would the four year gap since the last "24" episode, and the decision to produce half as many episodes — all set in real time, but sometimes with missing hours in between — allow the show to lean less heavily on some of its more tired narrative tricks, and/or at least make them fell fresher than they did by the end of season 8?
I've now seen the first two episodes of "Live Another Day" (they air back-to-back on Monday night at 8 & 9, and will air in its old Monday at 9 timeslot thereafter). While it's hard to draw too many conclusions from the start of a season of a show that always had more trouble with middles than beginnings or endings, I would say that the reincarnated "24" does fairly well on the first front, less well on the second. I was happy to be watching the adventures of Jack Bauer again, and my pulse quickened the first time I heard the beeping clock sound and saw the opening titles, but the time away hasn't magically cured all the show's flaws.
When FOX canceled "24" back in 2010, the show was still a ratings success, but it was getting expensive in the way that all old shows do, and there was also a sense that the concept and all the gambits that came with it needed a break. Every major character save for Jack and his hacker sidekick Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) had been killed, revealed as a mole, or both, and there were only so many traitors, so many plans within plans to be revealed, before even the most devout fan felt weary.
"24" need a break at a minimum, and "Live Another Day" does a pretty good job of trying to figure out where Jack Bauer fits in this new political era. Where "West Wing" became creatively unmoored by the Bush presidency and then 9/11, "24" had already started acknowledging the shifting political winds before it went off the air. Jack was called to account several times for his extra-legal techniques — particularly his fondness for using torture to get information — and ended the original series not only as a relic, but a fugitive, who was now branded a traitor by his own government for the sort of actions for which he was celebrated back when David Palmer was alive.
"Live Another Day," set and filmed in London, finds Jack once again on the trail of would-be presidential assassins — this time out, POTUS is former defense secretary James Heller (William Devane), father of Jack's ex Audrey (Kim Raver) — but with no government support, and no illusions about what reward awaits him if he succeeds. When Chloe wonders if he's hoping to be forgiven for his past sins, a rueful Jack tells her, "There's no going back for me."
Just as the series' longtime producer Howard Gordon — running this season along with fellow "24" vets Evan Katz and Manny Coto — has pivoted into a new political landscape on "Homeland," he finds a way to position Jack into a world with echoes of our own(*). The plot — at least at the start of "Live Another Day," since we know that one of the open secrets of "24" was how each season tended to feature two or three major arcs as the writers burned through story — involves anger over the American military's drone program, and an Edward Snowden type named Adrian Cross (Michael Wincott), who has brought Chloe into his organization of document-releasing hackers.
(*) Because of time jumps in between seasons, plus the gap between the end of the show and the events of "Live Another Day," Jack is living about four years ahead of us, but it doesn't get confusing because all of the politicians are fictional and Jack Bauer's not the kind of guy who would make a pop culture reference. Ever.
Jack naturally has contempt for these people — when Chloe tries to justify her activities with Cross by talking about all the illegal things intelligence organizations do, he retorts, "You're smarter than that." — but Cross and all the conflict over drones makes the show feel plugged into current events in the same way it did when it debuted shortly after 9/11. And making Jack into an embarrassing reminder of an earlier era only adds pathos to a character who, even with the tremendous gravity that Sutherland brings to the role, is always a half-step away from caricature. (On the other hand, styling Chloe to look like Lisbeth Salander is laying it on too thick, as if Rajskub was starring in a "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" parody written by the Wayans brothers.)
But if the fictional world of "24" has changed, the basic structure and gimmicks have not. The actors are mostly new to the franchise (including John Boyega, just announced as one of the leads of the new "Star Wars" movie, here playing a drone pilot), yet each of them is playing a variation on a half-dozen similar characters the show used back in the '00s. As a CIA analyst who has a better grasp on what Jack's doing than her colleagues do, Yvonne Strahovski from "Chuck" fits the show's tradition of icy Hitchcock blondes. And it's almost surprising to realize that the original show never had room for either Tate Donovan (playing Heller's questionably motivated chief of staff) or Benjamin Bratt (as the CIA station chief who makes various dumb decisions so Strahovski can look smart) playing these exact roles. It may be that Gordon and company have plans to mess with our expectations — to make Strahovski's whiny colleague, played by Gbenga Akinnagbe (Chris Partlow from "The Wire") more heroic than he seems here — but eight seasons of the show made it easy to both predict which characters will cause unnecessary problems for Jack, and when.
Then again, I still haven't seen how the revised format will affect things. FOX only made the season's first two hours available for review, and they take place with no gap in between. Producing 24 episodes a season was always a problem, because it didn't allow the writers to adequately plot out an entire big story arc, and ideas they expected to take 24 shows to execute might instead happen after only 8 or 9.
"Do you understand the level of desperate we were at?" Gordon told me when we discussed the show for my book. "It's like driving at 65 miles per hour on the highway and you're building the highway as you're driving. On the one hand, that energy and necessity of invention fueled the show, but it was crazy. We wrapped in May and started shooting in July. You can't plot 24 episodes in that time."
Having half as many episodes will alleviate some of that, as will not having to come up with something interesting for every character to be doing in every hour of a day. Some of the show's more comical missteps — Teri Bauer's amnesia in season 1, or Kim Bauer's encounter with the cougar in season 2 — came about simply because the writers had to hold those characters in place until they could rejoin the main plot, and couldn't just show them sleeping, or sitting in traffic, for an entire hour. That will theoretically be much less of a problem with the new structure, but it's hard to judge for sure until we see how it plays out. Will each episode that picks up after an hour (or more) off have to begin with a lot of clunky exposition about what people were up to? Or will the breaks all conveniently happen at meal, nap or tea time?
I didn't watch the last few seasons of "24" to their conclusion when they aired, because I was so burned out on the show's more obvious flaws. (The first time I saw the series finale was when I was researching that chapter for the book.) But I'm going to be watching every episode of "Live Another Day." As a student of TV, I want to see exactly how the show functions in a new decade, and with this tweaked format. And as a fan of Jack Bauer who's missed his intense glower the last four years ("Taken" repeats on cable only scratch this itch so much), I'll gladly watch 10 more weeks of the show past this one, especially in the slower summer months. "Live Another Day" may ultimately set off every clichéd minefield the show tripped over the previous eight seasons, but the time commitment is so much shorter that I can enjoy the show's strengths (Jack, his relationship with Chloe, the action set pieces) without getting too bummed out by its weaknesses if they wind up persisting like always.
But if Strahovski gets amnesia, even in a shortened season, there's no excuse. Nor, I believe, are there many jungle cats to be found inside London.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org