Season finale review: '24: Live Another Day' - '10 p.m. - 11 a.m.': Bye bye, Jack Bauer?
"24: Live Another Day" has concluded, and I have thoughts on the finale and the season as a whole coming up just as soon as I explain that it is NOT pronounced "nucular," Mr. President...
A strange thing happens in the introduction to the "Live Another Day" finale: Kiefer Sutherland's voiceover tells us that "The following takes place between 10 p.m. and 11 a.m.," and Sutherland makes sure to put emphasis on the last part so we know it is not a mistake, but the first significant bending of the real-time conceit in the series' history(*).
(*) The prologue for the TV-movie "24: Redemption" also deviated from the real-time rule.
Given that the "24" production team had spoken publicly about the way that "Live Another Day" would still encompass 24 hours in the life of Jack Bauer, despite featuring half as many episodes, the only real surprise about the time jump is how long it took to arrive, after the final commercial break of the season, where we jumped from 10:46 p.m. to 10:50 a.m., for an extended coda sequence allowing characters to reflect on the season's tragic events, and for Jack to surrender himself to the Russians in exchange for Chloe.
Then again, maybe the placement of the jump shouldn't be that much of a surprise. A season of "24" that periodically skipped hours in the middle of the action — allowing Jack to battle London traffic, or enjoy some fish and chips, or simply take a quick nap before rappelling down a building — would have been a very different beast from the original run of "24." And it was clear by the end that the creative team wanted "Live Another Day" to feel exactly like vintage "24," for good and for ill.
So even with half as many episodes, we still had the familiar structure of one big bad (the vengeful Margot Al-Harazi) being edged aside by a bigger bad (mercenary Julian Assange stand-in Adrian Cross), and then an even bigger one (Jack's longtime nemesis Cheng Zhi). We still got moles and government incompetence and all the other tropes that the original show used so well at first, and then so often as to lose all value. We even got a chance to see Jack mourn the death of Audrey for a second time, because "24" is a series that's never had a problem killing off the same character multiple times.
So, no, "Live Another Day" wasn't a radical reinvention of the "24" wheel. Jack returned four years later to a different world and political climate, and "Live Another Day" reflected that where it could, with stories about drone attacks and open information campaigns. But the show was the show it had always been.
At times during the season — including parts of this finale — it was a pretty good example of the show it had always been. Yvonne Strahovski's Kate turned out to be one of Jack's better sidekicks ever, Michelle Fairley was an excellent crazy villain as Margot, William Devane was terrific in everything he was asked to do as President Heller, and both Devane and Sutherland provided the finale's highlights with Heller and Jack's reactions to Audrey's death.
At others, though, "Live Another Day" felt every bit as tired as the later seasons of the original run. Sutherland and Devane had to work overtime to give Audrey's death the impact it had, simply because we'd already been there, done that. And Jack sacrificing his freedom for Chloe's felt both rushed(**) and a rehash of Jack being taken prisoner by the Chinese (also involving Cheng) at the end of season 5.
(**) By far the biggest downside of doing 12 episodes instead of 24 is that it didn't feel we got enough of Jack himself, whether solo or interacting with Chloe. On the whole, the screentime balance between Jack and the supporting characters felt about average, but we'd have had twice as much overall time with Jack. Here, it didn't feel like he had a character arc for the season (other than acknowledging at the end that Chloe is his friend) so much as he was a guy brought in to kick butt and occasionally interact with old friends.
And that's the problem at this stage of the franchise's lifespan: Jack has either done every action or endured every trauma possible under this basic format with these usual character types, and most of them three or four times over. Formula is a key part of any long-running TV show (on "The Simpsons," Homer has done or said everything at least six or seven times over), but what made "24" so exciting at the beginning was how unformulaic it seemed. The groundbreaking pairing of the real-time format with a heavily serialized action/thriller format forced the creative team to improvise constantly, and while not all of it worked well (amnesia, cougar), it felt new and surprising and scary, even into the fifth season. "Live Another Day," though, felt like Jack Bauer's Greatest Hits — some played with enthusiasm and vigor, others tossed off because it's what the fans expect to hear in concert.
Going into the season, I wondered how the show would fit into a new political climate, and how doing half the usual number of episodes would change the storytelling. As it turned out, "24" was "24," in any era, at any length. And while there was fun and nostalgia to be had at times — much like going to see a favorite dinosaur rock band play their reunion tour — I think the only way I'd want to see more "24" is if it was something radically different, whether that means someone else (Strahovski, perhaps?) replacing Sutherland as the new lead or a more radical approach to how the stories are told, what kinds of characters appear, etc.
I understand why "24" would have returned in such a familiar way. The creative team has a certain way they've learned to make the show, and the fans also have certain expectations. But the show had outlived its usefulness by the spring of 2010, and the long hiatus could only do so much on its own to breathe new life into the old warhorse.
Some other thoughts:
* Chloe running comms and surveillance on-site at the docks briefly turns Jack into the Josh Holloway character from "Intelligence," and since "Intelligence" was "Chuck" minus the humor, and "Live Another Day" already has Strahovski playing things straight... I would do the TV math of it all, but press tour brain precludes that.
* Loved Erik being turned into Bill Buchanan for a moment there as he becomes the latest poor bastard to have to drop everything in response to a ridiculous Jack Bauer phone call.
* I know I joked about it up top, but it is "nuclear." New-KLEE-err. Not hard. Yet virtually everyone on the show says it the wrong way.
* A major disadvantage of the time jump: we don't get to see Heller or anyone else have to explain to the Chinese how Cheng was decapitated mere moments after they were given proof of life about him. I understand Jack's desire for revenge in that moment, but it seemed unhelpful to the cause of prevent a U.S./China war.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org