Jack Bauer has finally returned to our screens after a four year absence in the form of 24: Live Another Day, a 12 episode miniseries on Fox.
24 is one of my favorite shows of all time. When it was at its best, it offered suspense, intense action set pieces, shocking twists, and dramatic character moments. It was an enormous success and a pop culture icon in the 2000s. 24 ended its eighth season with Jack going on a murderous rampage, becoming an enemy of his own government, and going on the run. 24‘s series finale was something of a wet fart – not a horrible episode, but it was a cap to a rocky season and went overshadowed by Lost‘s finale furor, just one day prior. On its own, as an ending, it was dissatisfying. It was never meant to be the end of Jack Bauer, but rather to lead into a 24 feature film that never materialized. After a while, I’d given up hope. Ever since Live Another Day was announced, I’ve been waiting with bated breath.
Unusually for 24, Live Another Day begins with a cold open. I won’t deny that I was a little bit worried that maybe when Fox resurrected this zombie of a franchise some part of the ritual got buggered up and my beloved would come back wrong. This feeling evaporated very quickly as I settled back into the series, and as the cold open ended, I couldn’t help having a shit-eating grin when that familiar clock sputtered into life and I saw this beautiful sight.
In Live Another Day, James Heller, once the Secretary of Defense and father of Jack’s erstwhile love interest, Audrey Raines, is now the President of the United States. As Day 9 begins, he has come to London to sign a treaty with the British on the use of military drones. In the meanwhile, the London CIA office has captured one of the world’s most wanted and most dangerous fugitives, Jack Bauer. Why has he resurfaced after all this time? And why today of all days?
Live Another Day boasts one of the most intriguing plotlines of any season thus far. The threat, which I won’t reveal here, feels truly unique and absolutely fascinating. Over the years, 24 has had more than one nuclear weapon or biohazard plot, so I’m glad they’ve come up with something very different this time around. The whole affair feels closer to a political espionage thriller than the out-and-out action fests of seasons past. Live Another Day has 24’s excess cargo whittled away to a very stripped-down, very grounded story. It might not be realistic in the strictest sense of the word, but it certainly feels real.
The first hour was a little slow, but I’m grateful for a quieter beginning and a more deliberate setup. By no means is nothing happening, it’s just that the roller coaster is still climbing the hill. By the end of the first hour and into the second, we were off and running, and it’s just as fun as it’s ever been.
Jack Bauer himself is new again, having found himself on the opposite side of the law for once. Sure, Jack’s no stranger to going into hiding, but this time it really feels like the writers are going to some lengths to show that there’s really no going back this time. Jack finally went too far and now there’s no hope of ever getting his life back. It’s a completely believable road to take him down, since Jack’s character arc has always been a tragic one. He began the series as a dedicated husband and father who was forced to do some unorthodox things to protect his family and his country under extreme circumstances. Over time, all the things that kept him grounded in the world of normal humans were taken from him. The people he cared about either died or wanted nothing more to do with him. As a result, Jack got darker and more violent. 24 began to reflect this more and more in its last two years, and by the last chunk of Season 8, it’s clear that Jack has had the last straw. A man who began the series as a hero has become a broken, hollow monster, and judging by the premiere, it seems like he’s even worse off than before.
Unfortunately, one thing that isn’t new is the hoary old 24 chestnut where the
CTU FBI CIA supervisor du jour refuses to believe perfectly rational warnings and advice from competent operatives for no logical reason whatsoever, even when the evidence is right in front of their nose. Of course, conflict is what generates drama and we want our characters to be butting heads sometimes, but not when it makes no fucking sense. Benjamin Bratt’s Steve Navarro, an otherwise welcome addition to the cast, completely ignores Kate’s (Yvonne Strahvoski) perfectly sensible warning that maybe, just maybe, Jack wanted to be caught, mere minutes after giving a big speech about how dangerous and unpredictable Jack Bauer can be. Uh? HELLO?! If Navarro knows anything about Jack, then he should know very well that a living weapon is sitting in his interrogation room. Just once I’d like an Agent-in-Charge to be like, “Oh, hey, you’re absolutely right. I must have been wearing my Retard Cap today.”
Aside from that, the new characters fit like a glove. So far, there’s not really anyone I don’t like. In most seasons of 24, there’s always the one character who comes off as useless and annoying, giving the assumption that their only purpose is to die. I thought it would be Bratt, but he made up for his earlier snafu when it came time for him to interview Bauer. Kiefer Sutherland remains completely, chillingly silent, staring Navarro down. Navarro, on the other hand, doesn’t play tough guy, doesn’t beat around the bush, just tells Jack what’s what and leaves, and with a good deal charisma to boot.
As for Kate, I haven’t seen Strahvoski in anything other than Chuck, which I loathe, but she’s certainly piqued my interest. She’s a disgraced field agent about to be shipped back to the States, but luckily for us, she seems to be the sharpest person there. She also has a definite renegade streak, willing to break the rules to do what she thinks needs doing. Renée Walker from seasons past had a somewhat similar trajectory, but with Walker, she began as a by-the-book agent who gradually became morally grey under Jack’s influence. Kate seems to have the seeds of that naturally. It has the potential for an interesting dynamic between her and Jack and I hope she continues to develop into a great character, hopefully someone who can become Bauer’s equal and opposite.
The rest of the new cast hasn’t quite distinguished itself yet, but I certainly have no complaints thus far. Erik Ritter seems like he’s being set up as a more on-the-level rival for Kate, and while we don’t know much about him yet – well, other than him being Chris from The Wire, and I’m fine with that. Tate Donovan plays Chief of Staff Mark Boudreau, and while the last time I saw him it was in the truly awful Hostages, this time he’s not making me want to hang myself, so that’s something. The supporting actor I was most pleased to see was Stephen Fry as the British Prime Minister, because it’s Stephen-Fucking-Fry.
While Live Another Day brings a lot of new faces to the cast, established characters are certainly the most welcome element. Audrey and Heller were significant characters during the middle part of the series’ run, but we kind of lost track of them later on. Both last appeared in the season six finale, all the way back in 2007. It’s kind of the nature of the beast – Jack Bauer is 24, after all. The series proved more than once that they could jettison nearly everything beyond Kiefer Sutherland between seasons and keep the clock ticking. As a consequence, occasionally, former important characters who were fortunate enough to not to be killed would simply drop off of the radar if they weren’t needed for the upcoming season.
But they were some of the more frustrating casualties of that habit, with Audrey in particular. When last we saw her, she was a total wreck, nearly catatonic thanks to months of incarceration and torture, courtesy of the Chinese government. Here, she’s the President’s daughter, happily married to her father’s Chief of Staff, seemingly on the way to recovery. For now, Jack’s return is being kept from her, but I eagerly await their inevitable reunion.
Heller himself makes for quite a good President. He’s somewhat reminiscent of Alan Alda’s character on The West Wing. Heller has some big shoes to fill, given the Oval Office’s previous occupants on this show, and William Devane seems more than up to the task. It wasn’t a possibility I had even considered, but I think it’ll end up working rather well. we know from previous outings that Heller’s a decent man, but it will be interesting to see how the pressures of leadership will affect him. By the end of the second hour, he’s already come up against some truly heartbreaking obstacles and given the audience something to chew on.
Chloe, of course, is almost as much of an old hand as Bauer himself these days, having joined the series back in 2003. Like Jack, she seems to have abandoned her former life completely, living off the grid and working with an, admittedly silly, group of WikiLeaks-esque free-information hackers. She’s in a much darker place and I’d like to find out, as much as the real-time format allows, just what the hell happened to her since her arrest after Season 8.
24 has always been a good looking show, but Live Another Day has taken it to a new level. The first six seasons or so were bathed in the warm orange light of Los Angeles (and Africa), while the latter two shifted to a colder, blue-tinged palette for Washington, DC and New York City. On Day 9, the visual aesthetic has shifted yet again.
24‘s London seems continually overcast, yielding a desaturated color palette with lots of grays, blacks, and grain. The series doesn’t look drab by any means, but where earlier years were slickly cinematic, Live Another Day feels more gritty and rough-and-tumble. The location shooting in London has been used to great effect, forgoing the cliché establishing shots of the familiar landmarks in favor of back-alleys, projects, real streets and so forth. Because of this, London feels wholly real, not the Greatest Hits version Hollywood often portrays.
Live Another Day‘s biggest departure from the series’ formula is of course its 12-episode limited series format. I think it’s an excellent idea and it frees the storytelling from some of the constraints it was once shackled to. By halving the number of episodes while still covering a 24-hour period, it allows the story to be very lean and pack more into each episode. One of 24‘s biggest hurdles has been its main selling point. 24 episodes in real time makes for compelling television, but it also means that you have to account for what your characters are doing for every second of the day. That lead to a number of irritating subplots pulled from the writing staff’s collective rear simply to fill time and give cast members something to do until they were needed for something relevant again. Live Another Day avoids the issue entirely. So far everything and everyone matters, and the story is trucking along at an impressive clip. It’s a far cry from needing someone to be menaced by a cougar for a few hours.
Of course, one of the reasons we watch 24 is to see Jack Bauer being a badass, and the premiere certainly delivered. I ended up exclaiming, “Holy shit,” out loud, and then feeling a little sheepish because it was one-in-the-morning and my neighbors probably hate me. The action sequences are shot with a frenetic energy that stands up to the best Hollywood blockbusters. They’re fast paced, they’re vicious, but the audience never loses track of what’s going on. This is no small part due to the skillful direction from Jon Cassar, one of 24‘s most prolific directors.
Despite all of the changes and the four year break, 24 still retains its core, and it feels just like it always has. It’s like we haven’t been away at all. Hell, veteran 24 fans are used to that – even when the show was on every year there were frequent time skips between seasons. According to the 24 fan wiki, in-universe, it has now been EIGHTEEN YEARS since Day 1. All the familiar, comforting idiosyncrasies of 24 are intact – split screens, the intro, the beeping of the clock, albeit with a slight visual makeover.
While the premiere might not have an over-the-top moment to match a nuclear detonation in Valencia (and thank goodness, too), Live Another Day is still exciting, unpredictable, and perhaps most importantly, fresh. Many of the issues 24 ran into have been addressed. The plot is moving along very nicely indeed, raising interesting questions; everything follows on from one another logically, there are no pointless side roads and all the little gears are moving things forward in concert. I’d go so far as to say that this is some of the best writing 24 has had in a long time. After such a lengthy wait, 24 has once again delivered some tense, gripping hours of television. It seems like no one’s quite sure if this is the end or not, but if this is to be 24‘s last hurrah, it’s shaping up to be a hell of a ride. Jack is back.