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The Case for 24: Why it’s the ’00s Most Underrated Blockbuster

While the stars of critically acclaimed cable dramas snag the glory, Aaron Yap believes 24‘s weary, brutal Jack Bauer can stand proudly alongside Walter White, Tony Soprano and the rest as an elite golden age anti-hero.

Being a 24 fan can be a lonely experience. The number of people who I know really watch this show (i.e. those I can have a conversation with on a religious level): countable on one hand. A tiny amount, considering how much buzz shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and The Wire are able to generate on social media during, and even after, their run.

It’s not that no one watches or cares about 24: in its heyday, this series was a critical favourite, nabbed some Emmy’s (in 2006, it beat The Sopranos for Outstanding Drama Series) and its protagonist, counter terrorist agent Jack Bauer, has become an iconic action hero of sorts. Most tellingly, Fox was confident enough about its loyal fanbase that the show was resurrected for a “limited event” 9th season this year after getting cancelled in 2010.

Yet 24 has never achieved that watercooler prestige those above mentioned shows have enjoyed; I’ve never had anyone in the office come up to me the next day and go “Jack Bauer, man. Last night. That was sick!”. I could drop a line from 24 on Facebook today and EdgeRank would just bury that shit (to wit, update your status with “I am the one who knocks” and see what happens).

One could attribute its lack of presence in the current wider conversation of TV to the fact that 24 and its terrorism-fueled storytelling were products of their time, peaking at the height of post-9/11 hysteria, but I’d argue that when it comes to any discourse about “the Golden Age of Television”, it’s just as important and influential as The Sopranos.

I’ve never actually watched an episode of 24 on TV. I came to the show via DVD boxsets, a few years after it started airing, and can only imagine catching it on TV, with ad breaks and a week wait between episodes, would infuriate me to no end. 24 was designed for binge-watching long before binge-watching was a thing.

Marked by labyrinthine plotting, breakneck pacing, whiplash twists, and heart-attack cliffhangers, it was thrilling, ground-breaking serialised television the likes of which were next-to-non-existent in the early noughts. The showrunners delighted in taking brazen narrative risks with its innovative real-time conceit (each episode represented an hour of the day), and doing this in tandem with riveting, super-violent, cinematic action sequences over the course of 24 episodes was no mean feat.

But the one element that’s held the universe of 24 together even when it was trippin’ over itself during the later seasons, has been Kiefer Sutherland, whose career-defining, utterly committed performance as Jack Bauer remains the bolt of urgent, galvanic energy at the show’s core.

“Badass” is a term that gets thrown a lot around these days, but I’d nominate Jack Bauer as the most enduring badass the 21st century has seen yet.A disciplined master of staying awake and avoiding toilet breaks for 24 hours straight, Jack, in his laser-focused dedication to The Job, has chalked up an impressive 309-body kill count over nine separate days of thwarting terror plot after terror plot. It’s hard to imagine the guy as human sometimes, especially when we begin anatomising the character by listing all the cool stuff he’s done, and this is why getting a feel for the evolution of Jack’s arc is crucial, and will deepen your appreciation of Sutherland’s work.

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The first couple of seasons proved Jack was skilled at what he does; he got results, even if it meant – as seen in Day 2’s unforgettable first hour – gunning down a witness and hacksawing the dude’s head off to execute an undercover ploy.

By the time Day 8 creaked around, the gathering toll of Bauer’s punishing experience was apparent. Wracked by betrayals, loved ones dying, heroin addiction, a 20-month stint in a brutal Chinese prison, and the psychological fallout from dishing out torture and making impossible decisions on a regular basis, Jack had hardened into a stone-cold, law-breaking Terminator (see the insane motorcade slaughter that climaxes that day). But Sutherland has always found ways to etch out traces of Jack’s near-depleted humanity, and it’s this divided soul that grounds the show whenever it goes off the rails – which it does, often.

As good as 24 was when it was on-point – and it was never better than the ruthless, phenomenally consistent Day 5 – it was rarely perfect. Even its ardent supporters would agree that it’s prone to bouts of stupidity and lapses in logic. One of the biggest challenges the writers faced attempting to sustain a real-time thriller for nearly six months was filling out narrative space when there was obviously no story to tell. This led to silly B – sometimes C – plots that led nowhere, two of the most infamous being the convenient onset of amnesia that plagued Jack’s wife Teri (Leslie Hope) in Day 1, and daughter Kim’s (Elisha Cuthbert) laughable confrontation with a cougar in Day 2.

 

In fact, its very selling point – the real-time gimmick – required a whopping suspension of disbelief, continually forcing viewers to accept the speed in which scene transitions would occur, with little care for geographic accuracy (e.g. Jack driving from one location to another in a sprawling, congested city like L.A. taking only a matter of minutes).

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Post-Day 5, the Groundhog Day effect had begun to set in. Excluding the promising first four hours, Day 6 is probably the most problematic, universally lambasted season of the show. The freshness was wearing off, as the writers regurgitated the same tropes over and over again to diminishing returns. You started to anticipate the shock twists; the gear-shifting of its Matryoshka doll-style plotting grew more unwieldy and desperately elaborate for the sake of upping the ante.

The number of times the show pulled the “mole” card to endanger operations at CTU got ridiculous (one could make a case for their Counter Terrorist Unit to be the least secure on the planet). It was clearly time to bow out. When Jack exited the final frames of Day 8 on the run from everyone, his fate up in the air, there was an unmistakable sense that the show, like its hero, was spent.

Following its cancellation, talks of a 24 movie gestated for a few years, but nothing ever came to fruition. Perhaps the long wait was a blessing – since its return earlier this year in a condensed 12-episode format as 24: Live Another Day found the show operating with its creative batteries evidently recharged. It was a gift for the fans. I watched initially out of nostalgia, with minimal expectations, and dubious that it would be able to recapture the magic of those peak years. Of course, over-familiarity with the material meant it would never be novel again, but holy hell did it deliver.

I was taken aback by how quickly at home I felt with everything: Sean Callery’s surging, pummelling theme, in particular, struck a chord, while little things like the previouslies, Sutherland’s signature opening voice-over (“The following takes place between…”), the ticking digital clock and the shrinking split-screens that close every episode revealed themselves with a comforting warmth that made me realise how much I’d miss the entire 24 experience.

24: LAD is par for the course as far as 24 plots go, with Jack resurfacing in London to protect US President James Heller (the uniformly solid William Devane) from an assassination attempt by Margot Al-Harazi (Michelle Fairley), a vengeful terrorist who’s seized control of six American drones. But with its shortened run, the show tightened up considerably, a totally refreshing move where even slightly deviating subplots snapped back into the master plot with ease. It could be argued that this neatness has neutered some of the show’s wilder, more unpredictable qualities, but I’d rather it leave us wanting more than waffling on and overstaying its welcome.

There’s so much greatest hits-type stuff here it’s obvious that showrunner Howard Gordon wanted make this comeback count. Fans will have a field day watching Jack outrun drone missiles in a car, knock out/shoot at random people on the street, wield meat cleavers and swords and throw villains out of windows, in addition to barking out funnier-than-usual one-liners, including multiple utterances of his immortal catchphrase “Dammit!”.

And just to ramp up the plain-fun, hell-yeah factor, Bauer’s given not one, but two sturdy sidekicks worthy of his prowess: tough CIA agent Kate Morgan (Yvonne Strahovski) and the almost-silent, shadowy Serbian mob (!) hand Belcheck (Branko Tomović). More please!

Sure, some of its flaws haven’t gone away; noticeably the frequency of its exposition-loaded dialogue has increased due to there being more information to disseminate with much less screen time. But it’s unlikely fans will be bored, and some will, like me, find themselves more emotionally invested than expected.

chloeLAD

If 24: LAD does one thing right by its characters, it’s honouring Jack’s complicated professional/personal bond with Chloe O’Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub), the former, endearingly brusque CTU tech nerd (who’s admittedly, somewhat cringingly re-invented as a Dragon Tattoo-style goth hacker in this season). Since Day 3, Chloe has been Jack’s most reliable ally, his third eye, running satellite-linked comms and surveillance to assist his missions, and usually at the risk of her own livelihood.

Apart from Jack, she’s also the show’s longest surviving member, which is quite incredible considering its knack for routinely killing off cast members. The pair continue to be the bruised, beating heart of 24’s world, and the devastating finale of 24: LAD draws to a close with a satisfying, heartbreaking note that respects their relationship, and us, the audience who have stuck around for so long. It’s a small gesture that slayed me with its subtle grace and beauty, not something you can easily say for a show that’s gotten grimmer and bleaker with each season. Yes, the ending leaves us hanging – and there’s no word of a renewal as of writing – but it’s a stirring kind of open-endedness, one that suggests we haven’t seen the last of Jack Bauer just yet.

Watch 24 – including Live Another Day exclusively – on Lightbox by clicking here to start your free trial. 

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