Tuned In

24: How to Save Jack Bauer

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WARNING: 24 spoilers, if you care about that sort of thing.

So after all my hemming and hawing, I gave in and watched the 24 finale. Well, I “watched” it. Skipped the beginning, and the fast-forward button played a significant role, but finally I had to: in for a penny etc. And you know, I’ve gotta agree with Joanna from yesterday’s comments: The ending, the very ending, was surprisingly kinda not bad.

Give it up for Kief: the man can act, and episode after episode, he has, with Bauer-like self-abnegation, rolled whatever giant ball of crap the writers have given him uphill out of sheer duty. I felt like Kiefer himself was addressing the producers in his monologue to William Devane: everything he has done, every dramatic atrocity he has committed in this benighted season, he did because you told me to, you bastards.

No, Jack’s decision to leave Audrey behind didn’t quite have the stirring sweep of his walking off into the sunset, abandoned by his government, at the end of season 4. But it was shocking in its own way for its lack of typical 24 fireworks. No wailing, no gnashing, no grand gesture, just Jack staring at the unanswering sea as the final seconds ticked down silent for us.

It would have been a stirring gesture to end on had it been earned–say, by having been preceded by 23 hours and 59 minutes of worthwhile television. But it left me sad, because you could see in it, I think, what the producers had wanted to do with this season, had they only been able to pull it off. This should have been a season about the toll that duty and carnage and paranoia take on a operative like Jack. But then so much got in the way–so many nukes and evil vice presidents and zombie presidents and sundry other twists we’d seen too many times before. [Update: Mediaweek, by the way, reports that the ratings were down 23 percent from the season 5 finale. Ouch. That’s gonna leave a bruise.]

If the makers of 24 want to save it as a TV show to be proud of (rather than just a cash machine), they need to take a cue from those last few minutes of the finale, when 24 seemed to become something like involving TV drama again. They need to dial it down, way down. No huge WMD threats next season. Give Jack some small-scale, but intricate, MI-5-like case to solve. Give him some awful moral compromises to make, without the distraction of throwing in a cliffhanger at every commercial break, and bore in on the character that they meant to make this season about.

If it can be done, that is. Maybe it’s just too late, and 24 was never meant to make it more than a few good years. I remember interviewing Sutherland before season 2, and he told me at the time he wasn’t sure how much longer he wanted to do the show. Die Hard was great, he said, and Die Hard 2 was fun, but Die Hard With a Vengeance…? Well, Sutherland made his choices, and he’s been richly rewarded for them, so I guess I shouldn’t feel too sorry for him–and yet I do, as he finds himself staring down Die Hard 7, 8, 9…

Maybe 24 is beyond saving; maybe Jack Bauer is; maybe Kiefer Sutherland is. But the producers at least owe it to them to try, even at risk of killing their cash cow. They made Bauer who he is; now it’s their turn to save him.