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TV Weekend: Jack Bauer Gets Meta

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Kelsey McNeal/FOX

Kelsey McNeal/FOX

Much of the advance coverage of the season premiere of 24 has focused on the question: is Jack Bauer going soft for the age of Obama? This is a great benefit for the producers, since it deflects attention from the more pressing question: Does 24 still suck, and if so, how much? 


We’ll get to the second question. (Which may be a touch unfair. I vaguely recall, in the mists of time, 24 having some compelling, even believable, moments in the last few episodes of season 6. Then again, 24: Redemption was a snooze.)

But first: Yes, it’s true that the first four hours of 24 (which run Sunday and Monday nights) are self-conscious and self-referential about the issue of torture. Joel Surnow, the show’s conservative co-creator, has left the show, raising the question of whether it would do the Colmes-leaves-Hannity thing, but in reverse. They cast Hollywood superlib Janeane Garofalo. And the regular controversy over whether Jack was providing a rationale for real-life torture reached a crescendo during season 6, as even members of the military began to criticize the ticking-time-bomb scenarios. 

I won’t rehash those arguments here. (Though I did here.) But the season starts with Bauer dragged before a congressional committee, headed by a sneering Kurtwood Smith, grilling him over his use of extreme means of information-gathering. (Again, a preferable alternative to the Select Subcommittee on Why Your Show Has Become an Overdramatic Parody of Itself.) Bauer on the one hand essentially admits to crossing the line; on the other hand, he’s defensive and defiant toward what he sees as Congress’ grandstanding. In his view of himself, his country wants him to do to the dark side for its safety, then wants permission to later hate him for it. 

But as the four hours unfold—and Jack is quickly sprung to help investigate a terror plot—he starts showing signs of regret, in real time. It’s not so much that he thinks he shouldn’t have taken the steps he has—if he feels that way, he communicates it by stony silence. But he has come to believe that the practice of practicing torture secretly is a mistake, at least. “We’ve created two worlds,” he says, in the episodes’ money quote. “Ours and the people we promised to protect. They deserve to know the truth. Then they can decide how far they want us to go.” It’s not exactly pinning on a Hope and Change button, but still. 

But he also works some bad guys over and comes this close to putting a Bic through somebody’s retina. He whoops bad guys and feels pained about it! Just call him Billy Jack Bauer!

I wouldn’t yet put too much stock in Jack’s conversion. I may be in the minority, but I never thought 24 was as conservative as popularly portrayed. (It may have demonized the ACLU, but it also had a special love of business villains, in Big Oil and elsewhere, for instance, not to mention the implicit Iraq skepticism of season 2’s pretext-for-war storyline.)

In the same way, I don’t think 24 is as going to become as “liberal” (quotes since I know it’s reductive to claim opposing torture = liberal, cf. Sen. McCain) as some may make it. There are still, as usual, the supercilious bureaucrats who question Jack and his off-the-books tactics and who therefore we are directed to be suspicious of. Somebody trying to get in between us and our popcorn violence is probably the bad guy. 24 is an entertainment, and is biased as such. It is pro-Jack and pro-action, and it will probably become as reflective as it needs to be to push buttons, while still giving Jack reasons to kick ass.  

Now as for the not-sucking part. Well, in fairness, it usually takes a season of 24 several episodes to start sucking, if it does. But the terrorist plot in question is headed by—SPOILER ALERT if you have not been reading the voluminous coverage—Tony Almeida, who is not so dead after all. And Tony is a symbol of the real problem with 24, which is still there and has nothing to do with politics. We have seen it all before. The dead not being dead. The double-and-triple agents. The chase scenes and shootouts and gritting teeth through pain. At one point—when Jack lay on the floor of a car, pushing the accelerator with his hand to crash out of a parking garage and said “This is gonna hurt!”—I laughed out loud, and not in the good way. 

There are, maybe, some hopeful signs. The series seems to have given up on trying to create a bigger WMD for every season, which it needed to do. The political subplot—new president Cherry Jones wants a humanitarian invasion of a Darfur-like an African country but is being undermined—is intriguing and a bit different for the show. [Update: Oh, and I should mention one other thing that hasn’t changed. That’s how Kiefer Sutherland’s performance—his ability to let Jack’s exhaustion or hurt show through his adrenaline, or his ability to silently convey things Jack wants to say but is compelled not to, as well as his frustration at staying silent—that, for all the guest-star casting, is often the one thing that carries 24 through its most ridiculous moments.] 

But I want to see action—or rather a brand of action I haven’t seen over and over again—before I can begin to Hope for Change from 24.