'24' is back, but is Jack Bauer the hero we need right now?

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Image Credit: Christopher Raphael/Fox

Jack Bauer is back. But do we want him? Don’t feel the need to answer right away. The first hour of 24: Live Another Day gives you ample time to reflect on your relationship to the television icon. The grim savior of 8 terrible days — and one dog day afternoon in Sangala — keeps his scowly mouth shut and remains silent during the first half of the first hour during his latest lousy 24-hour-stretch (only 12 hours of which will be dramatized in this 12-ep revival). Silent Sphinx-Jack presents a mystery of suspicious motives for the CIA to decipher — and a still-life cultural object for the audience to ponder. Does Jack Bauer, War on Terror super-cop, have any place in our culture?

24 premiered on November 6, 2001, less than two months after 9/11. The show would have hit a couple weeks earlier, but Fox pushed the debut of the real-time thriller — suddenly uncomfortably resonate with the reality of times — out of respect for the national mood. In retrospect, the sensitivity looks laughably disingenuous: For eight years, 24 did nothing but coldly exploit our post-9/11 fear, insecurity, confusion, and fury — for better and better. 24 presented an ongoing opportunity to reflect on the difference between justice and vengeance and the cost of ruthlessly, recklessly pursuing either. It was also just one more cultural agent that was telling us that the friendly Muslim next door might actually be a deranged extremist plotting your death, and not because your dog keeps crapping on his (or her) lawn. But 24 was a Baskin Robbins of villainous flavors, including several imported bitters — Bitter Genocidal Balkan Warlord, Bitter Genocidal African Rebel Leader, Bitter Mass Murdering British Secret Agent — and many shades of homegrown greedy vanilla, like Greedy White Guy Oil Tycoon or Greedy White Guy Defense Contractor or Greedy White Guy President. All of them were willing to commit almost any act of evil to advance their agenda. And they did! The show detonated dirty bombs over American soil, shot Air Force One out of the sky, nuked Pakistan, home-invaded The White House. The show’s once-innovative formal choices — the info-overload split-screen storytelling; the tense, present-tense every-ep-is-an-hour-in-the-day structure — heightened our high anxiety. The suspense of “Can Jack save the day?” was complemented by “Can the producers pull off this epic storytelling stunt?” (The creative thrill-ride of 24 was the most enjoyably “fun” part of this often humorless, stressful misery-fest.) The series went to shocking lengths to make the people of its world — and by extension, us — feel ridiculously unsafe, which enhanced the wish-fulfillment/catharsis of watching Jack do anything and everything to restore order, or at least the illusion of it, to a suddenly-chaotic world.

Not that “anything and everything” was an admirable thing. Indeed, 24 contributed significantly to a decade of television devoted to deconstructing heroic character, specifically male heroic character, (i.e. the whole anti-hero terror). In the broken world of 24, so deeply, ridiculously cynical about everything, from the character of our government and military leaders to the shape, form, and meaning of heroism and justice. Jack Bauer’s righteous “get ‘er done” was often executed with immoral pragmatism — dirty tricks, wet-work, torture.

This was not unsatisfying. 24 could be a buffet of visceral if queasy “Bad Fan” pleasures. No moment captured my imagination more during the early years of the show than the beat in season 2 when Jack killed a despicable low-life and then decapitated him to help burnish an undercover identity. The violence itself occurred off-screen, but Jack’s line was not only all we needed, but summed up everything appealing and appalling about his heroic brand. “That’s the problem with people like you, George,” he told his stuffed shirt, by-the-book boss, the latest in a series. “You want results, but you never want to get your hands dirty. I’d start rolling up your sleeves.” Pause. “I’m gonna need a hacksaw.” I was stunned. Heroes don’t do that! And you know what? I liked it.

But Jack didn’t. Or maybe he did. He didn’t know. Jack was provocatively — and usefully — quagmire-like in that way. He was a rare goodhearted hero that we didn’t want him to be. His most admirable quality — self-sacrificing selflessness — was exactly, hideously that: A destruction of self. He was willing to degrade himself in any number of ways, like that “Junk Bauer” smack habit in season 3 to sell another undercover identity, for example (although, yes, I’m sure the smack had some secondary, conscience-numbing benefits, too). His early series arc saw him fall from morally murky warrior to self-degrading dehumanization, then fight his way back to some kind of self-respect; fighting to keep it despite choosing a life that constantly tempted his worst self was the concern of his latter seasons. Jack’s harrow and haunt gave 24 a feeling of depth — and allowed 24 to get away with murder. Vengeance-sploitation pulp is always easier swallowed with a chaser of guilt.

24 reached the end of its natural life as a proper television series and relevant cultural concern in May of 2010. Last seen, Jack had gone on a vengeance bender after some rotten Russians murdered his last love and his own government betrayed him. Suddenly a wanted criminal and a man without a country, Jack was rewarded for his years of service with a sucky severance — a head start on running away. It was a brutal, unfair break-up, and yet it felt symbolically correct, too. Because after eight years of a soul-killing, character-staining war on terror — a gross mirroring of the flawed real-world prosecution of same — it felt time to cut bait on everything Jack Bauer represented. He got The Dark Knight ending of sorts, when Batman took the rap for crimes he didn’t commit so Gotham could live with at least the illusion of goodness and principles restored. What Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon said: “He’s the hero Gotham deserves — but not the one it needs right now.”

And yet, Jack’s back. But the world is a different place than the one he left, and it’s not necessarily one that imbues him with renewed relevancy. Osama bin Laden is dead. Terrorism remains a threat, but changing circumstances have demanded a rethink of tactics. The movie Zero Dark Thirty created a cultural moment that both closed out one kind of narrative about the war on terror — America the Avenger — and formalized a new chapter in that ongoing saga, one that saw us vetting how we fought the war on terror. Today, the new face of controversial “get ‘er done” heroism is not a by-any-means-necessary secret agent but a guy who blew the whistle on how secret agents do their business, Edward Snowden.

24: Live Another Day does acknowledge these new realities, and more, finds a way to put everything Jack once represented on trial, and more, tries to punish him with poetic justice. (Warning: Spoilers to come.) The show is set in London against the backdrop of a visit by the American president, Jack’s old frenemy James Heller, father to his ex-lover, Audrey, and angry protests over the use of drones. Wouldn’t you know it, Hobo Jack just happens to be squatting in London, and the opening sequence of the first hour has him being hunted by CIA agents stationed there. After his capture, Jack is interrogated by an agent, who functions as a kind of war crimes prosecutor. He is then handed off to some black ops dudes in the basement who intend to torture Jack into spilling secrets. That’s conceptually interesting, but it all played flat to me.

In the second hour, 24 directly engages the post-Snowden moment by having Jack — who appears to have become some kind of roaming ronin go-where-I’m-needed superhero during his fugitive exile — bicker briefly with his best sidekick, Chloe, now something of a rogue vigilante herself, as she’s a member of an underground hacktivist organization. “Intelligence agencies keep secrets because what they’re doing is illegal!” she cries. Jack responds by scolding her. “You’re smarter than that!” he barks, and then accuses her of simply parroting the dogma of the Free Information guru she follows instead of thinking for herself, or at least, as he does. His rebuke leaves Chloe tongue-tied for a rebuttal, and the evening ends with you feeling that Jack won a point and put her in her place. Their exchange feels reductive to all sides of the debate, and I really wish Chloe was allowed a retort, or perhaps a swift kick to Jack’s nuts for being such a belligerently condescending a–hole.

Points to 24 for kinda-sorta internalizing the question of Jack’s relevancy in the context of a transformed landscape, not to mention recognizing the value and possibilities of the Jack-Chloe relationship, which gets expressed in other, more personal ways in the premiere, too. The episodes and hours ahead will tell us whether 24 intends to dig into these issues any deeper, or if even these issues can be converted into satisfying drama regardless of how thoughtfully treated: “Cyber-terrorism” and “I’m gonna need a hacktivist!” — which is basically episode 1 in a nutshell — doesn’t exactly have the same visceral charge as “blowing stuff up” terrorism and “I’m gonna need a hacksaw!” I also have doubts — based on current information — how well Jack can service these issues without being an agent of any country, without being complicit in them. His bark at Chloe doesn’t really have much bite. Why does he care so much?

Other aspects of 24 2.0 also bugged me, and while they don’t all deal directly with Jack, they reflect upon him and subvert him as a compelling protagonist for the now. Their real-time storytelling had passed into formula by the end of 24’s regular series run, and it’s near-meaningless in this 12-ep, selective hour construction; the impact on the story, really, is diminished urgency. I wish the writers would have abandoned the device altogether and unburdened themselves of the need to service it.

But perhaps what annoyed me most was 24’s commitment to other staple elements of its franchise — the petty interpersonal station house dramas, the secret scheming of all the president’s men, and most especially, the cheap and easy cynicism about Washington that has always pervaded 24 and seems to be SOP for all political dramas these days. From House of Cards to Scandal, television’s narratives about our elected leaders have become so outlandishly dubious about power, service, and change that they’ve crossed over into dystopian fantasy. There’s value to this, I guess. To borrow from 1984, these shows are our Two Minutes of Hate, only with more minutes. They allow us times and places to exercise our frustration with The Way Things Are. But I think they also cultivate a worldview that’s dumb and distorted and discourages us from caring and doing anything about anything save whining on Twitter.

Am I ranting? I’m ranting. Sorry. Maybe it’s just me. I yearn for a story that has a different perspective, a different tone about politics. 24 offers me more of the same — including everything I disliked about 24. Reflecting on the still-life of Jack Bauer that the premiere gives, all scars and hangdog scowls and frantic eyes, I see a zombified version of the hero that once galvanized me and cultural enterprise operating with half a life. I saw not an enduring icon a la James Bond, but an expression of a moment now gone, an artifact of a past not nearly as distant as it may seem, but dusty no less. I’d take Jack Bauer over a whole team of Expendables any day of the week, but all things considered, I’d rather he stayed away. I hope we never again see such a terrible day that would again make Jack Bauer the zeitgeist hero our Pop Gotham needs. It isn’t now.

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