When “24” limped off into the afternoon at 4pm on its eighth and (as yet) final day/season, it did so as a shadow of the series it had been upon its debut a decade earlier. It’s easy to forget, after its years of making a gradual shift from mere television show to avatar for an entire political belief system, that “24” began life as one of the most aesthetically daring and fiercely compelling series ever to be seen on the small screen. Its writing, acting and especially filmmaking were all top-notch.
The first step backward “24” took was from being noteworthy for the quality of its craft to being first and foremost an action show, one that grew slightly dumber and offered only the most cursory nods to its real-time, two dozen hour-long episodes adding up to one full day conceit. In this subsequent incarnation it was very popular, more so than in its first season by far. And as this change continued, eventually the wheels came off and “24” bore no resemblance at all to any recognizable reality. Then it ended. That Fox is bringing the show back now as a 2014 limited series is — however unsurprising such a might be in a market-driven industry — a largely monetary decision, but not exclusively. What’s worrisome, and what may ultimately doom it as an investment, is the political element to the decision.
It’s impossible to separate “24” from 9/11, nor the show’s aesthetic trajectory from the political climate that ensued. This is both blessing and curse, for without our country’s increased interest — to the point of obsession — with terrorism, a series about the adventures of the Counter-Terrorism Unit may very well have been filed away in the “ambitious but commercially shaky” drawer with so many other projects. But absent the collective cultural thirst for revenge that drove “24” and its protagonist Jack Bauer (played at a steady growl by Kiefer Sutherland) to ever fancier flights of bloodlust, perhaps the series would have had a chance to be remembered for its artistic merits as exquisitely filmed action thriller cinema, and escaped its ultimate fate as a deeply problematic cultural artifact.
The central problem with “24,” from which countless others then sprang, was torture. In the show’s first season, the corners Jack Bauer cut had a purpose, albeit one that was personal as well as professional, and one the show never fully endorsed: he was trying to not only save the life of a presidential candidate, but those of his wife and daughter. The moral ambiguity made for drama richer than the suspense of a ticking clock or slick editing, and the startling twist of having Jack’s wife not survive the season finale struck a tragic, resonant note.
When Jack returned to duty in season two, he was a changed man. His chief investigative tool was to bellow “WE’RE RUNNING OUT OF TIME!” and proceed to inflict pain upon someone while shouting “WHO ARE YOU WORKING FOR?” (That’s only a slight exaggeration.) Jack’s shift from conflicted family man to crazed loose cannon was immediate and irrevocable.
It would have been one thing if this shift was accompanied by any kind of serious attempt at character study, but aside from the occasional brief shot of Kiefer Sutherland staring silently off into the middle distance to the strains of Sean Callery’s score, Jack’s main motivation seemed to be resisting the attempts of various insufficiently testicled bureaucrats to stop him from simply whipping out his gun and blowing people’s kneecaps out to encourage them to tell him who they’re working for.
This wouldn’t have been a problem if not for the show’s popularity (aided by its slow but perceptible edging toward the political agenda of Fox’s infamous cable news channel) leading to public officials becoming fans of the show and publicly — and even more shockingly, wistfully — pining for a real-life Jack Bauer. One of the most noteworthy such statements was Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who after hearing that a Canadian judge said, “Thankfully, security agencies in all our countries do not subscribe to the mantra ‘What would Jack Bauer do?'” reportedly turned to the other Supreme Court justices and said, “Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles… He saved hundreds of thousands of lives… Are you going to convict Jack Bauer? Say that criminal law is against him… is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer?” His answer? “I don’t think so.”
The difference between Jack Bauer torturing people and getting all pertinent information in five minutes and reality was, and is, not to put too fine a point on it, vast. Time and again, the use of torture in real-life interrogation yielded little to no usable information, not only prolonging the War on Terror to the point of absurdity but actively undermining it by employing useless tactics. But in spite of the immense amount of empirical evidence to the contrary, an all-too-large bloc of Americans persisted in regarding torture as cutting the Gordian knot and Jack Bauer as Alexander, when in fact it’s been proven ineffectual, the refuge of those too lazy or filled with rage to do real detective work.
When its inefficacy was not only proved but increasingly public knowledge, the backlash against “enhanced interrogation” was such that even more measured approaches to the depiction of torture in cinema, like Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” met with vehement visceral condemnation from the political left. The confusion between depiction and endorsement that ensued can, in large part, be blamed on “24,” which frequently employed superficially similar cinematic tools and technique (with lesser skill than Bigelow) to explicitly endorse torture many times over. Although “Zero Dark Thirty” was moderately successful at the box office, its reputation was severely tarnished by the torture controversy, and despite great critical acclaim and winning numerous awards before that controversy had time to fully bloom, it ended up tying for the only Oscar it managed to scrape, splitting Best Sound Editing with “Skyfall,” and will no doubt be remembered as “that torture movie.”
This is the culture in which “24” is being reintroduced, and in which its producers hope it can find some measure of its former success. One item to note is that it’s returning as a limited series, 12 episodes, with the president of Fox, Kevin Reilly, stating that it’s “compressed over 12 weeks. It will go chronologically over the day, but it will skip hours.” Though still in “real” time, this kind of abandonment of the series’ principal noteworthy characteristic, and the seed from which it originated creatively, is worrisome.
It may not spell doom for the revived “24” in terms of audience (many of whom are no doubt content to see Jack blow one more hole in one more kneecap and once more bellow the dulcet refrain “WHO ARE YOU WORKING FOR?”) But the chances of “24” having the kind of cultural resonance it enjoyed a decade ago are slim at best. Barring a major shift in tone and interrogative tactics, the show is doomed to the kind of culturally assonant scrap heap its first season, by dark fate, so narrowly escaped. If Jack must be back, let it be one who has seen the error of his past ways. Otherwise he will be a dinosaur — and not one of the cool ones that eat people either, but a sad and painful anachronism.