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'24' Is Back. And Its Politics Have Gotten Interesting

Today's prestige TV owes the Bush-era paranoia-fest a debt of gratitude


This post contains spoilers.

If you don't have to stifle a goofy grin the moment you hear the "beep beep BEBEBEBEBEEP" at the beginning of “24: Live Another Day,” chances are you weren't a fan of the series to begin with. “24,” which broadcast eight seasons between 2001 and 2010, was never a smart show, exactly, but it was an exceptionally canny one; it knew which buttons to press, and when to press them.

Because co-creator Joel Surnow is a close friend of Rush Limbaugh, “24” was often seen as a right-wing wet dream, its ticking-time-bomb structure functioning as a weekly argument for the security state. In Season 4, Evan Handler played a lawyer for a transparent ACLU stand-in whose dithering over a suspect's human rights cost Keifer Sutherland's Jack Bauer precious time—in intelligence work, as on TV, the most valuable commodity there is. The New Yorker's Jane Mayer went so far to blame the show for propagating the myth that torture works, although if military interrogators were taking tips from a TV show, that's a more damning comment on their lack of training than the state of filmed entertainment.

But over the course of its run, “24” varied its villains frequently enough—whether out of political sensitivity or creative fatigue—that it took on the unaffiliated cast of the true opportunist: Jack was an equal opportunity paranoiac. True, he worked for a government agency, the fictional Counter-Terrorism Unit, or CTU, but he habitually found his progress blocked by some mixture of red tape, incompetence, and outright treason. It seems like all three are on-deck for the series’ return.

Both Jack Bauer and “24” itself return to a changed world. This time, the threat to the president’s life is from an unmanned drone, which a renegade hacktivist has already taken for a trial run. In the years Jack's been off the grid, his former partner in (fighting) crime, Chloe O'Brien (Mary Lynn Rajskub) has devoted herself to fighting the government she once defended, as well as getting some fairly badass tattoos. Despite the fact that Chloe withstands torture to preserve the secrets of her coder cabal, she still comes off as a petulant child looking for a father figure to give her direction: It was Jack, and now it's Adrian Cross (Michael Wincott), a righteous angel of Wikileaks-type transparency who she may or may not have slept with. "I see you talking but all I hear is Adrian Cross," Jack chides her, and Chloe gawps back with an open mouth that proves him right. 

The first bad guy we see is a former member of Chloe's group who's defected and is selling the means of commandeering a drone to a shadowy figure played by “Game of Thrones”'s Michelle Fairley. But this being “24,” we know the first bad guy is never the one we have to worry about, and sure enough, at the end of the second hour, the defector gets a switchblade in the temple from the Eastern European slattern who's been keeping him company—who, is turns out, is actually the daughter of Fairley's character.

Such reversals—and reverse-reversals—are par for “24”'s course, although in this abbreviated 12-episode season, they come faster than usual. (The season will still take place over the course of a day, and each episode will cover an hour in more-or-less real time, but not every hour will be consecutive; at last, Jack has time for a power nap.) But they're also standard for a lot of shows these days, in substantial part because of the way “24” reworked the television landscape. The show came into its own at the end of its first season, when Jack's wife, Teri, was being held at gunpoint by his traitorous CTU colleague. I remember wondering how they were going to get Teri out of this jam: Clearly, they couldn't kill the protagonist's wife, who along with his daughter, Kim, gave the show the opportunity to cut away to somewhere other than CTU's airtight confines. But when Jack finally found Teri, she was dead, and it was evident that the rules of a typical TV series no longer applied. If that season-ending gambit sounds familiar, it might because it's exactly the same way that “Game of Thrones” signaled that no one in its fictional universe was safe. 

Surnow and Howard Gordon, who created “24,” realized they had to play by the rules of an old-fashioned Hollywood serial if they wanted to keep the audience showing up every week—a requirement that was baked right into the show's title. It wasn't the first show to abide by what I think of as the "aggressive continuity" model; from 1995–1996, Murder One devoted a full season to the progression of a single murder trial, including an entire episode devoted to voir dire. (That episode, which included an appearance by a young Brittany Murphy, was never broadcast, and when Murder One returned for its second and final year, the format had been revamped to allow several cases in a season.) But in those pre-streaming days, networks were still extremely wary of shows where missing a single episode might cause a viewer to feel lost and stop watching.

Thirteen years later, that particular type of devotion is the basis of the binge-watching industry; skipping an episode of “Mad Men” would be like ripping a handful of pages out of an unread novel. It's no exaggeration to say that, televisually speaking, we're living in the world “24” helped make. But as a result of everyone else catching up, “24” suddenly finds itself behind the curve. The secret of its twist-heavy progression was that no state of affairs lasted for longer than a few hours, so if you missed one, all you had to do was wait a few weeks until the plot reset to zero. Jack usually spent half the season chasing a mercurial threat, only to find out in the home stretch what his true objective should have been all along. And even if you weren't following the plot, the format was familiar: the beeping clocks at every commercial break, the shift from one to several simultaneous frames of action as an episode neared its climax. Even the smallest deviation, as when the episode-ending bleeps were silenced in honor of an onscreen death, felt like a disturbance in the Force.

I can't imagine how “24: Live Another Day” looks to a novice viewer, but as a longtime fan who came to embrace the show's ridiculous core, it's slightly thrilling to slip back into the old rhythms, to feel my pulse quicken in time with that accelerating countdown. Even as one who does not believe in guilty pleasures—I'm fine with the pleasure; not much for guilt—it's fair to say “24” is the dumbest show I've ever loved. But there's something almost naively charming about its once boundary-pushing antics. ("Oh, you blew up a few troops? That's nice. We killed a man by dousing him in molten gold.") Even its iconic countdown seems archaic now. Who uses digital clocks nowadays?