“24” returns, still wants to know who you are working for

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For a show that has only been off the air a few years, 24 hasn’t aged particularly well in the minds of television viewers. Somewhat unintentionally, it turned out to be the perfect series for a nation in the midst of a War on Terror, but in the years since its end it seems to have faded into a distant memory. 24 left a considerable impact on the television landscape, and it influenced many of the series that came in its wake, but if you were to ask anyone now their favorite show of the last decade, my bet is very few will answer with this show. However, when it was on the air, 24 was massively popular, and it holds a place in my heart as one of the first so-called “grown up” shows I ever watched religiously. Starting around season four, I would sit down and watch as Jack Bauer and his CTU associates shouted and shot their way through another terrorist plot. At its best, there were few shows as unrelentingly tense as 24.

In a way, the fading of 24 from the public consciousness has helped it in one way: it seems less like an Important Show about terrorism and the intelligence community and more like a really exciting and absurd action series. This was a show that took a lot of fire for its politics, but honestly I’m not sure this was ever a show interested in making grand statements about The World We Live In. Yes, Jack Bauer would seem to be a hero for the pro-torture crowd, but I think people had the tendency to take him–and the show as a whole–more seriously than it was meant to be taken. Bauer is a great action hero, but he’s also a dang cartoon character. Keep in mind that at one point he became a heroin addict, then apparently kicked it and it was never spoken of again. Just about every aspect of the show is absurd when you try to dissect it, but that doesn’t make it any less fun.

When it was first announced that 24 would return for a limited run subtitled Live Another Day, I wasn’t entirely sure it was a great idea. This was a show that already felt incredibly stale at the end of its initial run, and what more could the creators possibly have to say in 2014 that they didn’t the first time around? The world wasn’t exactly crying out for new episodes of 24, but Fox decided to provide them anyway.

However, the closer we got to tonight’s premiere, the more excited I got about settling in and watching Jack Bauer go back to work. This past weekend I revisited several episodes from the Emmy-winning fifth season, and I was surprised by how much fun I had with them. It’s amazing how much my perception of the show has changed in these several years. When the fifth season first aired, I was 14 years old, and the whole thing seemed more violent and dangerous than anything else I watched on TV. (It should be noted here that I was rather sheltered pop culture-wise. For the most part, I watched PG-13 movies when I turned 13, and R-rated stuff when I got a bit older. So yeah, the sight of blood on television was enough to make me feel dangerous at 14. I’m a pretty cool customer.) Now all these years later, I watch several shows that are way more violent and horrifying than 24 on a weekly basis. The difference is, most of those shows demand to be taken utterly seriously. I’m not sure the writers of 24 are always aware of how silly their show is, but that’s part of the reason I still enjoy it now as a slightly older person. When compared to shows I watch now like Game of Thrones and The Americans, it’s a rather refreshing change. 24 is a long, sustained scream of a show; each episode packed with absurd and escalating plot developments until it all reaches a crescendo, and then it ends. Cue the ticking clock, and off we go to the next week.

One of the more promising things about Live Another Day, which premiered last night, is that it feels very much like the same show I watched weekly back in the mid-2000s. Even more promising is that there’s no obvious fan service. The creators are trying to make a whole new season of 24 that is relevant to today, rather than simply playing the hits and hoping audience nostalgia wins them the day. It’s still every bit as silly as the show’s earlier season, but so far I’m enjoying myself. Tonight’s premiere ultimately didn’t provide a whole lot besides table-setting, but I’m a fan of the pieces they’re laying out. Of course we have the return of everyone’s favorite terrorist-fightin’ buddies Bauer and Mary Lynn Rajskub’s “Dammit” Chloe O’Brien, but beyond that we have William Devane’s President Heller, his daughter Audrey, CIA agents Gbenga Akinnagbe, Yvonne Strahovski and Benjamin Bratt, plus British prime minister Stephen Fry. Other newcomers include Attack the Block star (and future Star Wars-ian) John Boyega as a drone pilot who finds himself in a heap of trouble, and Game of Thrones‘ Michelle Fairley as this season’s new big bad.

This season certainly looks like it will “tackle” some topical issues, such as the use of drones by the United States military and prominent Internet activists such as Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. However, if I know my 24, it won’t ultimately try to actually say too much about these topics. The show has always been less about sermonizing than using subjects like these to create some horrible scenario that Bauer will look to defuse over the course of a day. I’m not sure how the show will handle the 24-hour gimmick in a season of only 12 episodes, but in a way that might be freeing. With Live Another Day, they no longer need to really worry about nailing the real time structure from beginning to end. The focus can be on setting up this terrorism scheme, and watching as our old friend Mr. Bauer screams his way to a resolution. The terrorists will almost certainly lose. The real drama lies in whatever will happen to Jack at the end of this season. Perhaps he will get a rare happy ending, perhaps he will have to go on the run once more, or perhaps he will finally meet his end. My guess is whatever happens, it’s going to be more definitive than where the series left us last time. In reality, that may be the real reason for the existence of Live Another Day: to give Bauer’s story the official ending it deserves.

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