It’s that time of year again, when heavily bankrolled terrorists rev up their engines of mayhem only to be thwarted by the one-man solution to the war on terror known as Jack Bauer (played by Keifer Sutherland). This week, Fox kicked off the fifth season of the hit series 24, which will once again chronicle a single day of explosions, car chases, and relational entanglements as the fictional Counter-Terrorist Unit (CTU), fronted by Bauer, takes on yet another America-hating villain with a diabolical plot and a gaudy foreign accent.
The show is famously built around the gimmick of real-time storytelling: Each episode covers one hour, and each season makes up yet another action-packed day of terror-thwarting escapades. This season started with a two-night, four-episode bang, and, like preceding seasons, it promises gobs of the show’s trademark blend of deliciously silly spectacle and wire-tight suspense. Already, there are familiar elements in play: mentally unstable family members, angst-ridden teenagers, double agents, power struggles, interpersonal friction, and, most important, the unstoppable antics of Jack Bauer. Over the top and brazenly implausible, the show traffics in violence, deception, and mechanized geek spy fantasies–it’s a bloodthirsty soap opera disguised as a technothriller.
Kiefer Sutherland plays Bauer, CTU’s toughest counterterrorist hombre, as an Americanized, cowboy version of James Bond: more brutal, more determined, more prone to extreme measures. Bauer is the sort of guy who, even after more than a year in hiding, still answers an innocuous knock on the door with a Glock held behind his back. Supervisors, bureaucracy, and regulations are merely obstacles to be bulldozed. He doesn’t just ignore the rulebook; he shreds it, incinerates the scraps, and blows up the building the incinerator is in on the way out.
But his relentlessness is perhaps appropriate for an existence so fraught with high-stakes perils. In the first two hours of this season alone, Bauer hijacked a helicopter, stole a car, kidnapped the son of his pretty landlady, knocked unconscious and impersonated an FBI agent, won a gun battle with a squad of terrorist henchmen, was framed for murder, killed a presidential assassin, and somehow managed to evade 167 federal agents while escaping from the top floor of a Los Angeles apartment building. And you thought your job was stressful.
Other seasons have seen Bauer hold up convenience stores, become addicted to heroin, and even execute his boss (it’s complicated). In season two, he was actually tortured to the point of being declared clinically dead–and yet despite all this, he never fails to charge out swinging (and shooting, and running, and swearing). He lives a lifestyle that would give an adrenalin junkie pause.
Through it all, he remains fanatically devoted to protecting his country. For as much as Bauer despises the stranglehold of bureaucracy, he dedicates himself to the safety of America–even to the point of total self-sacrifice. The last season ended with Bauer faking his death and leaving his entire life behind in response to an earlier decision to engage in an off-the-books operation. Jack’s behavior may be brash, but he also displays a willingness to take responsibility for his actions, which gives the show a moral center.
But despite Jack’s headstrong inklings, he is not alone. He is backed by CTU, a nebulous federal agency based in Los Angeles that serves as a hub for U.S. counter-terrorist operations. The CTU headquarters is a marvel of glitzy Hollywood set design. At first glance, it looks like a techno-spy themed nightclub, lit in sultry blue neon and glowing with fancy plasma-screen arrays. The employees are mostly young, attractive, well-dressed urbanites who strut through the building’s halls spitting out technical sounding gobbledygook, while occasionally making time to discuss their numerous intra-agency flings. In 24, intelligence gathering is chic, sexy, and remarkably paperwork free.
But don’t say the job of a CTU agent is easy–the technical details alone are mind boggling. Tongue twisting computer jargon is the show’s official language, even to the point that Sean Astin, making an effortless transition from Sauron-ravaged Middle Earth to terrorist-ravaged L.A., complained that in joining the show this season, “The main challenge was memorizing all the techno-talk.” And who can blame him? All the chatter about firewalls, sockets, encryption keys, and access codes could fry the mental circuitry of even the most seasoned hardware nerd. Ultimately, though, it is just another part of the show’s obfuscation-cloaked demeanor–an easy way for the writers to usher in sketchy plot twists under a veil of indecipherability.
And usher they do: 24’s story arcs are credibility-straining orgies of narrative sleight of hand. Each season sprouts a tangled thicket of duplicity and deceit through which Jack and company must hack and slash in search of the truth. Double agents, triple agents, spies pretending to be moles pretending to be spies–for the cast of 24, lies and misdirection are as obligatory as handshakes and hellos. In this way, the show reflects a central anxiety of our cultural moment, suggesting a world in which hidden motives and mistruths endlessly threaten to undermine everything from personal relationships to national security.
The barrage of subterfuge tends to blast the show into a plausibility-free stratosphere, drifting happily outside the reaches of the believable. But even as the show hemorrhages logical coherence, it bulks up on rocket-fueled suspense. Powered most of all by the ferocious, duty-bound determination of its protagonist, 24 proves that all work and no play makes Jack anything but a dull boy.