The most notorious television series of the Bush-Cheney years is coming back to Fox on Monday. In 24: Live Another Day, rogue anti-terrorist agent (and poster boy for the efficacy of torture) Jack Bauer, after running amok and blowing away Russia's foreign minister four years ago, is still a wanted man. Played, as ever, by Kiefer Sutherland—who's gotten so mulish in the role that he might as well be towing a farm cart with his teeth—Jack is modeling a hoodie in London when new President James Heller (William Devane) comes to town to dicker with the British Prime Minister (Stephen Fry) over the lease of an island base that's apparently needed to keep those fun U.S. drones annihilating our Middle Eastern enemies, a priority our transatlantic chums are bewilderingly unthrilled about enabling.
As it happens, Heller isn't crazy about drones either—of course not, civilized guy he is. But "the ugly truth," he says, "is that what we do has worked."
Since pretty much the only thing presidents are good for on 24 is to wear bull's-eyes on their backs, it's no surprise that Heller's also being targeted for assassination, by of a peacenik outfit that's like Wikileaks gone more—how to put this?—proactive.
Naturally, the CIA suspects that Jack is among those out to do the prez harm, but the surprisingly easy time they have nabbing him is a hint that our man has other plans up his sleeve. Several kabooms and one gutted CIA London station later, he. . . well, I don't really need to go on, do I?
In its Live Another Day revival, 24 plays the same game it always has: toying with ultra-contemporary moral ambiguities at more or less the level a cat toys with a crippled sparrow, then stepping aside to let Jack-be-nimble do his tactless but resolute thing. Even though it's his latter-day fate to be misunderstood and the victim of calumny by his own side, he can be counted on to out-proactive anybody in sight—brutally, sure, but you know what they say about omelets and eggs. He'd rather be soiled by his sins than namby-pamby.
Granted, I've got friends who maintain that 24 isn't as politically Cro-magnon as it looks. The dastardly foreign plots Jack foils can turn out to be provocations engineered by right-wing baddies instead, and so on. But while that may be true—an intermittent viewer at best, I was never hooked enough to even follow the ding-dong plots, so we're not exactly talking about expertise here— I doubt it matters very much. After all, way back in 1973, the second Dirty Harry movie put Clint Eastwood up against a cabal of neo-Nazi cops to prove he was no fascist, and nobody was particularly fooled. The bottom line is that battered, determined Jack Bauer is the guy who does the necessary—even at the cost of his own good name, because he's self-sacrificing that way—while everybody else dithers.
It can't be a complete accident that 24 made such a habit of enfeebling or incapacitating the revolving-door occupants of the show's fictional Oval Office. (Devane's Heller is no exception; he's in the early stages of Alzheimer's from the get-go.) Half a dozen or more chief executives have either been retired or gone to glory since the series's debut, but Jack Bauer remains indispensable and constant, protecting an America whose political system is essentially irrelevant to our need for his eternal vigilance. Whatever else 24 is, it isn't what you'd call a love song to democracy.
To my eyes, though, what's most obnoxious about the show isn't its vigilante streak—a pretty venerable pop fantasy, after all. Even more than the "torture works" message underlying the hero's M.O., the relentless self-pity coursing through the thing makes my head spin.
Here's poor, beleaguered, badgered Jack Bauer, grimly taking care of business for nobody's thanks at all—slandered by his own team, cut off from ordinary human happiness, but stoically carrying on for an ungrateful planet's sake. (Honest, he doesn't even like torturing people; he just knows he has to.) In effect, his brute-force sadism is ennobled by his selfless masochism; he's a sufferer trapped in a scourger's body. As a stand-in for how America sees its role in the world, this thug impersonating a beefier Jesus Christ hauling the cross up Golgotha isn't a pretty sight.