It’s been exactly 93 days since Fox ran a cryptic, 13-second clip at the beginning of the Super Bowl. Most people were confused, bored or too preoccupied with the chips and guac to care, but the moment I heard those defining countdown clock ticks I knew something big was coming.
When 24 debuted on November 6th, 2001 (impressive, and tragic, timing for a show centered around an American in a Counter Terrorism Unit), it caught the attention of a nation in flux, still reeling from the most jarring event of the 21st century. Whether because of outside events or its own merits, the show was an absolute hit. Kiefer Sutherland won a best actor golden globe, TV Guide eventually named the finale the 10th best TV episode of all time, and Jack Bauer became a household name in a matter of weeks.
All of this general praise was backed up by a hugely positive critical reception that was due in no small part to the show’s writing. Though it was often accused of being xenophobic or too superficial, the series addressed issues of nuclear rogue states, the morality of enhanced interrogation, racial profiling and more with aplomb — even if these themes were consistently covered by a healthy veneer of explosions and yelling.
To the dismay of many fans, 24 seems to be out of place in its current incarnation.
Monday nights with 24 were a long-running tradition for me and whoever I happened to be living with during its eight-season run between 2001 and 2010. Those clock ticks at the top of every episode were the prelude to 60 minutes of ridiculous action, insane plot twists and inevitably something about schematics. I savored every “Jack Bauer Power Hour”, as they came to be known. But by 2010 slumping ratings seemed to indicate the world was ready to move on. The show was canceled.
Fast forward four years to the 2014 Super Bowl ad. I couldn’t give a damn how bad the final season’s ratings had been. Jack was back. By some strange confluence of contracts and schedules, a 12-episode “limited run series” that loosely stuck to the real time premise (12 non-sequential hours over a 24-hour period) was about to start.
The two-hour premier of the new series — dubbed “Live Another Day” — opened with a typically 24 scene: morally ambiguous man wanders through unambiguously Arabic surroundings. Early indications had things headed toward a barnburner. Five lines of dialogue in, someone said “Let’s backdoor the satellite”, and I was grinning ear to ear in my Jack Bauer replica flack jacket, jotting down “Story: 24 is the Best Show on TV and You’re Not Watching” on a nearby envelope.
The show continued with rapid-fire character development and even featured a cameo by the ever-charming Stephen Fry, but near the end of hour one, I caught myself thumbing through twitter during a crucial chase scene, a lapse in concentration that wouldn’t have happened during any other 24 season premier. My notes on the envelope began to have more question marks, more issues with the show than the unbridled, “America, F**K YEAH” passion that had so often accompanied Bauer’s incessant gunfire. Something had changed.
Five lines of dialogue in, someone said “Let’s backdoor the satellite”, and I was grinning ear to ear in my Jack Bauer replica flack jacket, jotting down “Story: 24 is the Best Show on TV and You’re Not Watching” on a nearby envelope.
To the dismay of many fans, 24 seems to be out of place in its current incarnation. The fact of the matter is that both 24 and the world around it have shifted from the perfect alignment that made the show such a success. The “Don’t Tread On Us”, terrorist-hunting machismo has contracted, the weekly cliffhanger TV show seems laughably outdated in a world of binge watching, and the general premise of a once great show seems like a relic of a previous decade, even if the subject matter has been updated to WikiLeaks and drone warfare.
24 caught the U.S. at its most thrill seeking, terrorist-hunting, revenge-hungry state and gave it a hero worth rooting for. It provided a hint of consistency in an otherwise turbulent world — Jack would always win eventually, no matter how long it took to get there. Yet this was also a very specific product of a very specific era of American history, an era with strong attitudes and needs. Perhaps that’s why this new season seems to be fighting an uphill battle against the forces of time and popular opinion. Wherever this season might go, it already seems Jack has lost his eternal fight to a threat the show never accounted for: the changing mindset of the American viewer.