Why the clock may be running out on Jack
'24' is back, but could it be Kiefer Sutherland's last series? Ed Power reports
Jack's back -- and, as usual, it's with a bang. Having spent the past seven years grappling with dastardly jihadists, nebulous conspiracies and the disapproval of human rights campaigners across the world, special agent Jack Bauer (an increasingly crinkled looking Kiefer Sutherland) dons his battered leather jacket once again on Monday night as the eighth season of real-time drama 24 gets underway.
This time the action takes place in New York, where negotiations aimed at resolving a civil war in a distant Islamic state are underway. But what's this? A terrorist plan to foil the peace deal and provoke nuclear conflict? Cue 24 hours of brutal fight action, manic dashes through Manhattan and, in a familiar and controversial Bauer flourish, gruesome torture scenes, all played out in breathless 60-minute chunks.
It's easy to see why 24 remains a TV phenomenon. In our politically correct era, they really don't make heroes like Bauer any more. He's a kick- ass good guy from the old school, the kind who will break down a suspect's door rather than wait for a warrant because, goddamn it, lives are at stake.
Even a card-carrying liberal such as Bill Clinton can't help rooting for Jack -- he is such a devotee of 24, he is said to refer to the show as 'The Bauer Hour'.
And yet, it is unclear whether 24 is long for the world. Having revolutionised TV in 2002 with its real-time presentation, split-screen scenes and jarring violence, there are murmurings that the show may be on a ticking countdown towards cancellation.
Speaking last autumn, the head of Fox TV, which produces the series, hinted loudly that if ratings continued to flat-line, 24 may be on the way out.
"We haven't made any decision whether it's back or not," said Kevin Reilly. "It's going to come down to a business decision. It's not an inexpensive show on the network books, and we also want to finish strong. It will be a whole creative and business discussion and something we'll have to deal with over the next few months."
Even if Fox decides to renew the show, there is speculation that 24 may be about to part ways with its iconic hero. In 2007, Sutherland became the highest-paid actor on US television when he signed a $40m three-year contract. That makes 24 hideously expensive to produce, and with advertising revenues flat, whisperings are afoot that the network may consider replacing Sutherland with a cheaper actor.
Some observers, though, say the issue isn't Sutherland or his vast pay cheque. The simple truth is that the world -- or, at any rate, the American view of the world -- has changed beyond recognition since 24 debuted in early 2002. Back then, post 9/11 paranoia was rampant; the Bush presidency's apparent determination to ride roughshod over civil liberties had widespread approval ( "People in the Administration love the series. It's a patriotic show. They should love it," said co-creator Joel Surnow, a dedicated Republican, in 2007). Now, with Obama in the White House, Bauer's lone cowboy approach to national security feels to many like an unwelcome reminder of the Dubya era.
The allegation that 24 promotes torture is long-standing. "We are tempted by the glamour and raw charisma that we project on to Jack Bauer, the illusion of protection, and the lure of vigilante justice,'' said New York University professor Dr Homer Drae Venters in a 2006 edition of medical journal The Lancet. "But the raw truth of torture is that whatever the original motive, the torturer and the tortured are transformed into a perpetrator and a victim of violence."
Strangely, Sutherland seemed ambivalent when questioned about his character's reliance on what Dick Cheney might describe as 'enhanced interrogation techniques'. "You torture someone and they'll basically tell you exactly what you want to hear, whether it's true or not, if you put someone in enough pain,'' he said.
"Within the context of our show, which is a fantastical show to begin with, the torture is a dramatic device to show you how desperate a situation is."
Then again, he also managed to keep a straight face when claiming 24 didn't promote a right-wing agenda. "We've always made an effort to have storylines that reflect opinions, left or right," said Sutherland in an interview. "I don't think we've ever tried to politicise our show, even though it has been politicised by other people. But I certainly think we've tackled topics and ideas in a very responsible way -- from the show's perspective."
If it truly is curtains for Bauer, who could fill his shoes? In the new season, the producers seem to be wrestling with that conundrum before our eyes. Paired with the hard-bitten Bauer is rookie agent Cole Ortiz, played by one-time teen heartthrob Freddie Prinze Jr. Might Bauer be unwittingly grooming his successor?
"They're both ex-marines,'' said Prinze Jr of the similarities between the characters. "Cole holds the position that Jack had in Season One. Where they differ is this: the government has failed Jack numerous, numerous times, and it hasn't done that to Cole yet. Jack lives in the grey area. Cole is very black and white.''
Still, he stops short of suggesting Cole would replace Bauer. "I don't know if there's 24 without Jack Bauer," said the actor. "Maybe there is, but I'm a fan and to me it's the Jack Bauer show."
The new season of 24 starts with a double episode on Sky One on Sunday at 9pm