In the four year absence of 24, a film managed to get greenlit and stalled, and greenlit and stalled again before the announcement of 24: Live Another Day. Apparently named for one of James Bond’s worst films, this 12-hour miniseries event is meant to be a return/possible end/possible movie lead-in and boasts the returns of whatever living characters the franchise still has: William Devane as James Heller (wasn’t he retired?), Kim Raver as Audrey Raines (wasn’t she in a coma?), and Mary Lynn Rajskub as socially stunted computer genius Chloe O’Brian (ugh).

So, after a four year rest, the writers (minus co-creator Joel Surnow) have returned, and so has Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland). The return is utterly familiar from the outset: high ranking government officials in suits are utterly incompetent and refuse to listen to the semi-insubordinate underlings who acting on little more than a hunch are invariably correct; Jack Bauer has information no one else has yet no one will listen to him; there is an attempt at social commentary (they haven’t made a real point about anything since the studio cut them off at the knees in season 2); there is a threat of torture mixed in with light medical and technical jargon. These are all plays from the 24 handbook appropriated for the new characters (really, dialogue spewers) to get through until Jack is undoubtedly, for reasons that are never that good, given carte blanche authority on a provisional basis. All this has happened before and all this will happen again. It’s preordained.

What’s different in 24: Live Another Day is the sense of energy. There is something close to electricity that manages to permeate the story. The writers have a great deal more confidence in the product than they did in the latter half of the old series, and while there are the old 24 go-to stories, the pacing isn’t as quick—it’s more careful and methodical, focusing more on the mystery than budget-eating action. Moments of subtlety abound with the President’s obvious case of Alzheimer’s, Tate Donovan’s Mark Boudreau wants the best for his wife’s—Bauer’s old squeeze—mental health (though, in 24 terms it likely means he’s going to be evil soon) and Benjamin Bratt’s Steve Navarro, who quietly admires and respects his co-worker whose career has taken an unfortunate turn because of our guilty by association tendencies. Hell, Jack doesn’t even say a word for nearly the entire length of the first episode.

The most striking thing, on a story level, is not the change of setting, but the change within Jack Bauer himself. Despite not being guilty of the crimes against the United States, the four years he’s been hunted he’s been hunted have apparently been hell on Jack. The cross-hatching that has taken place on his boxer’s face have deepened, he’s quieter and calmer—though that calm does not come from a place of serenity, but from a place that borders indifference. He understands how his story, given the circumstances, is likely to end. He accepts that violent lives tend to end violently.

There is little arguing the fact that by the time 24 finished its original run in 2010, the show had grown very, very stale. 24 began as a series that reflected post-9/11 anxiety and dared to admit that some Muslims were terrorists while also condemning the Islamophobia that special interest groups had so often accused it of. The show commented on characters who “made the hard choices,” only to realize that although it was for the greater good it was never actually worth it. Unfortunately, the series trudged to a finishing line several seasons too late, and as a changed entity. The spy-thriller had been replaced by an action-thriller, which was fine of course because long running shows need to evolve as time goes on. The only problem was that the action had overtaken the story and the characters (of whom there were few familiar faces outside of Kiefer Sutherland’s haggard Jack Bauer).

What was left in those last dwindling seasons were half-hearted returns of familiar faces and a resurrection of a fan favorite character that turned into a character assassination. Attempts at creating new characters similar to fan favorites like David and Sherry Palmer were closer to parody, and the series felt the way The X-Files had at a similar juncture: tired.

At its best, 24 had been able to marry careful strains of social commentary into exciting plots and reasonably grounded characters, but eventually the venerable series drifted along the river of its own unique clichés—moles! Jack goes rogue! Something ridiculous!—and we were given a much needed break from Jack Bauer’s whisper-yelling and perma-five o’clock shadow when the show came to an end in 2010.

It used to be that watching certain episodes of 24 made the viewer uncomfortable. There was a gritty realism, a manipulation of well based fears: Terri’s rape and Kim’s kidnapping in season 1, the torture scenes, nuclear detonation on American soil, the rampant hate crimes against innocent Muslims, the assassination of the President of the United States by an Anthrax like contamination in season 2, the reality of a biological and chemical weapons used in season 3 or the dangers of overreaching defense contractors in season 7. Live Another Day manages to return to that uncomfortable feeling again. Here there are drones attacking American soldiers, classified documents being released by former federal employees, and Jack Bauer taking on the role of a terrorist: he’s now got a little crew of extras carrying big guns and wearing earth tones. In a shootout with the CIA, he isn’t firing wide in suppressive bursts; he’s aiming for heads, he’s setting off explosives that would have killed some hapless CIA extras had they not been a few feet ahead; instead they only have to deal with burns, broken bones, concussions and PTSD.

In its own way there is a subtle point in there. Yesterday’s heroes are today’s villains. Jack Bauer has taken on that role that some reviewers have placed him into before: he represents jingoism, some Jesus Christ/John Wayne combo that can’t exist in a world where everybody is apologizing for something. And he represents something so very unapologetic. We have a tendency to eat our young.

Given the amount of time between this miniseries and the last full season, as well as the relaxed episode count, 24: Live Another Day is a leaner story that will hopefully give rise, if not to more new ideas, than to more well-rounded and better developed characters than we have seen on this show in a long time.

It’s still too early to tell if this miniseries will be successful artistically. The first two episodes are a mix of old bag and something a little more new and exciting. It seems unlikely that the franchise will have the creative renaissance it had over a decade ago but if you’re a fan, you’re going to watch it anyway. It’s Jack Bauer.

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