The yellow ticking clock that punctuates every episode of 24 is simultaneously bombastic, methodical, menacing, and relentless. That makes it a perfect stand-in for the show’s star, former Counter Terrorist Unit agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), who for eight seasons (and a TV movie) over the past 13 years, overcame seemingly impossible odds to save the world, in reliably precise fashion.
And now the clock—and Jack—are ticking once again. The hit FOX drama returns with 24: Live Another Day, a 12-episode “event series” that kicks off tonight with a two-hour premiere (8 p.m. ET/PT). Episodes will still take place in real time, with the entire season unfolding over a 24-hour period, but the season will skip over 12 hours (during which you can assume that the characters are busy sleeping, eating, and running errands). Yet despite the spiffy new London locale and the four-year hiatus, 24: Live Another Day is—at least in its first two hours—more reminiscent of the run-of-the-mill later seasons as opposed to its revelatory, exhilarating heyday.
Live Another Day picks up four years after the eighth “day,” which ended with Jack heading off the grid (yet again), fleeing the country after uncovering a major conspiracy involving Russia, the U.S., and the Islamic Republic of Kamistan (he also offed some Russian diplomats along the way), with U.S. and Russian authorities in hot pursuit. Jack resurfaces in London—and unlike later seasons that were set in D.C. and New York but still filmed in L.A., this season is actually shot on location in England, and benefits from the change of scenery. He’s tracked down by the CIA, which is convinced he’s there to harm President James Heller (William Devane, last seen in Season 6), who is in town with his daughter Audrey (Jack’s onetime love, played by Kim Raver) to meet with the prime minister.
Meanwhile, his former CTU sidekick and tech guru extraordinaire Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub), has pulled an Edward Snowden, working with a hacker group to leak vast amounts of classified material, and undergone an unconvincing, Girl with the Temporary Tattoo makeover (she seems to be playing dress-up more than going punk). But props to her industrial black eye liner, which remains flawless even under extended torture!
So what exactly have Jack and Chloe been up to for the last four years? The first two episodes don’t give any concrete answers, but I can only assume they were frozen in carbonite, Han Solo-style. Because seemingly nothing has changed in 24-land. Despite moving across the Pond, the show’s new CIA office is a dead ringer for the various CTU buildings we saw over the years, and the new agents have a similar level of competency (i.e. very little).
We’re introduced to the usual mix of interchangeable, expendable new characters that kick off most 24 seasons: the morally-suspect presidential adviser (Tate Donovan, who might as well be sporting a goatee given how slimy he comes across; for good measure, he’s also now married to Audrey and sneers lines like, “As long as she lives, she’ll never hear the name ‘Jack Bauer!’”); the hard-nosed agency head who will spend much of his probably-brief tenure ordering Jack not to do something, before reluctantly conceding that Bauer was right all along (nice glowering, Benjamin Bratt!); the female agent who is smarter than the others and is therefore the most likely to defy her bosses and assist Jack (Yvonne Strahovski); the agent with a chip on his shoulder who will be overpowered and outsmarted by Jack at least once an hour (Erik Ritter) and of course, the nameless agency background extras doomed to become collateral damage once their building is inevitably breached and/or blown up.
It wasn’t always this formulaic. When it premiered back in 2001, 24 was an audacious breath of fresh air, one of broadcast TV’s first attempts at emulating the darker, grittier shows that had begun to flourish on cable. Each week featured a new round of inspired twists, shocking betrayals and torture galore. It seemed impossible that the show could keep that frenzied momentum going for a second season, much less eight in all, but for years, they managed to do just that. The show’s glorious fifth season—which introduced the wonderfully odious President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin) and his bonkers wife, Martha, (Jean Smart)—resulted in a 2006 Emmy win for Best Drama, the last time a broadcast drama has taken home the trophy. But its real-time format—so thrilling in the early seasons—ultimately straightjacketed the show. Those final seasons, featuring perfunctory mole reveals (the less said about Katee Sackhoff’s embarrassing arc, the better) and laughable twists that were no longer even remotely plausible (an attack on the White House by sea?) proved that while Jack Bauer might be indestructible, the show itself had flatlined.
One seeming advantage to Live Another Day’s 12-episode format is it would allow producers to trim the fat (i.e. the unfortunate mid-day plots involving cougars and temporary amnesia) that had plagued most seasons, and keep the story streamlined and unrelenting. But so far, there’s no evidence that they are approaching this season any differently than the previous eight.
Only time will tell if Live Another Day breaks the now-standard format for each season: a nesting doll set-up of increasingly Bigger Baddies until the “real” villain is unveiled sometime around hour 19 or 20. For now, the most evil character on screen seems to be Game of Thrones’ Michelle Fairley, briefly glimpsed causing trouble in the early going. But will she indeed be here for the duration—and I hope so, because she’s awfully captivating in her limited on-screen time—or will she be dispatched halfway through? I’m also eager to see more of British Prime Minister Stephen Fry, who has a few charged moments early on with President Heller. Heller himself is also brimming with intriguing storylines this season, particularly a mystery illness that is “progressing a lot quicker than the doctors anticipated.”
With the jury still out on most of the new additions, the burden largely falls again on Jack’s weary shoulders, and as always, Kiefer Sutherland is more than up to the task. His work as Jack has always been deceptively underrated, plausibly selling even Jack’s most outlandish heroics and internalizing his increasing world-weariness while unearthing new wrinkles in his repetitive lines and actions. (Just in case you thought that Jack might have lightened up in the past four years, he reminds us that “I don’t have any friends” and “There’s no going back for me,” lines that if uttered by anyone other than Sutherland, would sound like the equivalent of Debbie Downer’s sad trombone.) In 24’s disappointing later seasons, Sutherland’s yeoman’s work was often the sole reason to keep watching, and here too, his comforting, assured presence ensures that I’ll keep tuning in, regardless of how the season unfolds.
But aside from the thrill of seeing Jack—and Sutherland—back on the clock, barking orders and unleashing new methods of ass-kicking (for his next trick, he’ll do it with the hands cuffed behind his back!), 24’s absence hasn’t made me grow fonder of its tropes. This time around, many of them—Jack being underestimated by everyone around him, his first anguished utterance of “Dammit!,” the first of what will be many double-crosses—seemed more dutiful than inspired. The later seasons of 24 indicated that all the format’s tricks had been exhausted, and so far, Live Another Day’s writers haven’t indicated that they’ve discovered any new ones.
Yet, if there’s one thing we’ve learned from 24, it’s that the show burns through plot—and characters—so quickly, there’s no telling what will be going on just a few hours from now. Perhaps there are indeed fresh twists in store, but for now, I’ve lowered my expectations accordingly. While I’ll happy to have Jack back on the grid, I wish he had brought along more of the 24 I loved in the early going, instead of the version that I tolerated in its later years.