Time Warp: The Return of '24' and Jack Bauer

The Bush-era counterterrorist hero is back, but can he be a man for these times as well?

Kiefer Sutherland
Greg Williams/FOX
Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer on 24: LIVE ANOTHER DAY
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So why is Jack Bauer back? Easy: Dude needs a job. We saw him try to retire before — taking his granddaughter to the zoo — and it didn't take him long to decide that sucked. Hence the return of 24, burdened with the sub-Bond subtitle Live Another Day, and positioned as a heavily-hyped attempt to salvage Jack Bauer as a circa-2014 superhero. There's a pathos and a poignance in seeing Jack struggle to prove himself as a 50-ish professional meatball, in the style of Rocky V or Lethal Weapon IV. Getting shot by terrorists? Getting CGI fireballs dropped on your head? Nasty work. But it beats hanging out with your grandkid. 

 Watch the '24: Live Another Day' Teaser

So 24 is back and more simple-minded than ever. After four years off the grid, the former counter-terrorism expert returns to foil yet another dastardly terrorist plot. But his real mission is escaping the even more dastardly menace of unemployment. When a young CIA agent taunts, "You were really something, Bauer — back in the day," you know it's just a matter of time before Bauer kicks this punk's teeth in. (It takes about 30 seconds.) "The old man's still got it" is the whole point of the new 24, and if Jack needs to prove it by killing a few dozen bad guys and rescuing the President from an assassination plot, well, you gotta do what you gotta do. 

They really should have turned Jack's grand-daughter into a sassy sidekick, kind of like Sally Draper or Anya Stark with bigger weapons. Instead, he's stuck with the ever-loyal but not-so-bright Chloe O'Brian, whom he rescues from a top-secret lockdown — about 20 minutes after he walks through the front door in handcuffs. (Her hilarious black eyeliner remains intact despite her torture ordeal — maybe she was locked in the CIA's Counter-Goth Unit, where they tortured her by playing "Bela Lugosi's Dead" at the wrong speed.) 

Chloe naturally leads him to the hideout of her Faux-Snowden WikiLeaks Apple Dumpling Gang, because they're dumb enough to trust her, and BTW, why would a gang of hacktivists need a hideout? Wouldn't keeping all their laptops in one room pose an unnecessary risk? And why does their hideout looks like a warehouse rave scene from a Beverly Hills 90210 rerun? (Youth-phobia dies hard, I guess.) Jack Bauer looks at these millennials with the same squint Dirty Harry used to give hippies. Goddamn kids. These people are lost and on drugs and have venereal diseases! 

The cliché about 24 was always that it summed up bad old days of the War on Terror, back when the Bush administration was first cracking down on civil liberties. Jack Bauer was always a Gitmo goon at heart. But the show got even more tied up in another disaster from the Bush years — the economic crash, when people began to fear unemployment even more than they feared terrorism. By the end, the suspense on 24 wasn't "Can this guy save America from terrorism?" It was: "Can these agents save their jobs from the recession?" 

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My favorite moment in the final season came when the agents busted a reporter for terrorist ties — when they called up her file, the dreaded word flashed on the big screen: "FREELANCER." That's how 24 ended: freelancers replaced terrorists as the scariest hostiles out there. 

That was four years ago. When 24 went out of business, still a hit in the ratings, it was too expensive to produce — another recession casualty. So there's a nasty edge in Jack Bauer coming back to fight for his old gig, with the humorless resolve of Don Draper typing up Burger Chef tags for his former protegée. In an America geared to outsource work to contractors and freelancers, all these CIA hacks care about is covering their asses. One agent, facing her last day at the job, gets escorted out by security but manages to tase the guard, steal his gun and head back to work. (Does she get sent to jail? No. She gets rehired on the spot.) 

There was always something profoundly stupid about how the old 24 felt compelled to ruin perfectly good dumb blowing-things-up action with a lot of noble hoo-hah and phony patriotic sanctimony. But the new 24 has a new kind of sanctimony — keeping Jack Bauer on the job, giving him something to do, not even a paycheck but a purpose. That's the mission that justifies all his dirty work. 

At one point, Chloe asks, "What is this about?" Jack explains, "Life says, 'Get out of the way, you're obsolete.' I say to life: 'Move me or go around. I'm not volunteering to step out.'" Wait, no — that's not from 24. It's something Sylvester Stallone said in 2005, explaining why he was making another Rocky movie. (You remember Rocky Balboa, don't you?) But Jack can relate. In the end, he doesn't really need to be a hero. All he needs is a gig. If he takes a bullet or two, big deal. At least it's not the zoo.