There are protesters outside as President James Heller is preparing for meetings inside a London office. He wants a new drone base for U.S. operations, but resistance on the street, and in parliament, is high.
“The ugly truth is we’re just doing our work,” says Heller, played by William “what’s in your safe?” Devane, exasperated.
That, in a nutshell is the new ‘24,’ which premiered Monday night as “24: Live Another Day,” the start of a 12-episode season. In 2001, when this Joel Surnow-inspired show debuted, torture was the ugly truth. Jack Bauer, the television character who soon became synonymous with aggressive U.S counter-terror policy in the wake of 9/11, was just “doing his work” to save America from the bad guys.
But now, returning from a four-year hiatus, more than age has set in on the set of ‘24.’ Reality has, too. Now the drones are the misunderstood tactical weapon of choice against the baddies, and the baddies, well they are – surprise, surprise – cyber-terrorists, rogue elements of an underground band of hacktivists who — another shocker — shamelessly mimic real-life activists Edward Snowden and Julian Assange.
Let’s just offer a prediction right now – that the new Jack Bauer is not going to get the same mileage as the old one, no matter how Terminator-like they make him, how tricked out they make the computer gear and lingo, or how many set pieces they can blow up in an hour. No one has the stomach for torture anymore, and the country is way too divided on drones and government secrecy and surveillance to even care if Bauer saves the day.
For sure, a decade ago American viewers indulged in the show’s do or die urgency – set by it’s conceit that every episode spanned an hour in the life of Jack Bauer – and made it one of the most popular series on TV. That Jack was forced to torture to prevent cataclysmic terrorist attacks – and with only minutes to spare – not only fed the bloodlust and Islamophobic paranoia of the times, but offered moral dispensation for the overhang of those complicated feelings. Politically, and don’t doubt this for a minute, it gave elementary cover to the new interrogation policies of Bush Administration’s Global War on Terror – renditions, black sites, torture — the really “ugly truth’ of which we may never know. When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia uses the fictional Jack Bauer to make a point on jurisprudence, you know ‘24’ is doing more than just entertain the masses. “Conditioning” is what Brave New World author Aldous Huxley would have called it.
“Jack Bauer personified a very specific, post–9/11 fantasy that what America really needed to be safe was somebody willing to break the rules on our behalf: We were better off with unethical, lethal intelligence officers and services than with ineffective ones,” wrote Willa Paskin, in a recent review of the show’s re-incarnation.
With her usual skills of dissection, The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer pointed out that this was not only about creator Joel Surnow’s ability to tap into the middle American zeitgeist, but the current political climate, too. More succinctly, it was Surnow’s opportunity to express his own right-wing politics, while making big bucks for the network.
“America wants the war on terror fought by Jack Bauer. He’s a patriot,” Surnow told Mayer for her 2007 feature. “People in the Administration love the series, too. It’s a patriotic show. They should love it.”
David Nevins, a former FOX executive, told Mayer, “There’s definitely a political attitude of the show, which is that extreme measures are sometimes necessary for the greater good,” he said. “The show doesn’t have much patience for the niceties of civil liberties or due process. It’s clearly coming from somewhere. Joel’s politics suffuse the whole show.”
But the original ‘24’ did not end because the good guys finally won, but because the show eventually jumped the shark somewhere around season 6, if not earlier. It struggled on for at least two more seasons, putting Jack Bauer in increasingly manic and over-the-top situations – one involving cougars – to keep the show on life support. FOX lost the patient in 2010.
Fast forward to 2014 and well, if it’s been a lifetime in news cycles, it’s been light years in Jack Bauer’s time. Series like Showtime’s Homeland have filled in the gap (the brainchild of ‘24’ writer and showrunner Howard Gordon), and are offering more nuanced, albeit still propagandistic dramatic narrative than the near-parody that ‘24’ had become. Maybe that is why in Monday’s night’s premier of “Live Another Day,” the writers introduce a Carrie Mathison doppelganger, complete with spy-lover in the baggage closet, and a proclivity to disobey orders when’s she’s got a “hunch.” Oh yeah, and she’s brilliant, and respected, but interminably second-guessed by superiors – sound familiar?
But Homeland has its own problems, not the least of which, it may have already jumped the shark too. Other issues – including the last season’s sudden shift to Iran as the existential threat – abound. But it has a strong cast, and for the moment, better writers, to pull it off.
The problem with ‘24’ is that it’s lost its tick-tock — its raison d’etre — so now the show is fishing around for a way to hook our anxieties. It doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. On one hand, it could stick with a drone storyline – 65 percent of Americans last year said they were okay with using drones to attack terrorists overseas (though they are squirmy with warrantless drone use, here). That’s even more than the percentage of Americans who said they approved of Bush-era harsh interrogation techniques in 2009.
But Jack Bauer doesn’t fly drones, and besides, at least in Monday’s two-hour special, there seemed to be more interest in how cyber-terrorists could commandeer drones to pull off a mass casualty event. “Hacktivism” appears to be the tender spot ‘24’ now wants to exploit. Perhaps, but it might be difficult. According to polls, Americans are pretty divided on the issue of leaks and Edward Snowden, while most express angst over intrusive government surveillance.
“America is a very different place today since the last time Jack Bauer saved us all,” writes Matthew DesOrmeaux for United Liberty. “Our media is different, our opinions are different, our government is different, even how we watch TV is different. In the wake of drone filibusters, Anwar al-Awlaki, Benghazi, curbed Syrian intervention, WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden, and Ukraine, 24 is returning in uncharted territory.”
Surely. When lawmakers on Capitol Hill – Republican lawmakers – are demanding less NSA intrusion and greater transparency into CIA torture policy, there’s been a shift in zeitgeist, however glacial. Perhaps that’s why the only hint of torture in the Monday premiere of “Live Another Day” came when Jack saved old compatriot Chloe O’Brien from a cell deep in the “Special Activities” division. How ironic, that when Jack screams at the agent, who moments before had been turning Chloe into brain toast, the agent (looking like something out of The Matrix), simply replies, “it’s nothing you haven’t done.”
Chloe turns out to be the Snowden character – she’s spent the last four years underground, releasing classified info to the masses. She works with a guy who we guess is supposed to resemble Julian Assange (played by Michael Wincott, and not cloistered in the Ecuadoran embassy) and a host of hacktivist whiz kids who unfortunately resemble an Apple commercial gone bad. Chloe is a “fan favorite,” so her turn as a rebel in this way might also portend a show shift, more towards current sentiment.
But when Cool Chloe says she went underground in part because “intelligence agencies keep secrets because everything they do is criminal,” Jack balks at her, growling, “you’re smarter than that!” That she stands there flummoxed, giving him the last word, signals that ‘24’, as flexible as it’s trying to be, hasn’t entirely given up the ghost of Surnow. Yet.
America is tired of war and we know so much more now, about harsh interrogations and the policies that led to the chaining and torture of men, thanks mostly to brave whistleblowers and independent journalists. Jack Bauer seems out of time, if not out of touch. Writes Jeff Jenson for Entertainment Weekly:
“The movie Zero Dark Thirty created a cultural moment that both closed out one kind of narrative about the war on terror — America the Avenger — and formalized a new chapter in that ongoing saga, one that saw us vetting how we fought the war on terror. Today, the new face of controversial “get ‘er done” heroism is not a by-any-means-necessary secret agent but a guy who blew the whistle on how secret agents do their business, Edward Snowden.”
Bauer’s return might indeed be short-lived, unless of course, they make him put down the semi-automatic pistol, and boot up the laptop — for the other side.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com, a regular contributor to antiwar.com, and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Border News Network. Follow her on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos