Long ago, “24” provided the Bennett family with our first experience in television binge-watching.
When we were given the DVDs of the first season of the Kiefer Sutherland action series, my wife and I found that we couldn’t stop with just a single episode. The real-time format always ended every hour with a tantalizing cliffhanger, and we’d delude ourselves into thinking we could watch “just one more." Pretty soon we’d find ourselves still awake at 2 in the morning rooting for Jack Bauer to save the world.
Well, that was then, and this is now. And now, when “24” has returned after a four-year absence in the form of a 12-hour miniseries titled “Live Another Day,” the good news for Jack Bauer aficionados is that the show really hasn’t changed much, if at all. The bad news is that the cultural landscape has changed drastically, which makes “24” feel less like the edge-of-your-seat thrill ride that used to keep me up all night and more like a tired exercise in nostalgia.
It’s worth noting that “24” premiered on Nov. 6, 2001, less than two months after the 9/11 attacks. As the nation was gearing up for the War on Terror, Jack Bauer was the hero on the fictional front lines, bringing down television terrorists while our soldiers were battling the real ones. At the same time, “24” explored explosive issues that were dominating the national discussion. Was it morally acceptable for Jack Bauer to torture the bad guys to prevent nuclear Armageddon? How far is too far? If we’re willing to go to the same extremes as our enemies, doesn’t that make us just as bad as they are?
As the show wore on, however, it lost a good deal of relevance along the way. Those kinds of probing questions were drowned out by the show’s relentless noise. The limitations of the real-time format required every hour to bring some kind of new crisis, every one of which had to be even bigger than the last, and the constant escalation was unsustainable. When the volume is continually cranked up throughout the whole series, it eventually becomes impossible to get any louder.
For me, the point of no return came in the fourth hour of season 6, when a terrorist’s nuclear bomb destroys Valencia, California. What could possibly be worse than that? Oh, sure, we’re told there are more suitcase nukes that might go off, and Jack has to work to prevent even bigger explosions. But it was impossible to shake the feeling that there was nowhere left to go.
The rest of the season felt more than a little desperate as the producers tried to convince the audience that they hadn’t painted themselves into a corner. Seasons 7 and 8 took the action to different cities outside of L.A. in an attempt to shake things up, but by that point, the concept was too tired to salvage. I was still watching, but I wasn’t nearly as engaged as I was back when the show was still fresh.
I was optimistic when I heard that "24" was coming back, but after the first episode, I couldn’t help but feel let down. The War on Terror template is front and center again, but it now feels at least a decade out of date. Yes, there are still bad guys who want to kill us, but we’ve now been fighting them for over 12 years in the longest armed conflict in America’s history, and Jack Bauer feels like a Bush holdover in the age of Obama. “24” just feels stale.
Still, Kiefer Sutherland is a lot of fun, and there are still enough entertaining moments to keep me watching. But unlike season 1, “24: Live Another Day” isn’t going to keep me up at night.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.