I've been following Kiefer Sutherland's return to "24" in "24: Live Another Day" (24LAD), which plunges us once again into the turbulent life of Jack Bauer, the world's angriest counterterrorism agent. Along with "Battlestar Galactica," "24" was one of my favorite TV series, despite its cartoonish implausibilities. When it was over, I felt lost. Now it's back, but only for a special "event run" of only twelve episodes.* At this point, we're up to episode 6, so the story is halfway to its conclusion.
24LAD picks up four years after the end of Season 8. That season ended with Jack Bauer on the run from both the US and Russian governments: he had killed a number of important Russian officials, and had even prepped to assassinate the Russian president. The new story, thus far at least, takes place primarily in and around London, England. Jack surfaces in London and gets caught by the local branch of the CIA (apparently, the CIA operates with near-impunity in England—what gracious hosts, the English!); Chief of Station Steve Navarro (Benjamin Bratt, no longer in romantic-comedy mode) gets nothing out of Jack, but Agent Kate Morgan (Yvonne Strahovski) figures out that Jack has allowed himself to get caught. His reason: to break out his old, faithful friend, Chloe O'Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub), who has gone from being a loyal counterterrorism apparatchik to being a rogue, Snowden-style disseminator of classified information.
Chloe is Jack's crutch: Jack needs her to help him foil an attempt on the life of US President James Heller (the awesome William Devane, who starred as SecDef Heller in Seasons 4 through 6): someone has figured out a way to commandeer the US drones flying in UK airspace; this someone plans to target Heller and/or UK citizens while the president is in England. Heller, for his part, is showing his age: the show hints that he has a steadily advancing case of Alzheimer's, which makes his aides second-guess his judgments. Heller's Chief of Staff, Mark Boudreau, hates Jack Bauer and quietly undermines Heller's efforts at constructive relationship-building with the English. Boudreau is married to Jack's old flame Audrey, whom he has patiently nursed out of the Jack-inspired catatonia she had been in since Season 6, thus explaining his animus toward Jack.
"24" has always done an excellent job of giving us multilayered characters driven by complex motives. Chloe is torn between her new loyalty to Open Cell, the rogue hacker group of which she is a member, and to Jack who, despite being her best friend, represents the government she now stands against. Mark Boudreau initially comes off as a sneaky bastard who will do whatever it takes to hand Jack Bauer over to the Russians, but once he meets Bauer, he immediately regrets his chicanery. Boudreau may be this series's Lando Calrissian: it's not obvious which way he'll break when the going gets tough. President Heller has a checkered history with Jack, who once threatened Heller at gunpoint at the end of Season 6. Heller is protective of his daughter Audrey; he sees Jack as having an aura of death around him, and he wants desperately to keep his daughter out of Jack's ambit. At the same time, Heller is a former fighting man, and he sympathizes with Jack's predicament.
Despite its obvious, Dan Brown-style narrative formula, the plot of "24" is often devilishly hard to predict. I had thought that Margot Al-Harazi (Michelle Fairley), the embittered widow who has taken over six US drones, would end up killing her daughter Simone (Emily Berrington), but instead Margot killed her daughter's husband, and Simone has been hit by a bus. I keep expecting Chloe O'Brian to die this season, but I have no idea whether that will actually happen. In Episode 6, we find out who the mole is in the CIA's London station, and it's not who I thought it would be. Busy, busy, busy, says Bokonon. If "24" teaches us one lesson, it's that the best-laid plans can go very much awry; Murphy's Law is a cosmic principle.
One flaw of "24" has been the general weakness of its female characters, with Chloe O'Brian being the major exception. Jack's love interest in Seasons 7 and 8, the stunningly sexy redhead Renee Walker (Annie Wersching), was simultaneously very strong and very needy—not a stand-alone feminist type. Katee Sackhoff's Dana Walsh proved to be a liar and a murderer—not exactly feminist material. This time around, however, Agent Kate Morgan might finally be a match for Chloe: she's brainy and perceptive, she's good with a gun, and as we saw—painfully—in Episode 6, she can withstand massive amounts of torture and still manage to engage in a firefight. Her one foible is that she was apparently unable to see that her husband had betrayed the United States by selling secrets to a foreign power, but events in Episode 6 now call that into question: her husband might not be the traitor he's been made out to be.
Oh, yeah: torture. Torture's back, so let's talk about it. Torture is a "24" tradition, after all, and this time we see a form of torture not seen in previous seasons: the strappado. This ancient method of pain-infliction involves tying the victim's hands behind his or her back, connecting a rope or chain to the victim's bound wrists, then hoisting the victim into the air via a pulley. This puts a horrible strain on the victim's shoulders, which often break under the pressure of gravity. Poor Kate Morgan gets the strappado treatment, and the filmmakers aren't shy about showing her hanging there, screaming. I admit I felt very squeamish watching this—perhaps more squeamish than I'd ever felt watching any previous scenes of torture on "24." At the same time, I marveled that Kate's shoulders didn't pop, and that she was able to use a gun not long after her release from the strappado. That blow to my suspension of disbelief made up for any previous squeamishness.
All of which is to say that "24" is back, thank God, and it's brought along its old bag of tricks. It's too bad that there are only six more episodes to go. Some people might complain that the series isn't breaking any new narrative ground, but this is one case in which familiarity does not breed contempt. If the old formula ain't broke, don't fix it. Despite the familiarity, though, there's a new set of players: for example, there's Stephen Fry, fresh from playing the Master of Lake-town in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," as British Prime Minister Alistair Davies. There's also gravel-voiced Michael Wincott as Adrian Cross, charismatic leader of Open Cell (you may remember a much younger Wincott as Guy of Gisborne in the Kevin Costner version of "Robin Hood"). Some interesting people have come to this party, and they liven up "24" as the plot hurtles forward. I'll be curious to see how matters resolve themselves.
*As before, the show still runs in real time, but hours will occasionally be skipped.