The best and the worst that can be said for the first two new episodes of 24 to air in four years is that the show comes back to television pretty much the way it left. Watching the first five minutes of “11:00 AM—12:00 PM” feels like an act of modest time travel; once again, we’re stuck in the grim, tech-filled bowels of some intelligence agency (this time the CIA’s London branch), as anxious men and women stare at computer screens and shout jargon at each other. A suspect has been located, and a team of trained operatives are closing in. Security cameras and satellite footage are kept under constant surveillance by rows of pale nerds. In the background, a pretty blonde woman is emptying out her desk, but she can’t help keeping one ear turned towards events in the main room. Something big is going down. And then, up on the big screen, you see it: the man the field team is hunting. Jack Bauer, sleeping on a dirty cot in an anonymous warehouse, about to be caught. Then the running starts.
Jack is on the outs with polite society, but that’s nothing new. His most consistent arc over the run of the show’s previous eight seasons has been the way his obsessive commitment to protect America’s interests has destroyed any attempt at a personal life. The first season ended with Jack finding his wife dead after he’d finally beaten the bad guys, and things haven’t ever really gotten better, at least not for long. Season eight ended with him on the run from pretty much everyone, and as much of a dud as that season was, it was an ending that at least suited the character. He doesn’t get a happy ending, as much as we might want one for him. (Or maybe we don’t. I mean, there has been a lot of torture.) That does things to a man. “11:00 AM—12:00 PM” gets a fair amount of mileage out of Jack’s drawn out silence, leaving us one same side of the table as Steve Navarro (Benjamin Bratt) and Kate Morgan (Yvonne Strahovski). We don’t know what the play is.
We find out soon enough. 24, for all its pulpy twists, has always been a show that’s relied on a handful of basic character archetypes and structural ideas. Unexpected beats like Jack’s extended silence are the sort of surprise which is only really surprising when you’re familiar with how this usually works. Viewed from a certain angle, the biggest shock here is how, well, un-shocking this all is. While only a handful of actors from the original series have returned, the faces all seem familiar. Once again, we’ve got the super smart agent who recognizes inconsistencies that the people around her fail to catch (Kate, who also has something to prove, given that her husband was selling secrets to the Chinese); and that agent has to deal with at least one asshole who’s constantly questioning her decisions, forcing her to get tough and use extreme measures. Jack ends up taking Kate down by the end of the second episode, but unless she turns out to be a spy herself, I’m betting they’ll be working together soon.
Also once again, these first two episodes rely on the multi-storyline build that drove the series in the past. In the main story, Jack lets himself get caught by the CIA, and then busts Chloe out of lock-up (she’s being tortured; it’s interesting that the only two characters tortured or threatened with torture are Chloe and Jack). Running alongside this is Kate’s story as she first figures out that Jack must be up to something, and then forces her way into the team working to track Jack down post-escape.
Then we have the Hellers—James (William Devane) is president now, and working to secure a treaty that will allow the US to maintain a military base for drones on British soil. Daughter Audrey (Jack’s long-ago love interest, played by Kim Raver) is on hand, and married to Mark (Tate Donovan), who’s working to hold things together, and also to keep Audrey from finding out that Jack’s back on the grid. Of course eventually Audrey will found out that Jack’s in town, so that’s something to look forward to; for now, the president stuff is the least interesting of the bunch, mainly because it focuses too much on James’s struggles with senility (nobody says Alzheimer’s, but it’s heavily implied). Which is sad, to be sure, but this isn’t a slow-burn character drama; we need threats that raise the stakes, not ones that are unsolvable, tragic, and basically just make you feel uncomfortable.
Still, the Heller storyline isn’t dreadful so far, and everything surrounding the senility concerns is relevant to Jack’s efforts; he is, after all, trying to stop a potential assassination attempt on the president’s life. One of the hallmarks of an effective season of 24 is a lack of dull storylines; everyone jokes about Kim and the cougar, but the really terrible stuff are the plots without Jack or anyone we care about that drag on until someone gets shot in the head or something blows up. It’s probably too early to tell is this season (or miniseries, or whatever you want to call it) is going to avoid that or not, but so far, the worst of it (to my mind) are the scenes of the president struggling to remember something or Audrey looking pained. And since that storyline also gave us the wondrous sight of Stephen Fry, Prime Minister, I’m willing cut it some slack. (Especially since the scene when Audrey finally finds out that Jack is running around London trying to save her father’s life should be a good one.)
Other storylines include Chris Tanner (John Boyega, who was great in Attack The Block and is apparently now going to be in the new Star Wars), the poor drone pilot who “happens” to be on duty when a hacker takes control of the drone he’s operating and fires it on a group of American and British soldiers. Chris is getting railroaded by the efforts of a hacker who is in way over his head, as evidenced by the fact that the second hour ends with said hacker getting murdered by the woman he thought was his girlfriend. Oh, and Michelle Fairley is apparently behind all of this. Who knows what’s going on.
As ever, the struggle to review a show like this comes in not giving a flat plot summary with each writeup. I’m going to try and forego that here (I mean, apart from all the flat plot summary I’ve already given, sigh). The overall impression I’m left with after these first two episodes is that as much as things have changed, the central core of the show is pretty much locked in. Both episodes feature their share of solid action set-pieces, with Jack and Chloe’s escape being a highlight; and while there’s a brief suggestion that Jack and Chloe might be on the outs (he uses her to track down the hacker group she’s joined up with, which is 24’s version of Wikileaks), that resolves almost immediately. Midway through episode two, Jack is hunting down a hacker in a nest of drug dealers, and Chloe is running surveillance for him in a truck, because that’s what Chloes do best.
To be honest, just typing that made me grin, and not because I regularly laugh at my own crappy jokes. I get the problems people have with this show: its weird, reactionary politics (in that it imagines a world in which torture is psychologically agonizing for both sides, but still a vital necessity because the bad guys are just that bad), like listening to your dad lecture you about world news; its lack of humor (Chloe, the scowl-who-walks, is as close as we ever get to comic relief); its stolid adherence to old routines, as though the “real-time” gimmick was as much innovation as anyone would ever need, dammit, we’re not hippies here. I get that it’s often wildly uneven, and that the dialogue, in its relentless exposition, is pretty charmless stuff.
But I still love this show—and I’m as bleeding-heart as they come. I don’t know as I’d put the best seasons of 24 in the pantheon of my absolute favorites, but it’s up there. I love that the writers realized what they had in Chloe and have been smart enough to keep bringing her and Jack together; it helps to undercut the grimness of Jack’s arc to know there’s at least one person he can always count on. And Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack remains a force of nature, a performance that manages to give an entire show the illusion of gravitas it so desperately needs. He’s mostly stone-faced in these two episodes, but there are glimmers of life—and even regret. Whether or not the show knows it, Jack is John Wayne in The Searchers, a man who is sometimes needed but never really wanted. The character remains vital, maybe even more in a world where the rules have changed. Let’s hope the next 10 hours will live up to him.
- As with the shift to New York in season 8, so far, the move to London hasn’t really affected much. But we’ll see.
- Kate, in addition to seeing through Jack’s plans before anyone else, also tazes the guy who’s supposed to escort her out of the office. So clearly, she’s a Renee Walker replacement. (I like how there’s literally no aftermath to the whole tazing thing. We don’t even see the guy she stuffed in a closet wandering around holding his head. It’s no “Stephen Root in the crawlspace,” but it’s funny.)
- When Jack is wired up for TORTURE, the tech guy mentions that his vitals are all amazingly steady. That’s our boy!
- Odds on Mark turning out to be evil? There’s always gotta be at least one. So far he comes across as well-meaning, if a bit controlling.
- Jack’s first line: “Take me to her. Now.”
- Even if he had an ulterior motive, it was still immensely satisfying to see Jack rescuing Chloe. I’m an easy sell, I guess.
- “I don’t have any friends.” -Jack (would it be too much to ask for this season to end on a slightly more optimistic note for him? Probably.)
- Hello Derek, goodbye Derek, victim of a femme fatale who’s working for Michelle Fairley. (Sounds like Fairley is the femme’s mom, too. This should be fun.)
- Jack grabs a thumb drive out of Derek’s room, and Chloe’s able to access it just long enough to see it’s full of drone schematics before it self-destructs. That self-destruct should’ve maybe worked a bit faster, Derek.
- “This is the only play.” If you ever made a Jack Bauer doll, it would say that, and “You have to trust me.” And of course “WHERE IS MARWAN.”