For an astonishing amount of time in the first episode of 24: Live Another Day, Jack Bauer is silent. The character who may have been the best action hero of the ’00s sits quietly and simply glares at characters who dare think they could contain him. He’s the world’s greatest kinetic force made potential, building up more and more energy until he’ll finally explode, and in that sneer, he seems like a harbinger of things his nation has tried to forget. He’s the ghost of wars on terror past, not so easily swept under the rug.
If only the rest of 24: Live Another Day lived up to the potency of that idea. The new limited series—it will cover a 24-hour period but only air 12 episodes—adapts the real-time action series handily to half the size, but it’s brought along virtually everything that was part and parcel of the original show. There’s a subplot about the president (revealed here to be James Heller, played by William Devane as he was on the original series) and international affairs. There are frequent check-ins with more scurrilous elements—both those who lean toward the good (or at least neutral) and those who lean toward the bad. And there are storylines aplenty for the show’s new passel of CIA agents tasked with stopping the terrorist threats of a new decade. 24: Live Another Day is at its best when it considers what Jack Bauer means in a new era of fighting terrorism, one that leans heavily on information systems and mechanized warfare to complete gruesome tasks. It’s on shakier ground when it tries to ask viewers what it means to have the whole of 24 existing in the year 2014.
As always, one of the chief pleasures of watching 24 is seeing Kiefer Sutherland essay the role of Jack. His portrayal of the man makes him deadly serious but stays on the right side of camp at all times. No matter what immoral or illegal things Jack is getting up to, Sutherland constantly sells the idea that this is for some greater good he’s only piecing together on the fly. He’s joined—as he must be—by the returning Mary Lynn Rajskub as Chloe O’Brian, seemingly the world’s greatest hacker, now on the run from a government that dislikes her for pulling a full Edward Snowden and releasing thousands of classified documents to the world. The other returning players here are Devane, playing a Heller who’s at ease with power but struggling with a condition that may render him unfit to be president, and Kim Raver as his daughter (and Jack’s former lover) Audrey, whose backstory within the show is so convoluted that she mostly smiles politely and occasionally and very gently pushes her father on matters of national importance.
The new series honors the end of the old one—which saw Jack going on the run from his own government. This means that there are a whole fleet of new characters, mostly in the CIA and mostly tasked with stopping Jack Bauer (before they will inevitably realize he wants only what they do). There’s nothing specifically wrong with these particular stories, and in Yvonne Strahovski, the show has found a mostly credible second lead to head up the pursuit of Jack (even if her character arc is telegraphed from the word go). Strahovski plays Kate Morgan, a CIA field operative dealing with a personal issue that’s pushed her out of the agency, only to find herself face-to-face with Jack in one of her last days at work. She’s ably supported by Benjamin Bratt as her boss and a handful of other new agents, none of whom really stand out in the early going. Similarly, the most important character over on the presidential side of things is Mark Boudreau, played by Tate Donovan as a man who could imagine catastrophe unfolding in a paper cut, but he’s mostly just a way for the limited series to wedge something that was important to the original series back into the template.
It’s that rigid adherence to what the original 24 was that ultimately hurts 24: Live Another Day the most. The more the story sprawls away from Jack and Chloe, the more it becomes easy to let the mind wander. 24 was always a show with a finger dangling in the world of politics, but Live Another Day plunges the whole hand in in ways that aren’t always convincing. There’s a lot of talk about drone warfare and about the secret continuation of torture by groups sanctioned by the government though not legally part of it, but Live Another Day is only interested in either political issue insofar as it can turn them into story points. It tiptoes up to the edge of saying something interesting, then immediately backtracks to a world of good guys and bad guys. There are intriguing new figures within this story, both good—Stephen Fry as the British prime minister or John Boyega as a drone pilot—and bad—Michelle Fairley as the series’ latest spin on the femme fatale (a type it loves very much). But it’s still disappointing to watch the retreat every time it happens.
In some ways, that retreat is appropriate. That’s what the show has always been—the good guys, led by the biggest badass of them all, trying to find the best possible option out of oh so many terrible ones. But the first two episodes of Live Another Day, at least, are less interested in considering a world where the Jack Bauers and Chloe O’Brians are celebrated as heroes one day, then condemned as villains the next. Live Another Day captures so much that was good about the original show—including, notably, the look of it, thanks to longtime series director Jon Cassar, who makes strong use of London locations and gives the series’ many split screens a downright nostalgic pull—that it’s all the more disappointing to realize that it’s trying to recapture everything from the original show, even the stuff that never worked. Jack Bauer started this story as a family man trying to get back into his wife’s good graces; now, he’s a grenade with its pin pulled, others diving away from him for cover. Live Another Day is best when it understands that. Pity that it brings everything else about the show along for the ride.