The Enduring Legacy of '24'
"The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones."
–Mark Anthony, Act III, Scene ii, Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare
24 is the most influential TV drama of all time. There isn't even a close second. No other series—not The Sopranos, The Wire, Hill Street Blues, or ER, has had a tenth of the cultural impact. There simply has never been another protagonist as loved and hated as Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer—lambasted by a Brigadier General and defended by a Supreme Court judge. There has never been another television show that so profoundly and directly influenced how this nation fights a war, and discussing the significance of 24 without mentioning the political debates that swirled around the show is practically impossible.
Let's try, though. With Jack's small-screen swan song airing on FOX tonight, the time has come to praise Bauer, not bury him. The political hullabaloo around the show too often obscured that 24 was absolutely terrific entertainment—relentlessly gripping and fresh, brilliantly conceived and executed.
Co-creators Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran not only developed outrageously complex plots—stories lesser shows got Lost trying to match. The pair created an entirely new way of telling a story on TV—the real-time format, represented by the now iconic digital clock bink-bink-binking away the seconds on screen. In the mimetic TV industry, where any success instantly spawns a dozens imitations, how telling is it that no other drama series has even tried to tell a story in real time? Also ignored in the political brouhaha are 24's luscious production values—particularly the saturated, comic book colors of the cinematography, and the remarkably subtle use of light on actors' faces.
It helps, of course, when those faces are so interesting to watch. From Day One—pun intended—24 has had impeccable casting, with a litany of hyper-talented guest stars including; Dennis Hopper, Powers Boothe, James Cromwell, Anil Kapoor, Jon Voight, and Kurtwood Smith. We can't forget Dennis Haysbert. Yet another example of the show's stunning cultural reach, Haysbert's charismatic, morally unimpeachable President David Palmer helped the American people get comfortable with an African-American as president of the United States. If there had never been a 24, it is entirely possible that Barack Obama might not have been elected—an irony surely not lost on the show's staunchly conservative creators.
Given a hyper-masculine drama, with a hero perpetually saving damsels in distress, 24 has also created surprisingly rich female characters—like Jean Smart's bathetic-cum-heroic Martha Logan and the majestic Cherry Jones as President Allison Taylor. The show's most crucial and innovative female character is, of course, the magnificently abrasive super-nerd, Chloe O'Brian, played by Mary Lynn Rajskub.
The closest thing Jack has to a sidekick, Chloe risked herself to help him countless times. What makes her unique, though, is Rajskub's note-perfect capture of a new American archetype—the tech nerd. A brilliant but socially inept computer whiz, Chloe O'Brian snaps for no good reason, pouts, whines, rolls her eyes and stomps. Her wardrobe is weirdly sexless. As is her walk—flat, short steps with hands to her sides like an eight-year-old boy. Yet, she is supremely talented, fiercely loyal, and a deeply sensitive soul. We love her. We root for her. Her surprise promotion to Acting Director of CTU three weeks back was not only a smart plot twist, it was very satisfying for an audience that knows she earned it.
The show exists, though, for Special Agent Jack Bauer; warrior, patriot, assassin, dreamboat. The first superhero of the 21st century, Jack is a hero with no mask, no cape, no James Bond tuxedo. His costume is anonymity; his wardrobe aggressively generic. Like Batman, Jack is a superhero without super powers. Where the Caped Crusader wears a utility belt, Jack carries the emblematic street accessory of our time—a laptop bag. Whatever weapons he pull from it, though, his most powerful tool is information—usually fed to his palmtop by Chloe. In an age when we are defined by the gadgets we carry and the information we get from them, Jack has the best network of all.
Interrogation and its discontents are undeniably a theme, but Bauer is more than a poster boy for water-boarding. The only truly annoying aspect of 24, in fact, is how often Jack spends five minutes screaming "Where's the bomb!" —or the virus, nerve gas, computer chip or whatever the MacGuffin happens to be—before the prisoner inevitably succumbs to torture. Jack's willingness to break the law, to act inhumanely to save human lives, is certainly a big part of his character, but he is no killing machine, no Rambo or Dirty Harry. Jack is interesting precisely because he cares. He becomes attached to people around him. Yet he is no dithering, sensitive guy, a la Tobey McGuire's Spider Man, either. He acts. He moves. He decides. He speaks only in declaratives, "Go now!" and "Get down!"—like Gary Cooper with anger issues.
Sadly, Jack has hopped the fence. He's left the building. For seven and a half seasons, Jack Bauer only operated beyond the law when it served some greater good. Midway through season eight, after yet another love interest was murdered, Jack went ballistic. Bonkers. Whackadoo. The technical term is "lost it." Seeking vengeance at any cost, he began a bloody rampage across Manhattan that has thus far included kidnapping a former president of the United States, shooting three Secret Service agents, disemboweling a prisoner to retrieve swallowed evidence, and impaling a Russian diplomat on a fireplace poker. Ouch. It's understandable the guy is a little frazzled. Over the show's run, he has been shot, burned, beaten up stabbed, poisoned, electrocuted, and beaten up some more. He spent two years in a Chinese prison, kicked a heroin habit, and survived a heart attack. Worse, maybe, he has been living with himself.
For all the well-deserved criticism 24 has had for making torture seem far more effective than it is, there is no banality in Jack's evil. He is a broken man, soul shattered by the unspeakable things he has done for the sake of justice. Like Kurtz in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Jack has become a law unto himself, and is smart enough to know that he's too gone to ever live normally again. Perhaps only a noble death can save him now. Then again, that would make it awfully hard to explain the movie version of 24, already in the works.
To read James Parker's Atlantic essay about the last season of 24, click here.