Jack Bauer Returns

By Dorothy Rabinowitz
Wall Street Journal [United States]
January 12, 2007

The new season of Fox's "24," which begins with a back-to-back splurge of double episodes both Sunday and Monday, 8-10 p.m. EST, has returned with a hero more than half-dead, and in far from triumphant circumstances best left unrevealed here. Like so much else in those first four hours. This much can be said, though -- CTU's master of the impossible, returned to the U.S. for reasons grim to contemplate, after being held captive by the Chinese, looks, for the first time in memory, a spirit seriously broken.

The world knows Jack Bauer's magical capacity for survival, and avid "24" viewers who've been awaiting his return can't doubt that Jack will be back in trim -- and soon. Still, the full-bearded, benumbed figure staring at the anguished welcoming party of CTU officials who meet his plane should raise worries. Jack's voice is barely a whisper -- he hasn't used it all the time he's been held captive.

Jack's flattened affect may not last, but there are signs of an enduring new hauntedness about him, in keeping with the condition of the America he has come back to -- a nation no longer merely burdened by the fear of imminent rampant terror by Islamic extremists. This America is already under siege, with bands of Islamic cells operating everywhere in Los Angeles and other American cities. The body counts grow, along with the public's fears. In Los Angeles, where passenger-packed buses are being blown up, Muslims come under attack by locals -- an event that yields a characteristically sharp "24" jolt, and a reminder that in this series nothing is what it seems.

Back in the U.S.: Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer in the new season of "24."

One riveting, bleakly persuasive thread of the plot follows the trail of a suicide bomber on a mission to blow up a subway train, from the time he's suited up, right to the end. As the terrorist leader co-ordinating this assault -- and others intended to result in infinitely greater numbers of American dead -- sends the bomber off with blessings, he leans over to lock the explosives-packed jacket, ensuring that its wearer has no chance to change his mind. Even the bravest can have their moment of fear, the reassuring leader explains.

The Jack Bauer of the past, who could be back in trim in no time after the most unspeakable of physical manglings, hasn't fully returned by the end of the first four new episodes. Every deliberate closeup of his hands -- there are many -- and of his bare back shows the same swollen scars and evidence of torture. Something in his spirit has worn down, it's hinted. While trying to extract information the usual way from a suspect linked to the terrorists, he suddenly gives up, on the grounds that the man isn't going to talk. None of which means he's not as potent as ever in combat, and as determined as ever to destroy the terrorists, however thwarted he may be by bureaucrats and doubters.

There have been other transformations, less significant, perhaps, but worth noting. Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) has now been tarted up nicely, as she well deserved to be, and is looking glamorous. All the more reason to wonder why she's been encumbered by two insufferably lame male characters -- Milo (Eric Balfour) and ex-husband Morris (Carlo Rota) -- squabbling over her and about work. The nation is beset by mortal danger, its streets strewn with bodies, its enemies on the loose with weapons of mass annihilation -- and in the midst of it all, at CTU-Los Angeles, we've been given Milo and Morris to bore us to death?

Such time-wasting aside, it's clear that all that has made "24" so huge and deserved a success is on display again in these first smashing episodes. This season introduces a Homeland Security hardliner, Tom Lennox (Peter MacNicol), who works closely with the new president, Wayne Palmer (D B Woodside). You won't soon forget the character of the president's sister, Sandra Palmer (Regina King), lawyer for an Islamic Civil Rights organization -- a woman who delivers pronouncements, in the midst of terrorist carnage and threats of far worse, that might well have come from the mouths of some of today's civil libertarians. No one who hears her will miss the merciless edge of satire in this creation.

"24" has no successful imitators for all sorts of reasons, not the least being the fact that it is driven by a vision from which it never departs -- of a society in combat with fanatics bent on its destruction. It is a vision that embraces, with cunning and zest, all the complications of that combat while never losing sight of that vital center from which all flows -- that war, and all its unmistakable real-world echoes. For such echoes, you don't need nuclear explosions -- just the sight of that suicide bomber in the Los Angeles subway.

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A word about Frontline's "The Hand Of God" by filmmaker Joe Cultrera, airing Tuesday, 9-10:30 p.m. EST, on PBS (check local listings). This story about the filmmaker's brother, sexually molested by a priest in the 1960s, is that rare thing when it comes to works on this theme -- a film informed by passion without histrionics, and a sober and moving family saga.


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