The action genre has a shorter lifespan than most. There’s a reason why Tobey Maguire didn’t make the fourth Spider-Man, why Shia LaBeouf wasn’t in the fourth Transformers, why Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley were hazy memories by the fourth Pirates. At a certain point, the familiar becomes mundane. Even the most venerable franchises prove the rule by virtue of their infrequency, or their straight up remaking. It’s taken 25 years for Die Hard to come out with five installments, and five actors to carry the James Bond series 50 years. Eventually the performers get tired, or audiences do.
In light of this, eight uninterrupted seasons of 24 comprise an inordinate amount of airtime. When the show went off the air in 2010, it had run its course by a year if not two or three. The beats of the show had become tired, predictable to the point of self-parody. Los Angeles turned into D.C. and later New York, CTU became the FBI and back, but these were surface-level changes. Moles and double agents and fake-out moles remained ever-present, and the increasingly videogame-like plot progression undermined any sense of internal consistency or logic. It was as if 24 had mad-libbed the action movie five years in a row.*
*I found Seasons 1-3 to be spectacular, 4-5 as pulpy but immensely enjoyable, and 6-8 as completely over-the-hill. It jumped the shark in Season 6 with the familial reveals of Graem and Philip.
I thus greeted the announcement of Live Another Day with a healthy dose of skepticism. The show was far removed from its roots as the definitive 21st century thriller, the rare hour of network television that was fearless, addictive, downright revolutionary. No, in its last gasps, 24 had become a generic soap opera escapist fantasy: torture porn for the right, formulaic if not entirely lazy, and leaning heavily on shock revelations in misguided efforts to recapture its past glory. That the show would eschew its traditional 24-hour format upon its return was an intriguing twist, but it seemed unlikely that it would transcend its myriad limitations.
Yet, this was exactly what happened. The 12-hour format revitalized the show. It kept the overall arc of the season cohesive, removed any need for posturing, and reduced characters to their core essence. There was simply too much to do for the writers to meander, to get cute with the material. Meanwhile, the London setting was more than cosmetic (and even by that measurement alone, it far surpassed the D.C. and New York seasons). The move introduced a host of interesting dynamics on the political front, while providing a logical source of conflict that wasn’t simply the “one of these characters is a terrorist” obstructionism of years past.
The tone of the abbreviated Season 9 was a particular highlight. Much as I loved Seasons 1 and 2, I realize the show could never replicate their small-scale, drama-driven, methodical nature. By virtue of all that has happened in the 24 universe, and all that Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) has been through, the show has had to evolve into the affectionately nicknamed Jack Bauer power hour. But even in a bounded manner, Live Another Day sets itself apart. It struck a balance of action and drama, containing degrees of suspense and emotional resonance that have been largely absent since Season 5. It was nuanced, even understated.
The reclaimed humanity of the show can be linked to the fantastic job Live Another Day does with its background players. This addressed an underplayed aspect of 24’s decline in quality, as later seasons seemed to contain a revolving door of forgettable faces.* Maybe the hiatus made character development seem more real: especially true with Chloe O’Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and Audrey Raines (Kim Raver). But even within the day, the writing seemed at a higher level. The show added dimension to old relationships, developed compelling new characters. Yes, familiar beats existed – moles, traitors, looming vice presidents, returning villains – but they never became crutches.
*It was no coincidence that the show kept reaching back into its own mythology. This had varying levels of success: fun as Charles Logan was as erstwhile villain, Wayne Palmer’s presidency made no sense, and Tony Almeida’s return reeked of fan service.
In fact, Live Another Day avoided the pitfalls of even the best 24 seasons. B-storylines remained taut, focused, strong – propelling the show forward even when Jack was off-screen. Chief of Staff Mark Boudreau’s (Tate Donovan) unfaltering admiration of President Heller (a strong William Devane) prevented him from seeming like another sniveling weasel; his actions instead recalled Mike Novick’s well-intentioned machinations in the Palmer White House. Over at the CIA, details from Kate Morgan’s (Yvonne Strahovski) past evolved from backstory into an active, self-contained subplot. The same depth existed within the Adrian Cross (Michael Wincott) and Margot Al-Harazi (Michelle Fairley) circles. There was an abundance of good characters, good stories.
Of course, the backbone of 24 is ultimately Jack Bauer. The notion of Jack rejoining civilization and wrestling with his demons has been done time and again. But his return held more weight here. Over the course of the 12 hours, we witness how far gone Jack truly is, and how much it takes for others to draw him out just a little. We see him confronted with the travails of the few loved ones he has left, in a manner that we haven’t before – it makes the events of the finale that much more poignant. Sutherland is in peak form. Saving the world yet again, Jack Bauer saves a bit of himself in the process. It makes for one of the best seasons of 24.