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January 13, 2009

Clock still ticking, but 24’s glory days near end

If you’ve never watched 24 before, there are two things you need to know: Jack Bauer is the unluckiest man in the world, and he’s always right about everything.

Fox’s national-security-oriented, real-time drama premiered its seventh season on Sunday with two episodes, followed by two more yesterday, which are all available on Hulu. And Jack is the same old Jack: brilliant, but unfortunate.

When we first see Jack (Keifer Sutherland) a couple minutes into the first episode, he is testifying at a congressional committee on the inhumane practices of his former employer, the Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU). It’s an anticlimactic return for our hero, who is most often seen shooting/torturing people and saving the women in his life from the danger he has put them in. The show tries to spice up the testimony a bit—Jack dramatically declares that he doesn’t need a lawyer—but as anyone who’s watched CSPAN knows, congressional hearings just aren’t that interesting.

Luckily, we don’t have to deal with this for long, as Jack is whisked away by FBI agent Renee Walker (Annie Wersching) who needs his help cracking, as she puts it, “a national security matter that has gone critical.”

It turns out that there is an elaborate plot to stop the U.S.’s planned military intervention against a genocide-waging African country. In all honesty, none of this really matters. All you need to know is that only Jack can prevent the death of millions of red-blooded Americans—and help save some Africans, too.

Unsurprisingly, 24’s superficial details are different from past seasons: CTU has been disbanded, so the show now follows the FBI. The U.S. president is a woman. (24, whose first president was black, has always been progressive on this front.) The cast is largely new, with a few surprise reappearances.

What’s more interesting about 24, however, is the way it has stayed the same over time. The plot lines are almost identical to those in every other season: Jack must go rogue against the establishment, in this case the FBI, to do what he thinks is right; the president has to decide whether to negotiate with terrorists; there are a lot of tangential storylines that seem irrelevant but will, presumably, come into play at some point; and there are double crosses and triple crosses.

The main problem with this season is not the slightly stale plot lines, but the execution—it’s not as crisp as it used to be.

In past seasons, for example, one of 24’s biggest strengths has been its ability to convey realistic office drama—romances, power struggles, and personal vendettas—amid the agency’s attempts to thwart national catastrophe. This season, however, the FBI’s office workers are stunningly dull and without character. Janeane Garofalo takes a particularly disastrous turn as a timid, bland FBI computer specialist. The show makes half-hearted attempts to get us to care about these agents (one guy’s wife is on a plane that appears threatened—what will he do?!), but largely, we don’t.

Another problem is 24’s attempt to be relevant. I suspect that the show’s writers fashion themselves as dramatists of important moral and public policy questions, weighing the pros and cons of the issues of the day. The trouble is that these issues are dealt with at a very superficial level.

Following the hearings about torture are countless scenes of that very thing. Each one goes something like this: One character threatens torture; the other says, “It’s illegal!” The response: “We have to!” Then, looking anguished, the second character pauses dramatically, and finally says with hesitation, “Okay.” The torture proceeds and invariably works.

The show also feebly debates whether the U.S. should take military action to stop genocide in Darfur—excuse me, not Darfur, but Sangala, a fictional African country. The arguments are all very banal, the type of debate you could just as easily hear in any high school civics class.

Despite these criticisms, 24’s new season really is quite promising. Jack Bauer continues to be a fantastic hero, the inner workings of the government remains engrossing, and the action scenes and betrayals are largely compelling. Overall, the roller-coaster ride that is 24 is still worth embarking on.

And yet, for diehard fans it will be hard to shake a vague, unpleasant feeling while watching this new season. What is that feeling?

It’s like when you’re watching a former star athlete whom you’d seen in his prime. Now, near the end of his career, he’s still quite good. But he’s not the same. And though you realize he still has talent, you cannot get past your memories of what used to be.