24 - Grin and Bauer it again

Rogue elements in the Middle East force Jack Bauer out of retirement for season eight of 24. Gerard Gilbert asks whether Kiefer Sutherland's secret agent can endure on US television in a crowded market for espionage thrillers
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When Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) tells his long-suffering grown-up daughter, Kim, whom he has promised to join on a flight from New York back home to LA, "I've just got a few things to pack – I can be at your hotel in about an hour," a wry smile plays on the lips of fans of the American action drama 24. Because forget the luggage; Jack Bauer can pack more into one hour than most active secret agents can into a lifetime. And as for having a long day at the office, don't even go there.

Bauer's day – all played out in real time (commercial breaks included) over the course of 24 episodes – might involve saving a presidential candidate from assassination (season one), stopping a nuclear bomb from detonating in Los Angeles (season two), infiltrating a Mexican drug cartel to retrieve a deadly virus (season three), faking his own death to the avoid wrath of the Chinese (season four), thwarting terrorists armed with stolen nerve gas (season five), or with suitcase nuclear devices (season six). It might even involve heading off a national security threat to America's government computer infrastructure (season seven).

But as season eight opens, Jack is officially retired, loafing around and playing with his granddaughter, Teri (yes, Jack Bauer is a granddad) – and planning to head home to LA, where a friend has offered him "some private consulting". Presumably this won't involve teaching how to suffocate or electrocute people in order to extract information – the show's producers have already been asked to ease off the torture scenes, because (forget Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay) they were giving the US military a bad reputation overseas.

In fact, the only interrogation scene in the opening episodes of the new season of 24 involves the head of Jack's old workplace, the Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU), raising his voice at a terrorist suspect – a female journalist believed to be about to assassinate a visiting Middle Eastern president. This head of state (played by Anil Kapoor from Slumdog Millionaire) is in town to meet President Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones returning from season seven) and sign away his country's nuclear aspirations in return for a financial aid.

Needless to say, rogue elements in his government want to scupper this peace deal, and there's only one man capable of preventing them from having their wicked way – You Know Who. But can Jack Bauer be persuaded out of retirement? Well, there wouldn't be any season eight without him, or seasons nine, 10 or beyond – Kiefer Sutherland having recently having declared his willingness to play Bauer until he was 60. But will viewers still want 24, in two, three or four years time, let alone in 17 years time when Sutherland becomes a sexagenarian?

There's little doubt that, in common with several US shows, 24 was damaged by the 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike. To ensure a non-stop season (one of the show's trademarks), the decision was made to postpone the seventh series for a full year. As a stop-gap, fans were given a somewhat unsatisfactory feature-length TV movie, 24: Redemption, in which Bauer got caught up in a coup in the fictional African nation of Sangala (why do all fictional African nations sound so unlikely?).

"24 has certainly lost some of its popularity, but that's not unusual with a long-running programme," says Brian Lowry, the chief TV critic at Variety in Los Angeles. "The series was hurt by a few factors outside its control, like missing a season because of the writers' strike... and it hit a creative rough patch a couple of years ago. But it seemed to rebound from that last season."

Perhaps the need to be noticed again is why a slightly sheepish Kiefer Sutherland appeared on Late Show with David Letterman last week wearing a dress. Sutherland said it was because he lost a bet with a friend over the result of a football match, but cynics might argue that there was no more efficient way of reaching your fanbase on YouTube.

More traditional methods of refreshing the brand include making this the first full season to be set in New York, and the introduction of several new characters played by eye-catching actors. Apart from Slumdog Millionaire's Anil Kapoor, Freddie Prinze Jnr and Katee Sackhoff (Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica) also join the cast. Prinze – yesterday's go-to actor for rom-coms, and Mr Sarah Michelle Gellar – plays Cole Ortiz, a former Marine who wants to follow in Jack Bauer's footsteps (yes, really). Ortiz is engaged to Sackhoff's character, Dana Walsh, the CTU's head computer analyst. "The FBI are out... CTU is back... we're in New York and things are faster," Sackhoff recently told the Hollywood Reporter. "A younger , faster CTU where there's no paper trail because we're all wired up."

24 traditionally has a high turnover of guest stars, something that Sackhoff acknowledged when she added: "You'd think it would be difficult to come into an established show like 24, but because every year they have new characters who come and they go so quickly, everyone's just used to it. They come in and they shake your hand and say, 'Hello, so excited to have you here. I hope you don't die..."

This willingness to sacrifice regular characters is one of several features that 24 shares with its British equivalent, Spooks. Both use split-screens, and both emerged from the shadow of 9/11, 24 debuting in November 2001, six months before Spooks – the BBC One spy drama showing its ruthless streak when it killed off a lead character in only the second episode (this sparking the BBC's largest complaints postbag of 2002). Both dramas definitely thrived from the "War on Terror" – the Noughties providing a spy boom to almost match that of the Cold War Sixties.

However just as the early Sixties spy boom – the John Le Carre adaptations and their imitators – gave way to increasingly cartoonish parody later in the decade, signs are that something similar is happening now. The breezy and hugely entertaining Burn Notice (a Fox stable mate of 24) has a relaxed Rockford Files-style ambience to its story of a spy who is cut loose by the government and wants to know why. And Seth MacFarlane's American Dad has had tremendous animated fun with the escapades of a right-wing CIA agent, Stan Smith, and his attempts to juggle family life with keeping America safe.

And later this year, the Lost creator J J Abrams returns to the world of espionage, five years after the demise of his Jennifer Garner-led secret agent drama Alias. Undercovers will revolve around the lives of two spies, husband and wife, who work together, and Abrams has described it as being "lighter and more comedic" than his earlier offerings. Also premiering later this year is Covert Affairs in which Piper Perabo plays a multilingual CIA trainee unexpectedly picked from obscurity to be a field operative – and realising that she may have been promoted less for her linguistic skills, and more because of her bosses' interest in her ex-boyfriend.

Can 24 survive the new opposition? Yes, as long as it doesn't get too hamstrung by its format – the very USP that made it stand out in the first place. And at 43 (the same age as Kiefer Sutherland) Jack's getting a mite middle aged for all this action stuff. It would be tragic if, five years down the line, fans saw the CTU headquarters and muttered, as Jack does in the second episode of the new season, "God... I hate this place".

'24' starts on Sunday at 9pm on Sky1


Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland)
The seemingly indestructible secret agent thinks he can go home to LA and play happy families with his daughter and granddaughter. And then a plot to assassinate a visiting Arab leader in New York puts paid to his retirement plans.
Survival likelihood 10/10.

President Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones)
America's first female President is an idealist ("nothing like Hillary Clinton", says Jones), she lost her son, Roger, in the last series, and then her daughter, Olivia, whom she had jailed for having her brother's killer murdered. In Season Eight, she is trying to sign the Middle East peace treaty.
Survival likelihood 8/10

Omar Hassan (Anil Kapoor)
President of a fictional Middle East nation (read Iran), who is signing away his country's nuclear ambitions while conducting an affair with an American journalist – both actions disgusting some of those close to him. Can they stop him before Jack Bauer stops them?
Survival likelihood 2/10

Cole Ortiz (Freddie Prinze Jnr)
Cole Ortiz, a former Marine who wants to follow in Jack Bauer's footsteps, runs the field operations at CTU. Engaged to Dana Walsh, who seems to be having second thoughts about their upcoming nuptials.
Survival likelihood 4/10

Dana Walsh (Katee Sackhoff)
CTU's ultra-efficient head computer analyst, engaged to Cole Ortiz (above), has, it seems, a shady personal history she wants to keep hidden from her fiancé.
Survival likelihood 5/10