The danger of producing 24: Legacy, the 10th series of the highly successful real-time thriller, but the first not to feature Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), the Counter Terrorism Unit officer who saved the world from bad guys on a daily basis, is that there is a gaping hole at its centre. It could be like Hamlet without The Prince.
Howard Gordon, 24’s executive producer on the show since the first season in 2001, was very much cognisant of the danger of contradicting the old showbiz adage: never go back.
Fox's 24: Legacy covers the real-time tribulations of a new character, Eric Carter (played by Corey Hawkins from Straight Outta Compton), a US army sergeant who specialises in black ops.
He is part of a mission to kill terrorist leader Bin Khalid. But when a gang back in the US try to assassinate Carter and his wife, he realises they are in deadly danger and turns to the CTU for help. And guess what? He has just 24 hours to thwart a terrorist outrage.
Seated on a plush sofa in an upscale central London hotel, Gordon is a charismatic and cogent advocate for his beloved show. “When we made 24: Legacy, we were fully aware that we were tempting fate. We even said to ourselves, ‘Are we kidding? Are we crazy?’
"I do think there will be fans who say, ‘I’m not going to watch 24 without Jack’ and people who will watch it warily. But I think that when they see this new character, they’ll be seduced by him because he’s wonderfully compelling.”
At the same time, Gordon was fully aware that Jack could not be expected to rescue the world from “bad hombres” for the 10th time. “It’s like an old rock band. At some point you have to say to them, ‘Put the guitars down’. We knew Jack had run his course as the centre of an ongoing enterprise. Every story has an end, and I was quite happy with the ending of season nine.
“By then, Jack had lost so much. A character has to have emotional stakes for us to feel he has something to lose, and context as a husband, father or son. Only when Jack had cleared from our minds were we able to have the freedom to think about another idea and reanimate the real-time franchise with a new character.”
That said, the executive producer is astute enough to acknowledge the immense pressure that stems from being the keeper of the 24 flame. “Does this feel like a big responsibility? Absolutely! When I think about it, I get nervous. There’s so much at stake, but then I think about my love for this franchise and I realise this is not a callow exercise in brand management. It can’t be cynical.
“Once you’re cynical, you’re like that rock band just playing your old hits, soullessly and on autopilot. The challenge for us, continues to be: is there a reason to tell the story? And I think there very much is.”
Gordon, 55, who has also produced Homeland and The X-Files, continues: “I know there is a potential downside to this. Look, inevitably, there will be people who will take pot shots at it. You will never please everybody. Does that worry me? At this point, no. One of the advantages of being older, is that you grow a thicker skin.
“I’ve been called a lot of things over the years, and while nobody wants to be called names, at the same time if you accept praise blindly, then you have to accept criticism blindly, too. So now I listen to my own counsel and a close coterie of people whose opinions I trust and who aren’t afraid to tell me, ‘This is terrible’ or ‘This is quite good’.”
And you know what? 24: Legacy is really quite good. As someone who has not missed an episode of 24 in the past 16 years – I know, I must get a life soon – I freely confess that I approached the new series with a fair degree of apprehension.
But within seconds of hearing the familiar opening sting with the trademark ticking clock leitmotif and hearing Hawkins say, “The following events take place between...”, I was a goner. I remembered just why Sutherland once described 24 as “like a soap opera on crack”.
Eric Carter is obviously not Jack Bauer – who could be? – but Hawkins has enough magnetism to pull in viewers and help us forget that we are now dwelling in a Jack-free universe. (Although Sutherland has remained as an executive producer on 24: Legacy).
There are also sufficient shady secondary characters – such as the former CTU director Rebecca Ingram (Miranda Otto from Homeland), and her ambitious presidential-candidate husband John Donovan (Jimmy Smits from NYPD Blue) – to keep us hooked over the full, absurdly nail-biting 24 hours.
Super fans are also already delighting in the promised return of one of their favourite characters, the ambiguous former CTU agent Tony Almeida (played with riveting inscrutability by Carlos Bernard).
And I don’t think I am totally blinded by my long-term love of all things 24, as other critics have weighed in with praise for the new season.
So why does Gordon think this show remains so ludicrously addictive? “People have mistakenly characterised 24 as an action show, but that’s only one small ingredient of it,” he says. “Really, it’s a character show. We create characters in relationships that are hopefully real and gripping. We then put them in extraordinary circumstances and test their limits. Their relationships are inevitably tested by the circumstances of this particularly exigent day.”
In these troubled times, viewers are also drawn to the idea of a hero who can solve seemingly intractable problems. “People love Jack,” Gordon says. “He came out at a time when we were so traumatised by what had just happened. 9/11 was the lens through which the show was first viewed.
“Jack was also classically drawn hero. He was trying to keep his family together and to save the rest of us, not just from the bad guys, but also from nitwit bureaucrats. They were either corrupt or incompetent. Jack simply cut to the chase and got things done. He broke rules when he had to, but we grew to love Jack because he wasn’t afraid to do things that maybe we wished had been done on our behalf in real life.
“Then, like any other TV character, we got attached to Jack. It became an emotional relationship and one that you become nostalgic for when it’s gone. I still miss Jack and Kiefer still misses Jack. I’ll always love him and Kiefer will always love him. Jack is as real to me as many people I really know. But in Hollywood, perhaps that’s not saying a lot!”
That’s not to gloss over the controversy that 24 has aroused over the years, particularly in its depiction of torture. For example, in 2006, Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, from the US Military Academy at West Point, met the producers to articulate his fear that 24 was in some way legitimising the use of torture. Finnegan said: “I’d like them to stop. They should do a show where torture backfires. The kids see it and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about 24?’”
Gordon adds: “In the way that audiences initially viewed Jack through the prism of 9/11, suddenly they started to view Jack through the prism of Abu Ghraib prison, Guantanamo Bay and the fledgling war in Afghanistan. We started asking ourselves darker-hued questions, and Jack became a lightning rod for those questions. He became a whipping boy. So in series seven we opened with Jack appearing in front of a congressional hearing on human rights because the show was very much on trial.
“But what is interesting is getting to ask those questions. At least let’s acknowledge that these are complicated questions and that there isn’t a right answer or a wrong answer. There are just bad answers, and which is the least bad answer? That’s where the show lives, in making the better of two bad choices.”
As the producer of a highly popular show, Gordon fully accepts the need to be responsible in his portrayal of thorny moral issues. “On the one hand, we don’t want to be held hostage by political correctness. But on the other hand, we have to recognise that we have a tremendous platform, and if people can’t distinguish the show from reality, we have to be mindful of that.
“We are putting out images that will make people feel and think in a certain way. You can’t over-police yourself, but at the same time, it is wise to take some of that on board.”
24 has always been notable for its prescience. The first series, which was written before 9/11, featured a terrorist attack using a hijacked plane. Also, one of the main characters was a black US president.
Gordon says it would be perverse to avoid a topical reflection of what is happening in the US right now. “We can’t ignore the place extreme measures is always had our show. It’s in the vernacular of 24. It has darker hues. The price we pay for that as individuals and as society is definitely a theme that comes up.
“You have to look at the headlines pretty squarely. We write it differently now, and people will watch it differently because we’re living in a different time. You have to reflect that, otherwise you’re being disingenuous.”
The show will clearly not shy away from some of the themes that President Trump highlighted on the campaign trail. “Themes like race play into this story,” says Gordon. “Also, patriots on the frontline are asking themselves what it means to be an American, to exercise great power and to have to deal with potentially terrible impotence. What are the limits of power and what is the price of exercising it?”
We cannot part without posing a vital question: Could Jack ever return to 24? “It’s been discussed,” Gordon admits with a wry grin. “It won’t be this season, but it would be wonderful if somewhere down the road Jack’s story intersected with this one. I’d love it if somewhere down the line that could happen.” He wouldn’t be the only one who was delighted!
Finally, what does Gordon hope that viewers will take away from 24: Legacy? “I’ve been reading William L Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I’d recommend it. It’s saying how fragile the structures and sinews and tendons of society are. When those things are challenged, we are all susceptible to reductive, fear-based behaviour.
“If 24 says anything, it’s that we should be as vigilant about that as we can and stop history from repeating itself.”
And call Jack Bauer – or Eric Carter – to sort things out.
'24: Legacy' begins on Fox at 9pm on Wednesday 15 February
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