Jack's back: The clock ticks for 24's antihero

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Fans of 24's unique blend of violence, tension and breakneck action can rejoice; a TV special is about to hit our screens, and 'day seven' follows. But is the world turning against a show whose questionable ethics appear to condone torture?

It is seven years since 24 first rampaged on to our television screens – or six days, depending on how you look at it. Since then, Jack Bauer, the show's preternaturally tough hero, has conquered the world, or at any rate pistol-whipped it and threatened its loved ones until it gives him what he wants.

24 is one of the most successful dramas in television history, with a devoted fan-base, millions of DVD sales around the world, widespread critical acclaim and a couple of mantelpieces full of awards. One of those mantelpieces needs to be reserved for Kiefer Sutherland, who plays Bauer: before 24, he was better known as an answer to trivia questions and a useful link man in games of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon than for his acting (here's a trivia question: name any three films Sutherland starred in between Flatliners in 1993 and the first season of 24 in 2001 – The Last Days of Frankie the Fly ring any bells?). 24 made him a megastar; he's paid a reported $10m a year, has been nominated for an Emmy for every season, and has taken home a dozen other awards, from Teen Choice and MTV to the Screen Actors' Guild and a Golden Globe.

On Monday night, after a long delay occasioned by the screenwriters' strike in America, Bauer returns in a two-hour special, 24: Redemption, setting the scene for a fully fledged series that begins in January. That's redemption for Jack Bauer, now exiled in Africa, atoning for some of the sins committed in previous series by helping an old comrade who now runs a school for former child-soldiers; but redemption too, maybe, for a television show that has started to lose some of its shine, with complaints from fans and critics about repetitive, convoluted and unconvincing story-lines and a swelling growl of discontent at the viciousness of the show's underlying morality.

24's shtick is that it takes place in real time – Real Time being, consequently, the name of the production company run by its creators, Joel Surnow and Bob Cochran. Every minute of screen-time represents a minute in the lives of the characters, so that each episode lasts an hour and each season of 24 episodes takes place over a single day. In that day, Jack Bauer must defeat villains from a variety of locations and ideological standpoints bent on destroying America by chemical, biological, nuclear or other means, incidentally rescuing loved ones or close colleagues from deadly peril.

There is no messing with time – you won't find a single slow-motion sequence in any of the six seasons so far, and the clock (a digital clock, seen on screen between scenes) is always ticking, even during the commercial breaks. This means that each break has to come during a lull in the action, when Bauer is driving somewhere, reloading his weapons or, one hopes, managing to fit in a quick floss and a gargle of mouthwash. In the US, the breaks take up a quarter of the running time, which spoils the real-time conceit when the show is seen on DVD or on a commercial-free channel like the BBC, which showed the first two seasons over here before it was picked up by Sky. Without ads, it runs at 44 minutes an episode, around 17 hours a series.

The shtick is undoubtedly an attention-grabber and gives the show a certain cohesiveness – a 21st-century version of the Aristotelian unities. But other stories have been filmed in real time before now, without having a fraction of the impact – one example is Nick of Time, a 1995 thriller starring Johnny Depp as an accountant given 75 minutes to assassinate a politician if he wants to save his kidnapped daughter, which caused little excitement at the box-office or among reviewers.

The freedom to manipulate time, to stretch seconds to minutes or to jump years at a time, is integral to the art of storytelling in any medium; in setting it aside, Surnow and Cochran have tied one hand behind their own backs. What sets 24 apart from other TV shows is not the timing, but the way time is filled, packing each unforgiving minute with 60 seconds' worth of action.

The pattern was set on day one: Jack Bauer, of the Los Angeles office of an agency called the Counter Terrorism Unit, was introduced and soon found himself struggling to prevent the assassination of presidential candidate David Palmer, who stood a fair chance of being America's first black president. Along the way, his sexy teenage daughter Kim was kidnapped by boys who turned out to be in the employ of Serbian terrorists with a grudge against her dad: rather as in the film Nick of Time, her kidnappers tried to coerce Jack into carrying out the assassination for them. The series ended with Palmer and Kim saved, but Jack's wife Teri abruptly murdered.

By later standards, this turned out to be a relatively cool, uncomplicated affair. Days two and three were also fairly linear – on day two, Jack prevented Middle Eastern terrorists from detonating a nuclear warhead in downtown Los Angeles, then prevented the US launching a retaliatory nuclear strike based on forged evidence, only to see David Palmer, now president, collapse after being attacked with a biological weapon; meanwhile Kim, now a nanny, was on the run from her charge's abusive father. On day three, by now a junkie (in order to maintain his cover while investigating a Latin American drugs cartel), Jack raced to prevent a deadly virus being released in LA by – something of a surprise, this one – a renegade British agent.

In all three series, the strands of the story were made knotty by multiple double-crosses, cliff-hangers and startling revelations. The sense of breathless urgency was enhanced by the choppy editing – not for 24 the virtuosic walk-and-talk shots of The West Wing; that would mean staying with one camera for more than a few seconds. V C Day four was when things really hotted up: Middle Eastern terrorists (again, but this time with Chinese backing) attempted to induce meltdown in every nuclear power-plant in America, blacked out a large part of LA with an electromagnetic pulse bomb, shot down the presidential plane Air Force One, and launched a nuclear missile at LA.

Days five and six defy summary. Events on day five included Russian terrorists bearing nerve-gas canisters; Jack (now retired from active service and living under a secret identity) being framed for the murder of the former president David Palmer and former CTU colleagues; the revelation that the new president and his oil-business friends are behind all the mischief; and Jack's imprisonment by the Chinese. Day six had Russian, Chinese and Middle Eastern threats, two nuclear attacks – one successful, one not – on California, and the revelation that Jack's weapons-manufacturing father and brother are running most of the evil stuff in the world.

Alfred Hitchcock said that there is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it: a bomb going off is less frightening than a bomb ticking away under a table where the audience can see it. Surnow and Cochran have taken this dictum and added to it a series of insights, the first being that the one does not exclude the other: you can have the anticipation and the bang. What's more, the bang can be as big as you like. Come to that, why not throw in another half-dozen bombs, let the hero know that they are ticking and give him just five minutes to extract from a shifty foreigner the information necessary to defuse them? And while you're at it, put the hero's attractive blonde daughter in the same room as one of the bombs, and introduce the probability that the hero's best friend is a traitor...

Real time does not, it turns out, imply real anything else. Jack's hardihood is extraordinary – clearly, he doesn't need sleep the way the rest of us do. Released from 20 months in a Chinese jail at the start of day six, where we're assured he never broke his silence, scarred, bearded and bent with suffering, Jack is still fit enough by the end of the day to run while firing an automatic weapon with unerring accuracy and to hang off the bottom of a helicopter even as the shock-wave from an exploding oil-rig washes over him.

While 24 hasn't quite gone the whole Bobby and had Jack emerge from the shower to realise that the preceding series was just a terrible dream, it has made death a remarkably impermanent, unreliable state. Before day one, Jack was involved in a special ops mission to Serbia that apparently resulted in the demise of a local warlord and Jack's entire team: as it turned out, the warlord survived to wreak vengeance in day one. All the events of day three – deadly virus on the loose – were masterminded by a member of Jack's team, a British agent now determinedly opposed to the projection of American power. Other returnees from the grave have included Audrey, Jack's love interest; Jack himself, having faked his own death at the end of day four; and, according to rumour, Tony Almeida, his most loyal and dependable colleague – borne off under a sheet during day five but quite possibly due for a comeback in day seven.

But this freedom from plausibility, while one of the things that makes the series so gripping to begin with, can begin to pall; and it has become increasingly clear that the scriptwriters, under constant pressure to keep the stakes high and the action hot, are running out of fresh ideas. The right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh – a close friend of Joel Surnow – has defended the show from the accusation that it has "jumped the shark", correctly pointing out that Jack Bauer would jump in and kill the shark. All the same, fans have tired of seeing downtown LA threatened with obliteration, of seeing loved ones kidnapped, of hearing repeated invocations of the 25th Amendment, which allows the cabinet to remove the President of the USA from office if he is no longer capable of performing his duties (and which in real life only gets used as a temporary measure while the president is having a colonoscopy – once for Ronald Reagan, twice for George W Bush).

Fans and critics are getting tired, in particular, of the torture. Again and again, Jack finds himself having to extract information against the clock and being compelled to use the most direct and brutal methods possible. Among other things, he has stabbed people, shot them, carried out mock executions of a suspect's family, withheld pain relief from a suspect with a bullet wound, resigned from CTU in order to have the freedom to break a suspect's fingers, and electrocuted his lover's estranged husband, who turned out to be entirely innocent of any wrongdoing (to show there were no hard feelings, he later took a bullet meant for Jack). Nor is Jack alone in this: during day two, when the President's National Security Adviser came under suspicion, he was shocked with a defibrillator while sitting with his feet in a bowl of water – President Palmer, being an idealist, refused to remain present, instead watching by video link. His enemies are as bad or worse, routinely hanging people from butcher's hooks or setting about them with scalpels.

During the first five seasons, according to the Parents Television Council in the US, 24 depicted 67 acts of torture. Over 120 episodes, that's just over once every two shows. Put another way, it suggests that Jack Bauer personally tortures somebody once every three to four hours, which is hardly a healthy lifestyle.

The truly disturbing thing, though, is that this is depicted as the moral choice – Jack must torture in order to save lives. He is doing something wrong (and shown to be suffering as a result), but he is serving the greater good; those who don't torture, the inference runs, are prissy moral egotists, reluctant to get their hands dirty.

This frequent justification of torture has offended not just politically liberal critics but the US military establishment as well. In November 2006, the dean of West Point military academy and a team of experts on interrogation visited the set of the programme to air their concern that the show was promoting unethical behaviour, making it more difficult for them to train soldiers and law-enforcement officers in legal and, just as much to the point, effective interrogation techniques. They were convinced that the popularity of the show among the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq had contributed to a readiness to abuse prisoners; from CTU to Abu Ghraib isn't, after all, such a long journey.

The show's makers defend it as pure and obvious fantasy, but the notion that its influence is wider than that has some high-level support. Laura Ingraham, another influential right-wing radio host, said that Jack Bauer's popularity was "as close to a national referendum that it's OK to use tough tactics against high-level al-Qa'ida operatives as we're going to get". The lawyer John Yoo, involved in drafting the so-called "torture memos" used by the Bush administration, has mentioned 24 and the threat of an imminent nuclear blast in the course of an argument about torture. At a 2006 conference held by the conservative Heritage Foundation under the title "24 and America's Image in Fighting Terrorism: Fact, Fiction, or Does It Matter?", the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, said that perseverance like Jack Bauer's would help America defeat terrorism.

But those endorsements also suggest that the issue of torture is a symptom of a wider problem for 24: it is a show that captures a particular mood in America, and that mood is now passing. Its impact can't be disentangled from the timing of its first broadcast, less than two months after 11 September 2001. A glance over the plot-lines of the first six seasons shows that 24 has been a handy compendium of American paranoias – among them the fear that America's freedoms could be turned against it, and the suspicion that sometimes the best way to protect freedom is to lock it in a box for a while.

24 has its fans on what in American politics counts as the left, including Barbra Streisand and, reportedly, Bill Clinton – and at times, it makes liberal gestures. On day four, Jack was assisted in a firefight by patriotic Muslim Americans, tired of having their community run down. Day six began with a sympathetic national security adviser arguing furiously against plans for, in effect, internment of Muslims, in the face of the somewhat slimy White House chief of staff; and the show depicted innocent, loyal Muslim Americans suffering unjustified accusations in the wake of multiple bomb attacks (though it also showed one apparently innocent, loyal Muslim American turning out to be a secret terrorist after all, and killing the neighbour who had tried to protect him from thugs). There was a liberal element in the plot of day five, too, in which the source of all evil was revealed to be a president in the pocket of the oil business.

But in its heart, 24 is a Republican show, perfectly suited to the age of the Patriot Act and the expansion of executive power. Joel Surnow is an avowed conservative, whose other projects have included The Half-Hour News Hour, a short-lived satire show on the Fox network that was explicitly designed as a riposte to the leftish humour of Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. When John McCain was asked this September what TV character he most identified with, he plumped for Jack Bauer – and if anybody doubts his devotion, check out day five, 1.00pm-2.00pm, when the senator has a Hitchcockian cameo, delivering a file of papers in the background at the CTU offices. In hindsight, his appearance emphasises the fact that 24 has ended up on the wrong side of a historic divide – and it's arguable that, through Dennis Haysbert's calm, commanding portrayal of a black president in the first seasons, it may have contributed to the state of mind that put it there.

Day six ended in an uncharacteristically quiet fashion, and everything has been thrown up in the air for day seven – now, America is going to have its first woman president, Jack is facing trial for human rights abuses, and CTU has been disbanded. Perhaps 24 can retool itself for a new, less frenetic era, the age of Obama.

How it can do that without losing its astounding energy and edge is hard to imagine, though. Perhaps, after all these years of the clock ticking, time is at last running out for Jack Bauer.

24 things you need to know about 24

1. It's not a good idea to go out with Jack Bauer. His wife Teri was killed by Jack's former lover Nina Myers during day one; Myers herself was shot by Jack at the end of day three; and another former lover, Claudia Salazar, was also shot during day three, although not by Jack. His most recent girlfriend, Audrey Raines, was last seen in a catatonic state and being cared for by her father at the end of day six.

2. It's also not a very good idea to be related to Jack. In addition to his dead wife and much-kidnapped daughter Kim, Jack has a nephew, Josh, who shares Kim's propensity for trouble; an estranged father, Phillip; and a brother, Graem, who is a criminal mastermind with serious fraternal issues. By the end of season six, Josh has shot Phillip who previously shot Graem who wanted to shoot Jack. It's not easy being a Bauer.

3. Nor is it a good career move to work for the CTU, aka the Counter Terrorism Unit. Over the six seasons of the show, there have been 12 directors or acting directors of CTU.

4. Here's a measure of just how bad job security is at CTU Los Angeles. Other than Jack himself, Agent Aaron Pierce (played by Glenn Morshower) is the only character to have appeared in all six seasons of the show.

5. The only thing more dangerous than working for CTU is being President of the United States. Over six seasons, 24 has seen five presidents (six if you count the unmentioned president in series one when David Palmer is running for office): David Palmer, series two and three, resigned and was later assassinated; John Keeler, series four, was last heard of in a coma following the shooting down of Air Force One; Charles Logan, series four and five, who turned out to be the evil mastermind behind the Palmer assassination; Wayne Palmer, brother of David, was also last heard of in a coma following an attempted assassination; and Noah Daniels (Powers Boothe), Wayne's vice-president, who assumed office halfway through day six. Day seven, which starts in January, will see yet another new president, Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones), although it is not yet known if anything terrible happened to Daniels in the interim.

6. Speaking of presidents, John McCain might not have been elected Commander in Chief earlier this month, but the Republican candidate had a blink-and-you'll-miss it cameo in series five. The senator for Arizona pops up to hand a folder to Audrey.

7. Surprisingly, McCain isn't the strangest cameo on 24. That honour goes to The Office's Stephen Merchant, sitting at a computer screen in the season six opener.

8. The show's longest-running villain is Mandy (Mia Kirshner). The motorbike assassin worked for Ira Gains in the first three episodes of season one, popped up to attempt the assassination of President David Palmer at the end of season two, and turned up working for the bad guys in season four.

9. Among the many things Jack apparently has no time to do during his 24-hour days-from-hell are sleep, eat, brush his teeth, go to the toilet or reload his arsenal of firearms. Kiefer Sutherland eventually addressed this issue, telling 2008's Comic Com convention: "In all fairness, Jon [Cassar, the producer] and I shot a scene where Jack Bauer's going to raid an office and used the bathroom in the lobby and came out 90 seconds later and happier. And they cut it out. Whenever they cut to the White House, Jack is in the bathroom. And not only is he taking a pee, he's having a drink and something to eat."

10. One thing Jack does have time for is a haircut. For the sake of continuity, all the cast members are required to have their hair and/or beards trimmed every five days.

11. Jack also has time for killing people. According to the website www.bauercount.com, Jack's death toll stands at 185 people killed in six, very busy, days.

12. Jack's somewhat cavalier attitude towards killing can be traced to former 24 producer and show runner Joel Surnow, a self-described "right-wing nutjob", who quit the show early this year.

13. If Surnow was unashamedly right-wing in his beliefs, his co-producer and chief writer Howard Gordon prefers to call himself "a left-leaning centrist". It is perhaps no surprise to learn that, with Gordon in sole charge, both 24: Redemption and the new, seventh series will focus on whether or not Jack has to answer for his "torture first, answer questions later" attitude.

14. 24's attitude towards torture has come in for criticism in recent years. The former thirtysomething actor David Clennon turned down a role on the show because of the implied condoning of waterboarding, while the civil liberties group Human Rights First has repeatedly attacked the show.

15. Not everyone feels quite the same way about this issue as Clennon. At least two outspoken critics of the interrogation methods used in the Iraq War, Janeane Garofalo (who's in day seven, alongside fellow new arrival Annie Wersching) and James Cromwell have taken parts on the show. Cromwell, who played Jack's father in season six, recently admitted that while he "didn't regret doing it" he was troubled by Fox's attitude towards criticism of the show, which he described to The Wall Street Journal as: "If you want to deal with torture as reality, deal with the government. They are the ones doing it, we're just making a buck."

16. Fox execs might be clear on the difference between television and reality, but not everyone else is. According to the British lawyer Philippe Sands, Jack Bauer was an inspiration at "brainstorming meetings" between military officials at Guantanamo Bay in September 2002. In an article on Slate.com, Sands claimed that Diane Beaver, the staff judge advocate general who approved 18 controversial new interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, told him Bauer "gave people lots of ideas".

17. It's not just military officials who get confused about fiction and reality. US Supreme Court Judge Antonin Scalia has used Jack as an example of the necessity of torture to save people's lives, arguing that "Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles, he saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don't think so."

18. A jury might, however, convict him if they considered that said terrorist attacks on Los Angeles are largely down to personal vendettas against Jack rather than any larger anti-American plan. Days one, three, five and six all revolve around plots driven by a personal dislike of Jack Bauer. It's entirely possible that these villains really hate Jack's ability to get all the way across Los Angeles in 10 minutes flat.

19. 24's ticking digital clock and multiple timeline split screens have been frequently spoofed, most notably in the Simpsons episode "24 Minutes", where Lisa and Bart join forces to stop a bake sale being ruined, and in South Park's "The Snuke", in which Eric Cartman assumes the Jack Bauer role, interrogating the only Muslim at South Park elementary school.

20. In season two, Kiefer Sutherland was required to whisper something into Nina Myers's ear. In script and rehearsals the line, which is never heard by viewers, was: "I will hunt you down for the rest of your life." To get a shocked response from actress Sarah Clarke, Sutherland said: "Sarah, I love you, I wish you hadn't married Xander (Berkeley, who played George Mason on the show) so we could be together." It worked.

21. Kim Bauer's propensity for running into trouble is so great that the internet has named a TV cliché after her. According to tvtropes.org, to be a "Kimberly", is to be "a character so idiotic that you really start to hope that he or she dies even though he or she is ostensibly a protagonist".

22. In season five, Debbie Warner's mobile phone displayed a valid California phone number, which if you dialled it supposedly connected you to CTU. The number received more than 80,000 phone calls in the first week after it appeared.

23. The new series, day seven, will see the resurrection of former CTU director and close friend of Bauer, Tony Almeida. As Almeida was last seen being wheeled out in a bodybag following a lethal injection in series five, it is uncertain both how this miraculous recovery came about and why no one in CTU mentioned he was alive in series six.

24. 24: Redemption will feature new characters played by Gil Bellows and Robert Carlyle.

Sarah Jane Hughes

'24: Redemption' is on Sky1 and Sky HD on Monday at 10pm

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