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A ' 24' for the Obama Era? Nah.

Posted by Matthew Gilbert  November 21, 2008 06:12 AM

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Think of “24: Redemption” as simply “2,” since it takes place across two hours of real-time, and since it rates 2 on a scale of 1-10.

The new Fox movie, Sunday night at 8, is partly a self-contained story set in the fictional African country of Sangala, and it is resolved after much gunfire and many explosions. But the rest is all set-up for next season, which begins Jan. 11, and it’s set-up without the presence of our favorite stiff muse, Chloe. Essentially, “Redemption” is Fox’s way of keeping the “24” franchise fresh in our memory, since last season was cancelled due to the writers’ strike and we haven't seen the show since May, 2007. It's a long commercial.

The storyline has Jack trying to rescue 14 black kids from rebels in Sangala. The implication is that gung-ho Jack has undergone a change, that he’s a more reserved, chastened hero for a post-post-9/11 world in which President Bush’s outgoing approval rating is remarkably low. He’s, like, Maria Von Trapp in the rainforest. Still hoarse, mind you, but a hoarse humanitarian.

With the Barack Obama presidency approaching, and the national mood in flux, the “24” writers are clearly trying to respond by making Jack Bauer into something of a Brack Bauer -- not as hot-headed, willing to listen to his foes, a de-escalator. The show needs a boost, both creatively and in the ratings, and so Jack has supposedly mellowed.

But I’m not buying it. Jack is back, same as he ever was. He is as monotone, robotic, and blustery as before. No “Mentalist,” he. This time, along with former FBI agent Carl Benton (Robert Carlyle), he is the stereotypical White Savior in Africa -- and the stereotypical American imperialistic savior -- while rebel African forces try to kidnap orphans and enlist them as soldiers in a coup.

Can Jack and Carl usher the kids out of the country before the -- TICK -- last -- TOCK -- plane -- TICK -- leaves? Will Jack be able to escape from that torture hut -- where he’s bound in a crucifixion-like position -- to -- TICK -- save -- TOCK -- the -- TICK -- children?


There is a subplot in which Jack dodges a government agent played by Gil Bellows, who’s serving him a subpoena to a Senate subcommittee on torture activities. But Bellows is so smug he doesn’t represent anyone Jack should be accountable to. He’s just a passionless American bureaucrat out to cramp Jack’s style. He is the stand-in for those who've criticized the show for its hawkishness, and he is mocked.

Presumably, the Senate investigation will take up an hour or two of "24" next season, but Jack will not be cowed by reprimand, especially since he’s scheduled to jump back onto the international justice train to save Sengala from the American baddie (Jon Voight) who’s funding the coup.

Since its 2001 premiere, “24” has been a remarkably timely TV vehicle -- a kind of cultural biofeedback machine. The show arrived coincidentally right after 9/11, and Jack happened to personify an any-means-to-an-end-of-terrorism spirit. The writers intuited the national mood well enough to give us a black president, David Palmer, years before that became a reality. And they provided vivid examples of torture, both by and of Jack, just in time for Abu Ghraib and the national waterboarding debate. “24” has been an amazing artifact of America’s post-millennial fear of the Other.

But after watching Sunday's flat effort to regain relevance after the tedious debacle that was season 6, I suspect that the shelf life of “24” and Jack Bauer have expired.

Come January, Jack will also be involved somehow with the son (Eric Lively) of the new president, Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones), who may know too much about the coup. As Taylor, Jones has that intense, sketchy “24” look in her eyes during “Redemption,” lest we assume she’s definitely one of the good guys. The writers will have 24 episodes to fill next year, which means they’ll need to toy with our suspicions on a weekly basis, when they’re not resurrecting dead characters for sweeps months.

Once again, then, the sky will be falling on “24,” and Jack will need to exert force at any cost. Will viewers be willing to buy into the Chicken Little game one more time? When does a rogue hero become a tired joke? Based on this un-fun movie, I would say yesterday.

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