What’s 24 without Jack Bauer?
We’ll find out soon enough. Kiefer Sutherland has confirmed that he will not reprise the iconic character in the next iteration of 24 — a probable reboot — in the coming years.
Fox chairman and CEO Dana Walden is bullish on continuing 24 without Jack Bauer, saying:
“First of all, we’re not talking about continuing the show without him… We’re talking about whether there’s one installment that he’s not in.
I think if the storytelling is exciting enough, that real-time element that the show really owns – so many of the production aspects are so unique to that show – I do [think we could do it without him].
I think [it could be] great characters with that creative team. I look at everyone that’s surrounded Kiefer in the last installment and I think it could work.”
However, Walden has misdiagnosed the true appeal of 24. It came not from its real-time element, or its fantastic action sequences, or its production aspects, but from its protagonist: Jack Bauer.
When we think of 24 and Jack Bauer, we usually think of Jack Bauer being the ice-cold terrorist-killing machine — he practically answers to only the U.S. president, foils terrorist plots, and kills with impunity. Yet, at the start of the show, Bauer had been much more of a common man.
Right now, terrorists are planning to assassinate a presidential candidate. My wife and daughter have been kidnapped… and people that I work with may be involved in both. I’m Federal Agent Jack Bauer, and this is the longest day of my life.
(24, Season 1)
Bauer starts off in a happy state — he has a wife, a daughter, and a lovely suburban home. What forces him into action for the very first time is the kidnapping of his wife and daughter by terrorists to force him to assassinate Senator David Palmer, who is running for president. Bauer successfully rescues his wife and daughter in the 13th episode (the season’s midpoint and a fail-safe finale), but he faces tragedy in the end of the season when his wife, Teri, is killed by an antagonist.
This was only the start of Jack Bauer’s turmoil as the following seasons put an immense emotional toll on him. Most of his friends in the Counter-Terrorist Unit are viciously killed by terrorists and his heroic feats enrage the antagonistic China and Russia. Bauer is also forced to fake his death and take a new identity, and later falls in love with a politican’s daughter, Audrey Raines, but decides to relinquish the relationship to protect her from harm. Later on, hunted by the Russian and American governments, Bauer is forced to go on the run.
This is a man that has sacrificed everything to protect his country. His emotional baggage is the counter-weight to the flashy premise of the show, as every time we see him kill a terrorist, we are reminded that this is a man who has had his life destroyed. Even as every season of 24 resets itself, Jack Bauer has been the one constant, and as he becomes more steely and haggard over the years, we see him not only as the hero of the show, but also its biggest casualty.
Now, if you take out Bauer and insert a new, younger protagonist, what 24 has left for it is its premise and format. Unfortunately, both of these strengths have evaporated in the years since 24 first bowed out in 2010. Homeland, run by 24 alumni Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, has neatly taken over the niche of anti-terrorist action thriller and has its own emotionally-damaged protagonist in Carrie Mathison. What’s more, Homeland does this stuff better — the drone warfare subplot in the recent 24: Live Another Day had already been explored in Homeland‘s fourth season, and I cringed a little when I saw how the same subject matter was handled in 24.
Season runs have also shrunk from the usual 22-24 episode orders to 13-16 episodes nowadays. This renders 24‘s unique real-time premise of 24 episodes per season (to total 24 hours of run-time) somewhat antiquated, though the show’s producers got around this problem in the recent Live Another Day season by inserting a time leap so that the season still covered 24 hours, but in a 13-episode run.
But the most crucial factor of all is the new protagonist. Whoever comes in will have to start from zero, and that will be a huge challenge for the show. Like it or not, 24 is Jack Bauer, just as Mission Impossible is Ethan Hunt and the Bourne series is Jason Bourne; just look at how The Bourne Legacy fared without the Jason Bourne character to find out what effect a new protagonist has on a long-standing franchise.
Not that 24 has not tried to build a secondary protagonist to Jack Bauer. Bauer has partnered with a few characters over the show’s run, each of these characters falling short in their own ways. In the recent Live Another Day, Bauer teamed up with Kate Morgan, played by Yvonne Strahovski, in perhaps the best-written pairing so far in the show’s run. But would Kate Morgan be a convincing lead character? No.
24 premiered just two months after the events on 11 September, 2001. To the millions who tuned into 24, Bauer was more than a character; he was a symbol of defiance against the threats to their country, a hero who would defeat all incoming threats of harm.
What made him complex was that he was also a symbol of the costs of fighting the same threats. Outside of its gunfire and bravado, 24 is at its core a tragedy — one that took Jack Bauer apart over the years.
To reboot 24 without Jack Bauer would reset the clock, but it will never tick the same way again.
I’ve said my piece — how do you think 24 will cope without Jack Bauer?