How Jack Bauer Can Save Television

Fans of the television show 24 could be excused for taking a pass on the recent short season that brought Jack Bauer back to TV screens. The show was always hit or miss, but the last season in particular was essentially a repudiation of all that had gone before it. For seven seasons, Jack Bauer had dodged terrorists, nuclear bombs, deadly plagues, assassins, drug addiction, kidnappers, torturers, automatic weapons fire, spies, sleep, and normal relationships. He did all of this because it was a job that had to be done. He did it because he loved his country and wanted to defend it from the worst actors on the world stage. Even after the hardships he endured over those seven seasons, including the deaths of his wife, many friends (some by his reluctant hand), and himself (he got better), and despite 18 months of imprisonment and torture by the Chinese government, his estrangement from his annoying daughter, and countless other hardships that would make Job wince, Bauer kept on plugging away. He was the Energizer Bunny of national defense, single-minded in his determination to preserve the American way of life and protect the country.

At least until the last season when he became a killing machine, hell-bent on revenge for the murder of a borderline psychotic woman he’d known for less than two days. Maybe it was all cumulative, but it didn’t come across that way. At the time it seemed that Jack Bauer snapped and, in the process, nearly started World War III. I reviewed the entire season here.

That’s what made 24: Live Another Day such a welcome addition to the canon. It takes place four years after the events of the last full season. Jack is on the run, a wanted man hiding in London, pursued by the CIA. Chloë O’Brien is the oldest Goth in the world, spilling national security secrets with a Wikileaks-type organization because she believes the government killed her husband and child in an attempt to assassinate her. The President is James Heller, the former Secretary of Defense for whom Jack worked and the father of Audrey Heller, Jack’s love interest. We learn that Jack has spent the past four years working on his own, infiltrating crime rings and bringing them down from within. He’s been doing the work he was born to do, without any help or approval from the government. Essentially he’s Batman.

Live Another Day turned out to be one of the best seasons of the show and it accomplished this by scaling it all down. The gimmick of the show was also its Achilles heel. 24 took place in real time, over the course of a single day. That’s a lot of hours for the writers to fill, so the show always relied on subplots to fill the void. Invariably, the subplots were the weakest elements in the show. Whether it was Jack’s wife getting amnesia, Jack’s daughter being threatened by a cougar, or David Palmer’s son being accused of murder, the subplots took up hours of time and were rarely more than distractions from the plot. Frequently, they were ludicrous distractions. But Live Another Day was only 13 hours long. Subplots were mostly thrown overboard, and the few that remained (the Wikileaks story, a CIA agent who can’t forgive herself for missing her husband’s treason, and the awkward love triangle between Jack, Audrey, and Audrey’s husband) all tie in directly to the main plot. The viewer is gratefully spared from having to see Kim Bauer’s expressionless face as she confronts one danger after another.

There’s a lesson here for all of television. Short seasons work. The most compelling shows on television are the ones with seasons that run anywhere from 10-13 episodes. The BBC is even stingier. A season of Sherlock is only three 90-minute episodes, and Luther ranges from 4-6 episodes. Downton Abbey usually runs for about nine episodes. Consider all the cable shows, from the premium channel shows like Game of Thrones to the basic cable of The Walking Dead and Justified. Shorter seasons for all.

The problem with the old paradigm of a 22-24 show season is the demand it puts on the writers. How do you write 24 episodes of a show like Elementary, Bones, NCIS, or CSI? You create a formula and stick to it. Some of the character names may change, but each of these shows is presenting essentially identical episodes week after week. There may be only three episodes of Sherlock in a season, but each of those episodes is better written, smarter, funnier, and better acted than a full season’s worth of Elementary. Elementary, a show I do enjoy as mindless fluff, is really nothing more than CSI without the forensics. Or compare FX’s Justified to any network cop show that features one main character. There’s simply no comparison in terms of quality. On Justified the writers can stretch out, telling one main story over the course of 13 hours. They’re not concerned with setting up this week’s victim and this week’s twist and this week’s happy resolution. The actors, most notably Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins, and International Film and Television Star Nick Searcy dive into their roles and get an opportunity to truly act because they’re not repeating the same formula from last week’s episode. Shows like Justified or HBO’s brilliant The Wire unspool like novels, deep in characterization and complex in plot. Ironically, the shorter seasons give the writers more time to play with, and allow them to create more subtlety and nuance. They’re not under pressure to crank out 24 scripts a year, so they don’t have to fall back on formulaic situations.

24: Live Another Day is proof again that the old network system of September–May seasons are no longer necessary. Give Agent Seely Booth and Dr. Temperance Brennan one victim and let them investigate for ten episodes of Bones. Give the profilers of Criminal Minds one serial killer per season and thirteen episodes to catch him. It will give the writers more of an opportunity to do something different and allow the actors a chance to add some more dimension to their roles.

When the original run of 24 ended, I was glad to see it go. The new, short season reboot/sequel left me wanting more. As I look at the network schedules I can’t help but wonder how many shows, having sailed over the shark long ago, could be saved from total banality by ditching the formulas and following the path laid out for them by shows like Breaking Bad or Mad Men. There is some sense that the networks are catching on. Shows like Under the Dome (before it outlived its plot device), The Following (before the producers forgot what the show was about), and Hannibal are unlike any before on network television. They take their time and let the audience lose themselves in the plot, the atmosphere, the writing, and the acting. 24 proved that one plot stretched over 24 hours is far too much. Most of the shows on network TV prove that self-contained episodes stretched over 24 episodes engenders lazy writing and by-the-numbers acting. There will always be a place for episodic television. Comedy works particularly well in that format. I wouldn’t trade a single half hour of Seinfeld for the complete series of Mad Men. For dramas, the networks would improve the quality of their shows by cutting down the episodes, letting the writers tell real stories, and giving the actors the chance to portray real characters.

The producers of 24 took a dead property and breathed new life into it by streamlining it. Jack Bauer showed that he can not only save the world, but he knows how to save television, too.

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