Twice in the first four hours of the sixth hyperkinetic season of 24, Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer expresses some doubt—about himself, his job, and maybe even his beat-the-clock counterterrorism series. Between 7 and 8 a.m., after he has allowed somebody else to torture and kill a recalcitrant source of information, Jack says, “I don’t know how to do this anymore.” An hour later, between 8 and 9 a.m., after he has shot a good man in order to save the life of a bad one more useful to him, he ups his own ante: “I can’t do this anymore.”
Of course, he does and can. But if you were Jack, you’d be cranky too. He has just spent twenty months in a Chinese prison, during which durance vile he has refused to speak or shave. When he gets off a red-eye flight from Asia to L.A. at 6 a.m., looking like a sun-crazed Sinai anchorite, he is immediately told by cell phone that the president of the United States, the younger brother of the assassinated Allstate insurance flack Dennis Haysbert, has bartered his release only to, ah, repurpose him. Jack is to be handed over to a Middle Eastern nut job with a personal grudge who has promised in return to tell the Feds where to find another Middle Eastern nut job who is believed to be responsible for terror-bombing San Antonio, Baltimore, and St. Louis. “We are asking you to sacrifice yourself,” the president sweet-talks Jack, “so this country can survive.”
Jack, having shaved, is handcuffed to a grill in a concrete drainage ditch and abandoned by his apologetic CTU boss (James Morrison), picked up and kicked around by hairy baddies with the usual accents, lashed down naked to the usual hot seat, tortured with the usual surgical instruments and electrical shock for no reason other than a kick, learns that the president and CTU have been misinformed about San Antonio and St. Louis, bites his way to freedom—part Mike Tyson, part Hannibal Lecter—and finds a cell phone, all before breakfast. Meanwhile …
However, as usual, I am honor-bound not to spoil your narrative meat by revealing any meanwhiles, even or especially when they happen to be ludicrous. To tell you in overview that season six will feature suicide bombers, laptop nuclear devices, firebombed mosques, warrantless searches and seizures, and the conversion of sports arenas into internment camps is not to make it sound any more or less credible than previous seasons of petulant druglords, Internet systems crashes, radiation sickness, heroin withdrawal, a plague virus, a traitorous president, and Chinese prisons. There isn’t a single season of 24 that could survive synopsis without the concussive distractions of split-screen boom-boom, adrenaline overdose, prurient wounding, and intravenous peekaboo.
But I am running out of ways to avoid addressing the credibility problem, which would mean spilling some actual plot beans. I’ve already written about the difference between Kiefer Sutherland, puffy-eyed, stepped-on, wasted, furious, and his father, Donald, forever unruffled and oddly gleeful in the worst of movies. I have also wondered how come, if CTU can see everything on its surveillance cameras and hear everything on its cell phones, its agents are always late anyway to the scene of the outrageous crime and why no intelligence agent on the ground ever speaks Arabic or any other anti-American language. And you’ve already noticed that in its first three seasons, 24 was in cahoots with the Bush administration in softening us up for the Patriot Act and Abu Ghraib, whereas for the next two it was having morbid second thoughts about racial profiling, secret tribunals, torture, and the inconvenient Constitution.
In the new season, Peter MacNicol leaves the physics department and his sense of humor behind on Numb3rs to take over Homeland Security for a Fox America where the Bill of Rights is for losers. No wonder Jack has doubts. Not only does he have to spend 24/7 on a cell phone with only Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) to assist him, but he may have figured out that so many people tune in each week because, eroto-sadistically, they like to see him suffer. It’s another version of Mel Gibson’s Road Warrior Passion Play.