Eighteen months after a heroin-addicted Jack Bauer settled the Frito Bandito hash of a bunch of petulant drug lords who sought to bioterrorize the Northern Hemisphere of the Free World, he shows up all over again at seven o’clock in the Los Angeles morning, just in time for a commuter-train wreck, a computer hack, a kidnapping by the usual ski-masked Islamic extremists, and what promises to be the first-ever “live” execution on the World Wide Web. As if Kafka himself were stuck in Groundhog Day, split-screen Jack has yet another 24 hours to save the bacon of the man he works for and the woman he loves.
The woman he loves? Yes. At least puffy-eyed Jack (Kiefer Sutherland), the night before all hell breaks loose for the fourth year in a row, seems to have had sex with alabaster Audrey (Kim Raver, last seen in uniform as an unfit mother on Third Watch). Never mind that Audrey isn’t altogether divorced, that she is also Jack’s boss’s daughter, and that his boss happens to be Secretary of Defense James Heller (William Devane). What’s important as Jack begins another of his long, excruciating days is that, even though he no longer works for the Counterterrorism Unit, he has a frantic personal stake in CTU’s activities—and this time, praise the drug lord, that stake is not Elisha Cuthbert.
Of course he can’t explain any of this to the suspicious new head of CTU, Erin Driscoll (Alberta Watson). But Jack has always been in too much of a hurry to explain anything to anybody, and if you ever saw Alberta Watson on La Femme Nikita, you know that she never listens anyway. I am trying to circle around the first three hours of season four, not to mention a greater number of dead bodies, without spilling any important narrative beans. I doubt that you care what I think about L.A. as the preferred target of every swarthy terrorist on Fox television, or about racial profiling, or about the relative acting chops of Kiefer Sutherland and his bearded father, Donald, who has made more bad movies seem interesting than any other male actor I can think of. As usual, Tony Plana shows up as a Third World baddie. As usual, no woman is ever to be trusted, especially if she’s a professional. And as usual, these law-enforcement officials all seem to hate each other and their competing agencies more than they do actual perps, as if being on top of the pecking order pissing down on the less powerful were a much bigger thrill than securing our borders and stomping on our enemies. But what really distinguishes 24 from the rest of the pack is its IV feed—not of surveillance imagery and data, but of adrenaline. Thus we have no sooner recovered from gunshot wounds, radiation sickness, and heroin withdrawal . . . from atomic bombs, plague viruses, and commercial airliners aimed at nuclear-power plants . . . from abducted daughters, murdered wives, Serbo-Croatians, and amnesia . . . than all of a sudden we are chasing bullet-headed Turks, trying to stop an Internet systems crash, and shooting a suspect in a knee to get him to talk before breakfast.
Focus on that last item. Far be it from me to suggest that Fox TV and the Bush administration have been in conscious cahoots in the past three years to desensitize the American public when it comes to interrogation techniques. But you may have noticed that what happens on 24 is also what appears to have happened at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. People in a hurry cut too many corners, and maybe some nerve ends. Erin orders one of her CTU operatives to encourage the flow of info with a needle. Jack, being nimble, being quick, shoots that knee. The excuse for torture on 24, for sensory deprivation, stress positions, electrodes, and the syringe, has always been the clock—that handy digital readout to remind us that we are late, overdue, or obsolete; that unless we kill a scruple or two, we are dead meat. And this is what we seem to want to hear.