With 24’s return, does Jack Bauer have the same appeal to a different America?

Jack Bauer

Tonight marks the return of the smash TV hit 24, its first new production since the series finale in 2010. A lot has changed in the last four years, and while Fox looks to have another ratings success on its hands with this more limited run series, Live Another Day, is the world still a safe place for Jack Bauer’s brand of no holds barred counter-terrorism?

Fatefully, the first season of 24 began production in March 2001. Fox premiered it in November 2001, less than two months after the 9/11 attacks, when other media companies were still censoring their output to not offend America’s new sensitivity to all things related to commercial air travel, skyscrapers, patriotism, and terrorism.

Over the next eight seasons, television audiences were fearlessly treated to assassination attempts, nuclear attacks, internal coups, electrocuted nipples, and an unending stream of yelled demands and immunity agreements. And we loved every minute of it.

But America is a very different place today since the last time Jack Bauer saved us all. Our media is different, our opinions are different, our government is different, even how we watch TV is different. In the wake of drone filibusters, Anwar al-Awlaki, Benghazi, curbed Syrian intervention, WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden, and Ukraine, 24 is returning in uncharted territory.

When it began they were doing the same, of course, but in the opposite way. The United States was just beginning Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in retaliation for the largest terrorist attack against the homeland in our history. Over the course of the show’s eight seasons, we ramped up war in Afghanistan, ramped up and down the Iraq War, and ramped up again in Afghanistan.

As the show progressed, its narrative enemies appeared to mimic our nation’s actual declared ones. In the season that was in production before 9/11, the enemies were European descendants disgruntled over our involvement in the Balkans, then quickly switched to focus on Middle Eastern threats for a few seasons.

As Iraq wore on in the real world, and President Obama took office vowing to end it, 24 spread its net wider and introduced African paramilitary adversaries and eventually conspiracies to perpetrate a coup and exact revenge on Jack Bauer from within the White House itself.

Our threats today, though, are very different. Russia has become a major adversary on the world stage, and while the show has featured Russian plots before, most of the threats they pose today are internal (or at most adjacent), not international. The Muslim world from Iran to Egypt to Syria has melted down in epic fashion and would make great dramatic fodder. But would there still be an audience for it?

There certainly was no audience for potential military action in Syria to punish the use of chemical weapons in their civil war. Polls about that conflict were lower than before any other US military intervention in the last 30 years. But maybe we just want to watch these conflicts play out on television as long as we don’t actually have to risk blood and treasure. Other terrorism-related shows like Homeland and movies like Act of Valor and Lone Survivor have still been successful.

And maybe 24 will even have a renewed vigor and font of narratives given all the events of the last four years. Some of the best parts of the show were the internal debates between the means of violating due process and civil liberties and the ends of dead terrorists.

Those debates are even more lively in the real world in the wake of Rand Paul’s drone filibuster and Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations. A pro-results hero like Jack Bauer risks alienating this new civil libertarian audience, or we could find ourselves living vicariously through him taking steps we are no longer willing to take in the real world.

As long as the new limited series is as entertaining as it was at its prime during the Bush administration and doesn’t push too hard to one side of its vital internal debate, 24 should return to smashing success in our new world. As long as they don’t kill off Chloe. Then all bets are off.

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