Jack's back, seeking 'Redemption' in preseason movie

television review

November 23, 2008|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,david.zurawik@baltsun.com

Jack Bauer returns to prime-time TV tonight, but I've got some bad news for him and the producers of 24.

I fear the culture has passed them by, and the anti-terrorist thriller is never again going to be the must-see phenomenon it was once upon a time when up to 20 million viewers a week hung on every click of the digital clock and scene of stomach-flipping torture.

The problem isn't so much that Season 6 became such a credibility-straining muddle with Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) battling members of his own family that many viewers tuned the series out.

The story arc and the audience erosion were bad enough, however, that Howard Gordon, executive producer of the series, acknowledged in a letter to critics accompanying the screener for tonight's film that he and his team tried to use the strike-interrupted schedule that kept 24 off the air last year to do a "creative reassessment" of the show.

The result is 24:Redemption , a two-hour film intended to take viewers from "Jack Bauer standing alone at land's end staring into the abyss of an uncertain future" at the end of the sixth year, to the start of Season 7, which will find the former counterterrorism unit agent "facing a hostile Senate subcommittee" asking "hard questions about his past conduct." The seventh season starts in January.

The specifics of Redemption find Jack working at an American school in a small African nation about to be engulfed by civil war. The rebels are kidnapping young children and forcing them to fight as soldiers. Even though Jack has laid down his guns and tried to live a life of peace, like a hero in an American western, once the rebel leaders come after the kids at the school, Jack reluctantly straps on the six-shooter and goes to war.

While not exactly Homeric, the journey at the center of Redemption is steeped in some fairly high drama. Jack and the director of the school (Robert Carlyle) try to lead the kids to the nation's capital city, where they can be lifted to safety by helicopters evacuating the American Embassy.

That last bit is intended to resonate with traumatic images from the 1970s of helicopters evacuating the American Embassy in Saigon as the Vietnam War came to an inglorious end on our TV screens.

Give Gordon and his cohorts credit: They still know how to push the buttons of shared national memory.

And, for better or worse, they can still evoke an intense visceral response. The graphic depictions of torture in Redemption are in a league all their own. One scene features a rebel African general placing the red-hot blade of his sword along the side of Jack's face. I swear I could hear the flesh sizzle.

But as entertaining and compelling as the production is, it never achieves that highly energized, tingle-up-the-spine sense of being perfectly in tune with the time.

Part of the problem is surely that one story line in Redemption features the swearing in of a new U.S. president, the nation's first female commander in chief. But Hillary Clinton didn't win. Barack Obama did.

And, yes, 24 already delivered the nation's first African-American chief executive with Dennis Haysbert as President David Palmer. In fact, some analysts believe Palmer-Haysbert paved the way for the acceptance of Obama as president in the minds of some viewers.

But that was then, and this is now - and the female president seems out of sync with the excitement in our real lives about the coming inauguration of Obama.

But the biggest problem of all for 24 is that it is so post-9/11, and we are so post-that as a nation.

It isn't that the threat of a terrorist attack has vanished, or that we've altogether left worrying about it behind, it's just that it has been pushed to the back burner by the fear that we are on the cusp of a second Great Depression. Americans are not worrying about Osama bin Laden at 2 o'clock in the morning right now; it's the economy that keeps us up at night, wondering how dark things will get and how many of us will lose our jobs.

As we watch the bailout plan founder while self-absorbed CEOs continue to strut their arrogance before the politicians on Capitol Hill, we wonder if there is anyone who has the right stuff to lead us out of the wretched place we find ourselves in.

Maybe, if Jack was secretary of the Treasury, chairman of the Fed or some other kind of financial whiz - that's the kind of hero these new times seem to demand.

But let's see how Jack does with the Senate subcommittee first - and whether 24 will last another season.

24: Redemption airs at 8 tonight on WBFF,

Channel 45.

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