Virtually nothing can stop Jack Bauer, so why should cancellation? After a nearly four-year absence from the airwaves, the indestructible Counter Terrorist Unit agent portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland returns this month in 24: Live Another Day, a 12-episode series on Fox. Now, the action shifts from the U.S. to London, where Bauer is a fugitive being pursued by the CIA.
"I think we all felt deep in our guts that even though the show ended nicely, there was still more to be told," says executive producer Manny Coto, a longtime writer for 24 and now co-showrunner with fellow 24 veteran Evan Katz. "There was a kind of hole that was still there. So when the idea was proposed to come back, it felt right."
Debuting in November 2001, just eight weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 24 synthesized the patriotism and paranoia of the era into a relentlessly paced, testosterone-juiced political thriller with all the unlikely twists and turns of an afternoon soap opera. The show's real-time format and frenetic action sequences – complete with a digital clock marking each passing second – seemed to operate directly on your nervous system, leaving you dizzy and gasping for breath, with no opportunity to unpack the implausibility of the ticking time bomb scenarios (heck, it wouldn't be possible to negotiate LA traffic within an episode, let alone thwart a terror plot).
Over the course of eight seasons, the show's fictional protagonist battled a seemingly endless roster of bloodthirsty terrorists, corrupt politicians, and traitorous colleagues, refusing to let anything – suitcase nukes, nerve gas, the Geneva Convention – stand in his way. He endured countless ass-kickings, heroin addiction, years of torture by Chinese intelligence, and a supposedly fatal virus, yet kept on chugging as reliably as the show's trademark clock.
In addition to stellar ratings and award-show success, 24's original iteration made a significant cultural impact. The show changed the TV landscape through its use of serialized storylines (thought at the time to alienate viewers and hamper syndication) and routinely killing off major characters, as well as being one of the first series to be "binge-watched" on DVD. Many people believed that Dennis Haysbert's portrayal of a strong, charismatic, African-American president in seasons two and three helped pave the way for Barack Obama's 2008 election (most notably Haysbert himself). On the other hand, the series' depiction of torture as a successful method of intelligence-gathering inaccurately framed the public debate about torture policy and ultimately drew the ire of the Army (who asked the producers to tone down those scenes because of their toxic effect on actual troops). There was even a Georgetown Law School course on "The Law of 24" taught by a former deputy counsel to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Still, in 2010, Bauer came up short against that deadliest of TV foes: plot fatigue. "The ratings were fine, but there was a feeling that perhaps the show had run its course creatively," says 24 co-creator Robert Cochran. Various 24 film projects were announced over the next three years, but between scheduling conflicts and rejected scripts, says Cochran, "the stars never quite aligned."
Given the recent network TV trend of programming limited "event" series, however, another option for the show began to materialize. With 24's name recognition and Sutherland's new availability (thanks to the cancellation of his more recent Fox series Touch), the network made the decision to round up the usual suspects, such as Mary Lynn Rajskub as Bauer's trusted ally Chloe O'Brian, Kim Raver as Bauer's former love interest Audrey, and a number of former writers and producers, including former 24 showrunner Howard Gordon (who had moved on to co-create that equally addictive political thriller, Homeland).
For Sutherland, the change of scenery to London represents "a huge opportunity from a storytelling point of view," he told a conference of TV critics recently. "In this 12-hour arc, we'll be following the President and the Prime Minister of England, which will be a very interesting look into how those deals are done."
Although producers are tight-lipped with details, they still plan to continue playing off of current geopolitical events. One upcoming subplot deals with drone policy, while Chloe is part of an underground hacker organization, the show's response to the headlines generated recently by Wikileaks' Julian Assange and surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden. It's that mix of real-life, pulled-from-the-headlines drama and adrenaline-soaked fantasy, Rajskub says, that draws viewers to the show – that and the power of Bauer's character. "People just love to latch on to the idea of this guy that can do anything," she says. "He's this renegade, with superhuman strength and superhuman conviction, driven by his own sense of right and wrong. I think that's a very American idea of a hero."
And coming up with new ways to make that hero struggle, Cochran says, is what will keep the show alive. "He's going to find a new circle of hell somewhere. We'll get him there."