Time and Again: '24' - the Original Binge-watch - Is Back on the Run

Stephen Fry joins the cast supporting indestructible hero, Jack Bauer.

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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From '24: Live Another Day.' The spectre of James Bond.Credit: Courtesy of Yes
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

“Had we but world enough and time,” wrote Andrew Marvell in “To His Coy Mistress,” and Jack Bauer could have said the same to his CTU bosses, to the Fox TV network and the tens of millions of viewers worldwide of the new series “24: Live Another Day,” which arrived on our screens with two episodes – out of 12 – last Tuesday (at 5 A.M. Israeli time on Yes OH, with a repeat broadcast at 10:45 P.M.).

“The World is Not Enough” was the title of the 19th film (1999) in the James Bond saga. The American super-agent Jack Bauer (please note the similar initials) was conceived and hewn in 2001 by Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran out of the same old block as the Ian Fleming MI6 agent, and likewise he is licensed to kill, and possesses, in abundance, the same violent streak and propensity to maim, all in the noble mission of serving and protecting the security of the state – that is, the United States, and the entire world as well – as he sees it.

And now Bauer returns four years after the successful series ended its eighth season, with him looking up at the drone that followed him before he went into hiding. He had just saved the world and the U.S. president yet again from another man-made disaster, incurring the wrath of his own superiors. It was assumed that he was going rogue.

But it is not only the world and its safety that matters here. Much more than that, it was and still is about time. Joel Surnow conceived the brilliant idea of a series that would cover one action-packed day in 24 episodes, each lasting one hour of broadcast time and covering one hour of real time, with a digital clock ticking on screen, and commercial time not counted. In other words, it was supposed to be all money time, with no garbage time: not a second wasted on actions that do not matter directly to the plot, such as eating, peeing, sleeping, making love (well, there were some allowances for that) or traveling.

Cochran’s initial response was: “Forget it, that’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard, it will never work and it’s too hard.” Kiefer Sutherland, who was approached to play Bauer (he was not the first choice) didn’t believe in it either: “I thought, ‘This is really clever and different, so there’s no way they’re going to pick it up. But I could use the money, and no one will ever see it.’” But the Fox network did pick it up, and 8.6 million viewers saw the first season. Ratings peaked at 13.78 million by the fifth season, declining to 9.31 million by the end of the eighth season in 2010. The runaway success of the DVD package of the first season introduced the novel concept of “binge-watching,” allowing for 24 hours of viewing an action that takes 24 hours, propelled the show to additional seasons and forever changed the way we partake of our TV diet.

Zeitgeist – the spirit of the time – had a lot to do with it. In the first season of “24,” a commercial airliner was brought down by terrorists; it was filmed before September 11, 2001. When it was broadcast in November 2001, it was eerily topical: The United States was gearing up for a full-scale war against world terrorism, with Fox News cheering from the sidelines. The fictional CTU (Counter Terrorism Unit) and its agent, Jack Bauer, seemed to be a foretaste of the years to come. The fictional African-American president, David Palmer, preceded Barack Obama to the White House by a couple of years, and Bauer’s immensely violent way of extracting information from the prisoners he (quite rarely) took was seen as the precursor, if not the model, for the questionable interrogation practices in the military prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Bauer-Sutherland was supposed to retire while still at the top of his game, and possibly morph into a movie, but that didn’t materialize. In the current season he resurfaces in London, where he is being hunted by the CIA (headed by Steve Harris, portrayed by Benjamin Bratt). But he is still dedicated to serving and protecting the U.S. president, currently James Heller (played by William Devane), who was a Secretary of Defense in season 4 (and with whose daughter Audrey Raines Bauer had a brief affair). This time Chloe O’Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub), who had been helping him from within the CTU and was never suspected, let alone caught at it, has gone rogue as well. The British prime minister in the new season – which has 12 one-hour-episodes, each covering two hours of real time, is the one and only Stephen Fry, and for me, that would have been reason enough to watch it.

The new season also has a new title, “24: Live Another Day,” and again the Bond specter (SPECTRE) raises its head, as the 20th Bond movie was entitled “Die Another Day.” Speaking of which (dying, that is), I watched eight seasons of “24” neither consecutively nor in a binge, but rather intermittently (I love that word), letting the minutes and seconds fly by, pretty confident that whatever beating agent Bauer sustains – and he is wonderfully resilient – he cannot die, and like James Bond, he will ever return.

Oddly enough, the last lines of Marvell’s poem – though he speaks of amour (not armor) and sweetness, and the women in the “24” series are anything but coy – sound wonderfully apt to this tightly action-packed series, to wit: “Now let us sport us while we may; \ And now, like am’rous birds of prey, \ Rather at once our time devour, \ Than languish in his slow-chapp’d power. \ Let us roll all our strength, and all \ Our sweetness, up into one ball; \ And tear our pleasures with rough strife \ Thorough the iron gates of life: \ Thus, though we cannot make our sun \ Stand still, yet we will make him run.”

Sunday at 19.10, Tuesday at 22.45, on Yes OH.