After four years, Jack Bauer is back and more tortured than ever.
That may be hard to believe, given that Bauer, the American counter-terrorism agent immortalized by Kiefer Sutherland for eight seasons on "24," was never exactly a model of sunshine and stability. Over-the-top crises just tend to follow this tough-guy spy around, like the time he was involved in a nuclear-bomb explosion in Valencia, or that time he chopped off his partner's hand with an ax to save the world from a deadly virus.
"He's angrier," Sutherland said by phone from London, where he's finishing up shooting on "24: Live Another Day," a 12-episode summer series that Fox will roll out starting Monday (a half-hour preview will air Sunday night). The reboot picks up Bauer's story four years after we last saw him, heading out on the lam after being betrayed by his own government in a bid to stop a Russian plot. In the opening episode, American agents have tracked him to a skeevy hideout in London.
"He's working for himself now," Sutherland said. "His patience to deal with things in a legal fashion doesn't really exist.... Opening that up again made me quite nervous in the six months of prepping for the thing."
Added executive producer Manny Coto: "After these four years he's in a darker place than ever before."
Bauer's comeback has reunited most of the gang behind the original airing. That includes Mary Lynn Rajskub, who plays Chloe, Bauer's closest ally at the CTU (Counter Terrorist Unit), who has now taken on a surprising new identity in London. Executive producer Howard Gordon is back overseeing the show, along with executive producers Coto and Evan Katz. Even co-creator Joel Surnow poked around the editing room and offered advice on some episodes, although Gordon said his work was unofficial.
Keeping the original creative team intact was vital, Gordon believed. "The most important thing was to be true to Jack," he said about the revival.
The chance to revisit Bauer was enough reason for the show to come back, he added.
"It feels like the right time to bring him back," Gordon said. "There was a story to tell" — namely, what Bauer has been doing since narrowly escaping a betrayal plot at the end of Season 8 and what he'll do to save America this time around.
Now the question for Fox is whether old fans — along with some new ones — will still care about Bauer and his many crises. The original "24" premiered not even two months after 9/11, and although the pilot had been produced and ordered as a series before the 2001 attacks, the espionage thriller quickly became a parable for American anxiety in the fight against terrorism.
Bauer found out who the bad guys were and did what he had to do, not always with many qualms or much moral quibbling. But over time his brutal methods took a toll on him and had viewers squirming in their seats — partly because Bauer's onscreen life was mirrored by real-life events such as the scandal at Abu Ghraib prison and U.S. interrogation techniques that many argued constituted torture. "He always paid a price for being a hero," producer Katz said of Bauer.
The Bauer mythology so permeated American culture that even that noted pop culture fan Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia defended the fictional character and his anti-terrorism methods during a 2007 legal conference: "Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don't think so."
"24" also played a key role in the evolution of how people watch TV drama. Fox helped popularize the show — which had struggled in the ratings early on — by putting the entire first season on DVD before the Season 2 premiere. It was an innovative idea at the time and helped inspire other studios and networks to do the same, thus spurring the binge-watching TV phenomenon.
"The show aired for so long it really became a part of people's lives," Sutherland said, adding wryly that on the street, "I probably get called Jack more than I get called Kiefer."
Even so, geopolitics have changed since "24's" first airing — and so has the TV business. Fox is shelling out a bundle for the reboot — one talent agent estimated total production expenses at north of $4 million per episode, or roughly the same as the biggest broadcast dramas that air during the regular season from September to May.
"When you put '24' starring Kiefer Sutherland on in May and carry it over the summer, you are sending a loud message, 'We are open for business,'" said Joe Earley, the chief operating officer for Fox Broadcasting. "This is a huge investment from this company; huge stars, an amazing franchise with an incredible pedigree."
Hyperbole aside, though, "24" was never a huge hit. It cracked the Top 20 in total viewers only two out of the eight seasons it was on the air. The two-hour series finale in May 2010 drew 9.1 million viewers, according to Nielsen — a respectable but hardly mind-blowing figure.
Fox might be wise to moderate its hopes this summer. "I seriously doubt it will get the ratings it used to get," said Brad Adgate, an analyst for ad firm Horizon Media. Competition from cable and digital networks is a lot tougher than it used to be, Adgate said, and Fox has seen its ratings slide in recent years. But he added that "Live Another Day" will nevertheless become an essential part of the "24" canon for binge-watchers and completists, who will watch online and broadcast reruns.
Is it possible that "24" could come back permanently? The producers hedge the question. "Right now we're looking at this as a one-off," Katz said.
But then again, in Bauer's world nothing is certain.
"I think the show could go on indefinitely," Sutherland said, then added with a tone of doubt in his voice: "I'm not sure how long Jack Bauer could go on."
'24: Live Another Day'
When: 8 p.m. Monday