Could 24 survive without Jack Bauer?

Has Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer become the best and the worst thing about 24?

Can 24 get by without this man?

The new season of 24 has been, I’m happy to admit, a very pleasant surprise. I’m not sure I was alone after season six, which got bogged down under too many villains and too many silly narrative strands, in wondering whether the show’s finest days were behind it, but the way that season seven has shot out of the traps, and continues to do so, makes me glad that I stuck with it.

What’s particularly impressive is that the episodes we’re seeing at the moment aren’t the ones that have felt the full benefit of the show’s year off. Right now, we’re still in the midst of the episodes that were in the can when the writers’ strike kicked in at the end of 2007, and these were the ones set to broadcast in January and February 2008.

And while it’s likely that a little bit of behind-the-scenes meddling has taken place with them in the time that the production team has had, it’s nonetheless shown that the show perhaps didn’t need as long a break to get right back on form.

What’s interesting is the mini-reboot that’s taken place, because this is perhaps at the core as to how 24 has recaptured its form. No longer is the show grounded in the workings of an increasing implausible Los Angeles Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU), an establishment that has been blown up, infiltrated and overrun on several occasions over the show’s duration. Now, we’re in the somewhat more grounded surroundings of Washington’s FBI, and this has allowed 24 to replenish its supporting cast (after all, can you imagine the job ad for CTU in 24: ‘High-tech analyst required, usual life expectancy a series and a half. Being held hostage compulsory’).

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But there’s still the enigma at the heart of 24 that has to be dealt with at some point. And it’s Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer.

Jack Bauer is the character who, for a long time, has glued 24 together, but it’s surely no coincidence that in the show’s more recent high seasons – most notable the quite brilliant season five – Jack had to be sidelined for us to buy what was going on. After all, is there anyone in any doubt that Jack Bauer is the most indestructible human being on the planet? The man has, quite literally, died in the line of duty, and still that hasn’t managed to kill him.

Sutherland’s contract as Jack Bauer is up at the end of season eight, and talks continue about the possibility of a movie taking up the reigns after that. But, I wonder, has the time come for a splinter of 24 without Jack Bauer at the heart of it? In fact, without any star name whatsoever anywhere near it?

Because right now, 24 – as with many shows before it – has a ringfence around the characters that aren’t allowed to die. It’s Star Trek in fresh clothing. And while that ringfence is tighter than most – surely it’s got Chloe in it, too, and there’s little point killing Tony Almeida again, because that doesn’t work either – it’s still there.

So how about it? How about a 24: New York or something of that ilk, where you genuinely start with a core cast of whom you believe anyone is expendable? Or even better, how about the old Hitchcock trick of pulling in a big star to headline everything, and killing them off in the first act? That way, you destabilise the rest of the series, as the audience simply has no idea who will survive and who won’t. Once the big name is out of the way, it’s fair game, and nobody is safe.

That said, it’s not going to happen, sadly. Because television series need big stars to keep getting recommissioned. Would 24 have lasted this long without Kiefer Sutherland’s name at the top of the credits? Quite probably not. It might have made it through a season or two, but there’s a legion of people who watch 24 for Jack Bauer, and not for a twisty-turning political thriller.

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It’s a shame, as the show is better when it’s doing the latter, rather than being the Jack Bauer hour. It’s why, even if there was a 24 spin off, it would still need some kind of big name to get buy-in.

There is one more possibility, which at least has a (very long) sporting chance of coming true, and it would be the biggest rug-pull that the producers had pulled to date. If they were absolutely certain that 24 had reached the end of the road in its current guise, then how about turning Jack Bauer as a big, undercover criminal mastermind? Again, it ain’t going to happen, but I was always taken with the idea from Doctor Who scribe James Moran that Murder She Wrote’s last episode would have been infinitely improved had we gone down to Jessica Fletcher’s basement and seen a stack of corpses. Talk about turning a show entirely on its head…

As it stands, 24 is likely to take the more conventional route where its figurehead hero is concerned, and given how well season seven is panning out, I’d take that right about now. But I still can’t help yearning for something a little more, and a little bit different…