By Chuck Ross
Fox’s "24," which is scheduled to air its two-hour season finale tonight, has returned from a yearlong hiatus with what is arguably its best season yet from a creative point of view.
An Emmy-winner for best drama series three years ago, the show lost its footing the next year and, in the words of Variety’s Chief TV Critic Brian Lowry, “Kinda went off the rails.” The following season came the writers strike, and “24” didn’t air at all.
During the 2006-07 season, some said the highly formatted series–each episode takes place in real time and the show religiously follows one hour after the next consecutively–was in a creative funk from which it might not rebound.
Furthermore, the last time the show was on the air, it became embroiled in a controversy about torture. The premise of the series each season is that Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) has 24 hours–or less–to prevent a major threat to national security, such as a nuclear bomb exploding in a populated area in the U.S. The show over the years has depicted numerous scenes of Jack torturing the bad guys to get information that will help end the threat de jour.
In a piece in the Feb. 19, 2007, issue of the New Yorker, writer Jane Mayer told of a meeting between the creative team behind "24" and U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point. The general said "24" was very popular among cadets attending the school: "The kids see it and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about "24"?’"
Last week, during a panel discussion after a screening of this season’s two-hour finale at the Wadsworth Theater in Los Angeles–before more than 1,000 guests invited through their membership in the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences–Mr. Sutherland addressed the issue head-on:
"The show, for whatever reasons, was utilized by both political entities in this country–the left and the right–and was pulled into this debate about torture," Mr. Sutherland said. "We have always kinda maintained that this is a television show and we have utilized torture as a dramatic device to show how desperate a situation is. If we kill someone on the show, we’re not telling you at home that this is a good idea."
A few months after the New Yorker piece was published, the show’s uneven sixth season ended. Sutherland said he then had a discussion with showrunner Howard Gordon, who told him, "’We’ve been pulled in (to the torture debate) in such a way that I really want to make this [next] season about that.’"
Then came the writers strike. At the same time, there was a debate where to go creatively with the show. Twentieth Century Fox Television’s co-chairman, Dana Walden, who has been at the studio 17 years and is a champion of "24," told the crowd last week that Mr. Gordon came to her saying that he wanted to set part of season seven in Africa. The only problem, Ms. Walden explained, was how to get Bauer back to the U.S. in a reasonable way given the show’s rule that everything happens in real time. However, she added with a laugh, if anyone could figure out how to engage viewers for 17 hours on a plane trip from Africa to the U.S., it was the writers of "24."
So that plan was shelved, and, with the continuing writers strike, the decision was made to keep "24" on hiatus until January of this year. But the studio was concerned, Mr. Gordon told TelevisionWeek, about the show being off the air so long. So Bauer’s exploits in Africa, which also helped set up this season’s action, was shot as a TV movie that aired last November.
Mr. Sutherland picked up the timeline by explaining what Mr. Gordon and his fellow writers came up with for this season:
"In episode one you see Jack as very resilient at the Senate investigation hearing. And yet it starts almost by episode two that we start to see that some of the things said to him [are making him] start to question himself. So when I got to the part [about halfway into the season] where the character is starting to die, [Howard and I] discussed what a great opportunity it was–because those are the moments, when you realize you only have so much time left to live–that there’s a ‘come to Jesus’ moment where you actually really do have to confront yourself for what you’ve done.
"And we saw this great opportunity to take the character (on) a real shift, where there were certain things he could justify and there were certain things that he could not. And that for me was kinda the most dramatic aspect that he had ever been in. It was not plot-driven, and it was one of the things I loved about the ending for this season. It was really about these characters taking seriously [both] themselves and what they had gone through over the course of these last seven seasons. So for all of those reasons it was really a fantastic opportunity."
No doubt it was this added dimension of self-reflection by the stoic Bauer and Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) characters, plus dynamite performances from the actors, that helped the show. Exhilarating role-playing by series newcomers Cherry Jones, Jon Voight, Annie Wershing, Hakeem Kae-Kazim, Ravi Kapoor and Sprague Grayden–to name a few–also rekindled superlatives from fans and critics alike this season. "This season came back very, very strong," said Mr. Lowry.
Characters as self-assured and unequivocal as Jack Bauer have been favorites on TV from its earliest days–from Rin Tin Tin to Perry Mason, and from Vinnie Terranova on "The Wiseguy" to wiseguy Tony Soprano. And the appeal of Mr. Sutherland as Bauer–especially this season with Bauer’s Shakespearian tones of self-doubt amidst all the madness–cannot be overstated.
"I think they did some very clever stuff about the torture issue this year," Mr. Lowry told TVWeek. "And I think that was in large measure because it’s what Howard wanted to do. But I think all of that is window dressing for the larger issue, which is that the show works or doesn’t work at its heart as a thriller, and it worked well this year."
Furthermore, Mr. Lowry said, Mr. Sutherland’s portrayal of Bauer is key.
"Kiefer sells that character," he said. "He plays it with absolute conviction."
If Sutherland is the glue that keeps the show popular on-screen, it’s showrunner Mr. Gordon who guides his team to provide the magical ingredients that make the glue stick.
Mr. Gordon said in some ways, he’s as much the character of Bauer as is Mr. Sutherland.
"I’m exceedingly hard-working, and I’ve got a strong moral compass," which are hallmarks of Bauer’s character.
And in some ways he and Mr. Sutherland are joined at the hip. Mr. Gordon, who has been with the show since season one when co-creators Joel Surnow and Bob Cochran brought him in, was anointed showrunner in season five. He quickly learned that Mr. Sutherland, also an executive producer on the show, had very strong views about his character.
"At the very beginning I was nervous about hearing from Kiefer," Mr. Gordon told TVWeek. "It was the dreaded call that would come at all hours–when I was at home having dinner with my family, or at a Dodger game."
But Mr. Gordon said he quickly understood that these weren’t the rantings of some insecure, neurotic actor. "I realized that Kiefer really understood the show and especially understood Jack
. Kiefer is very intelligent, and what he says is usually very smart. So I listen a lot to what he says. It’s never an ego thing. His suggestions always come from his passion for the show and for Jack and for making the show better."
For example, a few months ago Mr. Sutherland called Mr. Gordon to explain why he thought they needed to reshoot episodes 19 and 20 of this season’s 24-episode order. The scenes involved Bauer’s reaction to a significant plot twist involving Tony Almeida. Mr. Gordon, who had been having some of the same reservations as Mr. Sutherland, figured out the cost of the reshoot and asked Ms. Walden if they could do it. She said yes–a rather unusual decision considering the show is in its seventh season.
But "24" isn’t just any show. It’s been a significant moneymaker for years. This year’s most recent Forbes survey, citing data from TNS Media Intelligence, showed "24" makes the second-highest amount of money of any show on TV in terms of advertising revenue. The show, Forbes said, pulls in $3.7 million per half-hour and $366,000 per average 30-second spot. The only show earning more also is on Fox: "American Idol," at $7 million per half-hour and $623,000 per average 30-second commercial.
Despite some ratings slippage this year, " ’24’ rather consistently does around a 10 share among most demo groups," said research guru Steve Sternberg, executive VP, audience analysis, at Magna, a unit of media agency giant IPG Mediabrands.
Mr. Sternberg, who is also a fan of the show, said Mr. Sutherland’s portrayal of Bauer is crucial to the program’s success. Without Mr. Sutherland, Mr. Sternberg doesn’t think the series could continue.
Mr. Gordon isn’t as convinced.
"Yes, it would be a different show without Kiefer, but I don’t know that it could not be done," he said. "I’m sure a lot of the appeal of the show is that we do it in real time. In fact, I wish it had been called that. ‘Real Time.’ The hardest part of the show is being married to the premise that it’s all got to happen in 24 hours, and that’s such a forced idea. The idea that it’s in real time, however, is natural and compelling."
Mr. Gordon and Mr. Sutherland have one more year on their existing "24" contracts. Both are excited about next year’s eighth season, which will take place in New York City. In fact, Mr. Sutherland told the crowd last week that he wishes the premise that sets off the action next season really would happen.
Mr. Gordon later told TVWeek that premise is a disarmament conference with "an Iran-like country."
Hmm. Let’s imagine. Let’s say Bauer ends up alone in the basement of the UN with a character resembling–just resembling, mind you–Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and there’s a fight, and there’s bleeding, and Jack tells him he doesn’t realize what Jack’s capable of, and Jack asks him where the nuclear weapons are, and then Jack YELLS the question at him, and at home the audience’s adrenaline starts pumping, and many of THEM are YELLING at their TVs and it’s all so politically incorrect in this time of Obama, but the audience doesn’t care and ….