Jack Bauer departed the scene Monday night after nine years and eight pulse-pounding seasons of "24," the addictive television series that is not "Lost."
Whether Jack Bauer -- a.k.a. the actor Kiefer Sutherland -- exited stage right or stage left may depend on one's political point of view.
Was the super-agent at CTU (that's the Counter Terrorism Unit, for you unlucky naïfs) a Karl Rove stand-in who promoted torture as the best answer to any question? Or was he a lefty with guns who unmasked the vast, right-wing conspiracy that really is behind everything that goes wrong? How was it that Ted Kennedy could be such a fan, enjoying episodes in his final days, and at the same time Antonin Scalia could cite Jack Bauer as a hero who no jury in the world would convict?
To be sure, Jack is the kind of multifaceted character in a one-dimensional role who can serve as a blank canvas for almost any theory, and certainly any conspiracy theory. That mutability was aided by the fact that the writers of "24" invented just about every plot twist imaginable, and many more that are unimaginable, in order to keep the suspense, and the series, going.
For those who prefer the lens of mythology to that of politics, Jack Bauer could be seen as a modern-day Prometheus, punished by the gods for helping mankind by being chained to a rock and having an eagle eat out his liver, which regrows so that it can be eaten the following day, in aeternum. (The primordial TV serial, you might say).
For lovers of classical drama, Jack would be the tragic hero who can save humanity but never the woman he loves. (Plot alert: if he's into you, upgrade your life insurance.) For theology buffs, on the other hand, Jack might be the sacrificial Christ figure taking on mankind's sins so we won't suffer, or the guilt-ridden man of conscience trying to atone for his own wrongdoings. Or he could be viewed as a one-man seminar in applied ethics, with a heavy emphasis on the value of "consequentialism" -- summed up as the view that the ends justify the means.
The best explanation, however, of who Jack Bauer is and why "24" enjoyed so much success, is actually simpler, more mundane, and much closer to home: Jack Bauer is the modern American worker, the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit updated for the Great Recession.
Yes, "24" was born in the aftermath of 9/11, premiering that November in one of the luckiest strokes of programming in television history. (Or maybe Fox TV execs knew something George W. Bush did not.) And the show fed off fairly standard international terrorism plotlines for the early seasons. But as the "war on terror" went sideways, along with the economy, "24" increasingly focused on the enemies within, the bad guys in the corridors of power who were sacrificing patriotic Americans for their own agendas or out of their own stupidity. Economic superpowers like China (Season 4) and then Russia (Season 8) also took on threatening roles, supplanting stray terrorists or providing the resources for such terror cells to become national threats.
Yet whatever the menace -- be it foreign or domestic, physical violence or partisan politics -- the persistent context of the show was life and death in the American workplace.
Seen in that setting, Jack Bauer was really a modern-day Everyman, the overstressed, under-appreciated, middle-class, mid-level American employee who is tied to his PDA or navigating by GPS, driving an SUV that functions as a mobile office when he is not in a real office where the politics -- and romance -- can be as a deadly and tempting as anything counter-terrorism agents have to deal with. He is lucky if he grabs a quick bite to eat or a bathroom break, and he is constantly making rushed phone calls and hushed apologies to loved ones who expected him home hours ago.
Below Jack are incompetents who can't get anything done, above him are ethically challenged supervisors who want results, no matter what the cost. So Jack Bauer is always closing. Heads roll, sometimes literally (Season 2). Too bad, but sometimes that's the only way things get done. He lives his life in real time, 24-hour workdays that never end thanks to the global nature of his competitors and the dysfunctionality of his own company. He worries about his kid and he struggles with addictions. He falls in love at work, always the wrong guy for the wrong woman. He just wants a break, to get out of the rat race, but they're always dragging him back -- even after he's been fired or walked off in disgust (Jack's done both) -- because he's the only one who can do the job.
Jack has been an office manager as well as a field agent, both a "suit" in the bureaucracy and a whistle-blower on the lam -- but one who gets dragged before a congressional hearing while the real culprits go free.
No wonder "24" was such a success. We love to watch shows about ourselves, and the office is where working Americans spend most of their time and live out some of their most intense personal narratives. These days, they are all too often narratives of disappointment and loss and frustration.
"Yes, the characters were counterterrorism agents engaged in war, but CTU HQ was no different from the viper's nest that many hard-working dads face at the office," John Doyle, the television critic for The Globe and Mail of Toronto, has written. "Any office. Where somebody is always intent on undermining dad's career. At CTU the staff lived in dread of a rogue agent. At the office, dad dreaded treacherous colleagues ready to stab him in the back."
"The Sopranos" was also arguably a show about work, and Tony Soprano hit some of those same psychological beats and drew a similar fan base of upscale thirty- and forty-something men. "24" had the added appeal of mirroring the hyper-drive lives of those men in its manic pacing, while also offering a sympathetic hero who was a good (and talented) man trying to do the right thing in an evil and unforgiving system.
Advertisers recognized that appeal as well, which is one reason the show survived after an initial season of middling ratings -- and its consistently downer endings. "Certain dads identified as much with Jack's dilemmas as they fantasized about his action-adventures," Doyle wrote. "They didn't watch much TV, but '24' became their show -- the one place where advertisers could reach them."
Hence the preponderance of commercials for the latest smartphones and the coolest video-conferencing services, and a reputation for product placements that were among the best-remembered of any in prime time.
Even the ending of "24" -- spoiler alert -- was something of an American workplace fantasy, as Jack slipped away, dropping off the grid and shedding, it seemed, the responsibilities that weighed on him so heavily in each episode, so that at the conclusion of every season you just wanted to buy the guy a beer and let him know you feel his pain.
But no one can afford to stay away for too long, not in this economy. Fox knows that, as do the creators of "24," who expect shooting for a feature film to start next year. Jack Bauer took everything they could throw at him during eight, 24-hour seasons. He survived, barely, but as the curtain came down he was still worrying about his family, and already missing his friends at work.
We can relate. And so we know Jack will be back. What choice does he have? It's his job.
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