Can 24 work without Jack Bauer and his crew? Judging by this first spin-off, the answer is a qualified 'yes'.
Something a bit more recent today.
In 2014, the indestructible Counter Terrorist Unit agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), veteran of nine world-threatening and emotionally battering seasons, was last seen in the custody of the FSB being helicoptered to Russia and a very uncertain – and painful – future. Despite this, apparently there was an attempt to lure Sutherland back for an eleventh run at the role. He declined, so the decision was taken to forge ahead without him.
Looking back over the nine seasons of 24, characters in CTU came and went, often from sudden death – it was one of the series’ hallmarks – and the same was true of the compelling ancillary characters who revolved around the elite unit: presidents, their relations, assorted recurring villains and Jack’s nearest and dearest. Conceptually, then, it was a small step from there to replace Jack himself. Would the audience go for it? The first episode of 24: Legacy, screened directly before Super Bowl LI, drew the largest audience in the history of the series, so the answer would seem to be, at least initially, ‘it does’.
Since 24 started the big sea-change in espionage fiction on TV was Homeland, dealing seriously, cynically and messily with the political situation in the Middle East. The new model inherits some of that political zeitgeist, with most men in the Army Ranger unit of the new man Eric Carter (a slow-burning, effective Corey Hawkins), responsible for executing the terrorist leader Ibrahim bin-Khalid, assassinated despite being in a witness protection programme – clearly, there’s (another) traitor at work in the security services. The head of CTU when Carter did the black op was Rebecca Ingram (none cooler under pressure Miranda Otto), now prospective First Lady, handily drawn back into the espionage fray for dialogue between both the command structure of CTU and the corridors of power in the Whitehouse.
The race is on to prevent the terrorists securing a list of sleeper cells that the terrorists have killed their way through the Army Rangers to get. That’s just one of many plot threads; there’s an attack on a school planned by one of the students and her teacher – which, Breaking Bad style, goes spectacularly wrong – and a terrorist cell planning something in the background. New to the mix, because of Carter’s ethnicity, is his background in a black criminal gang before he became a soldier. It’s not long before he’s in a siege in a police station and the intertwined plotting spins on memorably from there.
So what of the action, one of the things that 24 always managed to do amazingly well, cinematically, on a TV budget? The first episode concludes with an innovative sequence where Carter hides behind a huge steel pipe and rolls it over some bad guys, going on to stab one of them with a steel cable. Not bad, and that was the first of many impressive sequences.
There’s the usual political tension between Capitol Hill and CTU, plus a topical look at how soldiers were abandoned to PTSD and homelessness by the US government; understandably, one veteran is so aggrieved he tries to blackmail them. The shadow of Homeland is again felt in an attempt by a rival party to blacken the reputation of an Islamic presidential aide. She might or might not be radicalised, and of all the running storylines, this is handled sensitively and credibly.
The foreboding, insistent incidental music, split screen visuals and the inevitable interrogation scenes are all present and correct, and while the real-time narrative structure may seem a little old fashioned by now, there’s enough innovation in the formula to suggest that 24: Legacy could be the start of a new lease of life for the franchise. And if you just want the comfort of watching good old 24 as it was, you won’t be disappointed either. The biggest criticism, as in every season before it, is the complete absence of humour. Come on, guys – we know people make jokes under pressure. (See Homeland again).
As for the new man: Carter might not yet have the grizzled ennui of The Bauer, but the new recruit’s girlfriend thinks he enjoys the adrenalized rush of battle far too much, so it could be the beginning of a thread that memorably unravels in his personal life. We shall see.