Jack Is Back - And Fox Is The Better For It

It's been a tough season for Fox, with the deep dive in ratings for “American Idol,” the collective slide of most of its returning series and the failure of any of its new shows to generate much traction in the still important area of same-day audience measurement.

The only bright spot -- until now -- was the short-order drama “Sleepy Hollow,” which ran for only 13 episodes and has been off the network's schedule since January. It was in every respect the surprise success of the season.

If “Hollow” started the season off with a bang, the return tonight of “24” is going to close it with a boom. This action-thriller, returning in an economical 12-episode arc, should instantly provide Fox with a jolt of much-needed energy and a nice boost in its audience numbers, too.

There is some understandable confusion in the wind here. At 13 episodes, “Sleepy Hollow” is, like “The Following,” an ongoing series with a smaller episode order. At 12 episodes, “24: Live Another Day” is a special limited “event” series. It is also at present a “summer” series, like the returning “Under the Dome” and the upcoming “Extant” on CBS.

These are new models that broadcast should not only continue to explore, but to embrace. When it comes to dramas, the television audience today is much more likely to stay with a show for eight or ten or 15 episodes per season (as it has been conditioned to do by basic and pay cable networks and streaming sites) than for 20 or more. The exceptions are dramas that remain almost supernaturally supercharged for a traditional 22- or 24-episode season, like CBS’ “The Good Wife,” NBC’s “The Blacklist” and ABC’s “Scandal” (which shortened its season order this year to accommodate Kerry Washington’s pregnancy).

Anyway, it’s great to have Jack back. “Live Another Day” is actually a real-time continuation of the Jack Bauer story, in much the same way that TNT’s “Dallas” continues the tale of the Ewings and the Barnes families more than twenty years after the end of the original CBS show. Of course “24” has only been gone for four years, but even its most ardent fans have to admit that after the strained shenanigans in its eighth and final season it needed a rest.

There was much talk during its absence about the development of a “24” theatrical movie that would bring Bauer back into action, but after watching the two episodes that are set to premiere tonight anyone with an interest in the franchise will be thrilled that executive producer Howard Gordon and his team decided to go with a twelve-hour television season rather than a two-hour film.

Like many fans who were fatigued at the time, I was ready to say goodbye to “24” long before its rather preposterously plotted eighth season came to a close. I can’t say I have been aching for it to return, but once I sat down to watch the first two hours I was awfully glad that it did. The scene has shifted to London, where Bauer has been lying low since becoming one of the FBI’s most wanted four years back, and the change in scene instantly refreshes the franchise. Bauer’s scary-capable old buddy Chloe O’Brian is there, too, albeit with a new life and a new look that is at first quite startling. (Series leads Kiefer Sutherland and Mary Lynn Rajskub are as compelling a duo as Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie on “Sleepy Hollow.”) Two other terrific “24” characters from yesteryear are also back -- former Secretary of Defense James Heller (now the President of the United States) and his daughter Audrey (a former girlfriend of Bauer’s who suffered a mental breakdown after an especially bad day, now apparently fully recovered and married to her father’s Chief of Staff).

The story is layered, fast-moving and, in true “24” style, somewhat provocative. (A sequence in tonight’s first hour won’t do much to quiet the escalating controversies surrounding drones. Pay attention, Amazon!) And the cast, in keeping with “24” tradition, is uniformly excellent -- especially invaluable lead Kiefer Sutherland and a new addition, the sensational Yvonne Strahovski (fresh off of “Dexter,” a brief gig on Broadway in “Golden Boy,” and also tonight, an unforgettable guest turn on the season premiere of FX’s “Louie”).

“24” was one of those turn-of-the-millennium dramas -- along with “The Sopranos,” “The Shield” and “Battlestar Galactica” --  that changed age-old perceptions of what television drama could be. Who wouldn’t welcome any of them back in special event formats? That applies especially to “24.” Depending on how this storyline ends, future adventures of Jack Bauer and his acquaintances would be most welcome.

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1 comment about "Jack Is Back - And Fox Is The Better For It".
  1. Tom Baer from TBI , May 5, 2014 at 4:03 p.m.
    I haven't looked at the ratings, but I'm surprised to hear "Sleepy Hollow" was Fox's only bright spot. I was under the impression "The Following" and "Cosmos" did pretty well.