Jack Bauer Is Back, But One Woman Has His Number
Let's get one thing straight right away: Fox's new version of 24 references all sorts of newfangled ideas about politics, espionage and terrorism — from the use of drones to kill America's enemies to efforts by hackers in the Edward Snowden mold to expose governments' illegal acts.
But the heart of Fox's slimmed-down 24: Live Another Day is the same as it's always been: a principled, misunderstood Jack Bauer letting no rule book, villain or clueless bureaucrat stop him from doing what must be done for the greater good.
Like the Bible's Job, with special forces training, Bauer returns as a man who has nothing — no family, no colleagues and, most important, no friends. He's captured by men from a CIA station in London and vilified as one of the world's most wanted fugitives.
Turns out, there's a method to his madness, as always. And, at least in the show's first two episodes airing Monday night, it involves — as always — an attempt on the life of the president. The show's events are still in "real time" — if you can say that for a series that never depicts characters eating or using the bathroom in a day. Because there are only 12 episodes for this shortened series, the summer run of 24 will only depict half a day's time, jumping forward between some episodes.
Cool as it is to see Jack back in shoot-'em-up mode, the figure who caught my attention in the first two episodes was a new face: Yvonne Strahovski (Chuck, Dexter) as disgraced CIA agent Kate Morgan.
As the first episode opens, Morgan is wrapping up work in the London office. She's been demoted after her husband, who was also a CIA agent, was revealed to have sold government secrets and killed himself (how much you want to bet there's more to that story that we'll learn later this season?).
The reason Morgan stands out here, though, is that she turns out to be a female version of Jack Bauer. She's smart enough to guess what Bauer is up to before he shows his hand, and she's impulsive enough to disregard the rules while pursuing her hunches — just like Jack does.
It's interesting to see a less-damaged version of Bauer in female form; the only person in a building full of CIA agents who can predict what he's up to. Of course, all her colleagues — especially Benjamin Bratt in the thankless role of Clueless Supervisor Guy — doubt her every second, until circumstances prove her right. Again and again.
This idea of the hidden female hero in a story dominated by men has also surfaced on another, better TV show this season: FX's excellent version of Fargo.
There, Allison Tolman's police officer Molly Solverson seems to be the only sharp-eyed cop on a force filled with overweight guys looking for the easiest solution to an unexpected crime wave that brought four murders to the tiny town of Bemidji, Minn.
Like 24's Kate Morgan, Molly spends a lot of time hearing blowhard guys tell her why her completely plausible theories about her cases are totally wrong. Then she goes out and gets the facts she needs, anyway — leaving the fragile egos of lesser law folk as an unavoidable casualty.
We've seen plenty of women step up to play similar characters on TV shows before: Law & Order: SVU's Olivia Benson is a great example of a powerful woman who often has to elbow her way through the nonsense of lesser male egos.
But Fargo's Molly and 24's Kate may be the only ones toiling beneath the shadow of bigger male stars; Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman on Fargo and Kiefer Sutherland as Bauer on 24.
I hope at the end of these stories, both female characters get their time in the sun as true heroes. Especially on 24, every major character who isn't a villain usually winds up serving as Bauer's sidekick.
The character of Chloe O'Brian, for example — announced as part of the new edition only after fans erupted online in support of her — remains a sidekick of sorts in the first two episodes. Despite all the noise made about Chloe becoming a goth-icized hacker, she's still helping Jack break into places and get out of scrapes with little or no regard for her own situation or needs (it remains a mystery to me why the show often wastes the talent of the actress who plays her, the funny and beautiful Mary Lynn Rajskub).
In this new 24, William Devane is the president and Kim Raver is back as his daughter, Audrey Raines, an old flame of Jack's who was last seen in a catatonic state. Tate Donovan offers his umpteenth performance as a smarmy yuppie, playing the White House chief of staff who also happens to be Audrey's overprotective husband.
Through it all, Kate Morgan remains the most interesting figure on a show which, in the first two episodes anyway, seems too wrapped up in repeating old rhythms to break new ground.
Let's hope Kate leads Jack to a more thrilling future, in spite of himself.