I don’t watch much television. But tonight I make an exception. Why? Because Jack Bauer wants me to.
You don’t mess with Jack. Made famous by Kiefer Sutherland on Fox’s long-running show 24, Jack Bauer makes Chuck Norris look like a tofu-eating yuppie. In eight full seasons, the guy has killed his boss, cut the hand off his partner and threatened someone with a towel—all to save the world repeatedly from terrorists and duplicitous politicians and dirty bombs. I’m sure he could do something about climate change if he had more bullets. He makes even baking cupcakes look tough:
And now, after a four-year hiatus, Jack is back with 24: Live Another Day. I admit it: I’m a little giddy.
I’ve watched 24 from the beginning, every action-packed, sometimes ridiculous minute of it. When I worked at The Gazette (the daily paper here in Colorado Springs), me and a clutch of 24-loving editors and reporters would rehash the whole show the following morning: The shockers, the one-liners, the narrow escapes from rampaging cougars. Talking about 24 was almost as much fun as watching it. And when I moved to Plugged In and reviewed the thing from a Christian perspective (and given all 24’s torture and stuff, it’s not really the sort of program Plugged In can give a hearty thumbs up to), I had to smile when some 24-loving readers skewered me for not “getting” the show at all.
I got it, I think. Or, at least, I appreciated it. Each season—each episode, really—was predicated on one thing: Just how far would Jack go this time?
The answer always surprised us. And over the arc of the 24’s run, we not only watched Jack do some terrible things, but suffer as well. He buried his wife and alienated his daughter. He lost nearly everyone he was ever close to. Every season, Jack’s job consumed a little of his soul.
"In the early years of 24, after the 9/11 attacks, the common take was that the appeal of Jack Bauer lay in his strength," writes Time's James Poniewozik. "He was tough, decisive, and effective, offering the fantasy of security in an insecure time. But in the long run, I don’t think Bauer’s most important function was to fight our battles; it was to feel our pain. Season after season, he would suffer physically and spiritually, he would lose friends and lovers (and sleep), he would save the country and get run out of town. He was like a psychic pincushion, a sponge soaking up all the toxic emotion of the era, committing our sins and swallowing the guilt until he seemed 100 years old."
He is television’s ultimate suffering savior, I suppose, as tortured as anyone he takes a towel to. He’d do anything to save the world, it seems, including sacrifice his own life.
But a Christ-like figure, he’s not. He knows it as well as anyone. While a blameless Jesus carried our sins, Jack (in Poniewozik’s words) commits them. He is a doomed hero, a savior in a world without grace or mercy or forgiveness. Jack might call himself a necessary evil, and Bauer apologists would agree. The theory goes that sometimes to take out the bad guys, you need someone willing to get his hands dirty.
But a necessary evil is still an evil. Jack may be a savior of sorts for a purely physical world. Maybe he saves our skins. But when it comes to souls, he can’t even save his own. For that you need grace and forgiveness and the healing power of God.
No, Jack’s not a Messiah. He’s just a guy like us—a flawed sinner who tries to do what he can to make the world a better place in his own brutal way.
Hey, I’m thrilled Jack’s back. I’m rooting for him to be thanked for all his hard work and get a medal or something. After saving so many people, it’d be nice for him to find some salvation himself.
But I’m not counting on it. For that, the powers that be would not just have to acknowledge Jack’s sacrifices, but forgive his crimes. And 24 is not a very forgiving show.