24's Jack Bauer - the New American Superhero
Sometimes it almost seems impossible that Jack Bauer (played by Kiefer Sutherland), the iconic hero of Fox’s mega-popular action hit “24,” started out as a pretty average guy.
Back in 2001 when the experimental real-time show debuted, Bauer was just the smart, well-trained Head of Field Ops for the Los Angeles Division of CTU (Counter Terrorist Unit). He was also a husband in a damaged marriage and the father of a typical rebellious teen. Yet in the seven ensuing seasons, Jack’s ability to thwart cataclysm after cataclysm has evolved the character into a modern day American superhero, the kind that could have easily originated from the pages of classic sequential art.
At the dawn of Jack’s eighth very bad day (the new season debuts with a two-part, four hour premiere on Jan. 17 and 18), it becomes clear that Bauer really launched into the realm of superhero after the murder of his wife, Teri, in the last moments of season one. Before that Jack had just been a wily, resolute hero with a passion for justice. After Teri’s death, he instantly morphed into a tragic hero who lost what was most precious to him in exchange for the safety of no less than the country.
From that moment on Jack shared the burden of so many traditional superheroes, from Spider-Man to Superman, who trade personal sacrifice for the greater good. Just in Jack’s case, the subsequent extreme days of peril also revealed some liberal dashes of The Punisher thrown in too.
And even though Jack’s costumes of choice include no latex or shiny shields, his bulletproof vests, dark jackets (and the occasional messenger bag) have become just as synonymous to him as the cape and cowl are to Batman. Though many may argue that Bauer’s “powers” of deduction, freakish bravery and dogged persistence against the enemy don’t have the pure comic book originations of say the bite of a radioactive spider, experimental serums or a metallic suit, in the eyes of the audiences that adore him around the world he’s no less potent or relied upon to bring evil down wherever it lurks.
The funny thing is that behind the scenes at “24” it’s now become a constant struggle for the entire creative team to prevent Jack Bauer from simply becoming the boundless superhero that the world at large accepts him to be. “24” executive producer and showrunner Howard Gordon admits that grounding the series in some semblance of reality by creating credible boundaries for Jack against the backdrop of the threat of nuclear destruction, bio-warfare genocide, or as is the case this season an assassination attempt that could impact world stabilization, is no walk in the park.
“I think it happens with any show where the thing threatens to become a parody of itself,” Gordon explains. “You have to grow the character and be mindful of that but also deliver what people come to expect. I think it’s a fine line that you know when you see it. And sometimes maybe we dip our toe over the line. Kiefer acknowledges it too. He’s established this iconic trademark character and it’s a potential hazard, but I think we’ve minded it fairly well.”
Maintaining that balance is where comic book heroes and their creators live all the time as their stories unfold, so it’s no surprise “24” is in the thick of that creative quandary too. The best comic book arcs are the ones that create real consequences no matter how outlandish the premise, and the best seasons of “24” are the ones that play out that thru line as well. And like the hero-centric books where characters can rise above instances of weak story, “24’s” remains such a dominant force because the show continues to orbit around the character of Jack Bauer and the man who plays him.
Executive producer and primary season eight series director Brad Turner says Kiefer really is the key.
“I think it’s the fact that he humanizes the character so much,” the director muses. “This guy has been a drug addict, screwed things up and is partly responsible for his wife’s demise. This character has flaws and [Kiefer] doesn’t mind playing the character that way and that’s one of the reasons we feel he could be the guy flying the plane or the helicopter or the guy driving the bus with kids to school. He’s not Spider-Man. Spider-Man can really do anything. But he’s kind of Spider-Man the bus driver, but he never puts his suit on. He’s so accessible and I think it’s why people really relate to his character. And he is great because I’ve seen him protect that character like I’ve never seen an actor protect a character. If we aren’t doing the right thing for [Jack], he will correct us and that’s a great thing. He’s now a person that you can actually believe that exists and live down the street from you. I think the first episode of [season eight] really exemplifies that more than anything because he’s just a grandpa. He’s not a superhero, he’s just a grandpa.”
“Jack is emotionally happy for the first time since season four,” Gordon confirms. That’s a turn in tone that’s just about as shocking as the nuclear bomb detonated on domestic soil in season six.
For his part, Sutherland says he loves that Jack is again motivated by very personal motivations. “Certainly in episode one of season eight, everything is tied to the fact that he is rebuilding a relationship with his daughter [Kim Bauer] and he is developing a relationship with his granddaughter. All of a sudden you’ve taken Jack from this very dark place that he’s been in for a number of years and you’ve given him a great deal of hope. So everything that happens to him over the course of this day, there is something great at stake. Again the motivation for Jack in almost every season up until now has been to run into the burning building and this year he is trying to stay out of the burning building so it’s a nice dynamic shift.”
But as day eight devolves into the chaos viewers have come to know and love, Sutherland says Jack’s convictions are what will see him through even when circumstances are at their most dire. “I think one of the things that I’ve always loved about Jack Bauer is that he never was a hero to me. The character is not a black and white character. He lives in a very murky, grey world. He saves the [future] President of the United States but he loses his wife. It’s not clear-cut for him. He doesn’t win the day in the conventional sense. There’s always collateral damage and there’s always something he doesn’t manage to protect. What grounds Jack to reality is that this is a character that regardless of whether he is always right or not, believes that what he is doing is the right thing to do and is doing it from a very good, sincere, honest place. As long as you try to play that cleanly the rest should follow…I hope,” he smiles.
And that to Howard Gordon is what makes Jack and “24” worth watching.
“He is a hero,” Gordon says emphatically. “You feel safe with him. You kind of want him on your side but you don’t want to go up against him. He cuts through the bullshit and those are attractive things.”