24 is Back, But Are We Grasping for Something We’ll Never Get Again?

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Photo: Fox
Photo: Fox

By Victor Beigelman

Jack is back.

On May 5th, one of TV’s most beloved characters, Jack Bauer, will return to action in 24: Live Another Day, a 12 episode mini-series event following the same real-time format as the first eight seasons of the show, with periodic jumps forward in the day between episodes. On paper, this is great. Fans of the show get to reunite with their hero and undoubtedly watch him shoot, scream, defy order, survive unimaginable torture, and everything else Jack Bauer stands for.  But to what extent is our excitement for this rooted in a nostalgia for something that’s already seen its best days? Are we getting our hopes up for something that’s doomed to yield diminishing returns? If that’s the case, do we really want to Live Another Day at all?

Don’t get me wrong. I loved 24. Although its formula became stale by the final season, the show always excelled at action-packed sequences, shocking twists, and how-did-he-do-it heroic victories that came with a serious toll. Jack was a tragic hero in the strongest sense of the term, and the ensemble around him was packed with great characters. No doubt, 24 was a hit.

What’s important to emphasize, though, is that I loved the show. Loved. Past tense. It’s gratifying to fondly recall Jack Bauer as an iconic figure of the post-9/11 aughts, as with any happy memory. But when you have a positive, yet removed lasting image of something in your head, it’s strange to bring it back into your life and expect things to be the same. Jack might be coming back, and the core aspects of his world might be relatively constant, but we as viewers have changed.


Given the entertainment industry’s increasingly sequel-happy nature, it makes sense to view TV show comebacks with skepticism -- there’s a proven track record of brewing anticipation at a story or character’s return followed immediately by disappointment. Just look what happened with Arrested Development’s return on Netflix last year. The show was brought back on the sheer volume of enthusiasm from its dedicated and growing fan base, thanks to post-mortem DVD sales and Netflix binges. However, its “triumphant return,” once digested, didn’t go down smooth at all. What’s more, AD was a show that was axed well before its time. What chance does 24 have of a successful return if its original premise had grown stale by the end of its initial run?

There’s no question that money plays a big role in bringing shows and movies back; when profits are involved, its hard to let a smash hit just sit peacefully in its grave. But when all the creative juices around a story have run dry, it’s almost a disservice to the characters and original product to bring it back in any lesser form. Our intense desire to relive the glory days as viewers only enables that trend. Simply put, we’re bringing disappointment onto ourselves.

Another more recent example, this one in film, was the return of Ron Burgundy and the channel 4 news team in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues last December. A look at the sequel’s Rotten Tomatoes score relative to the original -- 75% to 66% -- tells you that it’s a better movie than the original, but these are just numbers. The reality is that, as nice as it was to revisit these characters, the same formula just didn’t have the same punch as it did back in 2004. We expected the same slew of quotable one-liners, but instead we left the theater generally dissatisfied.

Granted, there are instances of TV shows (and film sequels) coming back after long gaps in time to match or exceed the brilliance of their original source material (Family Guy and Toy Story 3 to name a couple), but they’re very clearly the exception rather than the rule. As viewers, we’ve come to form a habit of missing what we don’t have, and demanding a way to bring it back only to inevitably discover the missing piece doesn’t fit that hole in our lives anymore. It’s sad, but true: we’re grasping for something we’ll never quite get back.

This phenomenon is not surprising -- it’s really just a projection of typical human nature onto the landscape of the entertainment industry. We want what we can’t have, and we’re prone to playing a high-risk, high-reward game. If these comebacks could just work out, it would be the best feeling in the world. But much more often than not, they don’t. In reality, it’s best to let favorites and absolute classics lay where they are, and not potentially tarnish their image by forcing a shell of their former selves back to life.

So although I’m excited to see Jack back in my life next week, I’m welcoming him with a fair share of guarded skepticism. Of course I care about him, and I know he cares about me (I am an American, after all). But if it’s just a generic re-hash of the world we shared the first time around, I honestly don’t want any part of it. Neither should you.