On a sketchy L.A. street, a monstrous fireball has been unleashed inside an apartment complex. Debris is scattered everywhere. FBI agents and paramedics help scorched men out of the building. And there’s our superagent hero Jack Bauer — motto: ”Saving America’s ass since 2001” — barking commands. ”Disregard that order! Perimeter teams, hold your positions! Where’s Agent Walker?” Between takes, a crew member calls for assistance — ”We need thicker blood!” — prompting a makeup woman to gore up the bodies strewn on the street. We’d love to tell you exactly what Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) and Tony (Carlos Bernard) are doing in this late-season-7 scene for Fox’s 24, but then we’d have to torture you — and testify about it later at a Senate subcommittee hearing. (The best we can do is…never trust anyone.) Before the camera rolls, Sutherland shrugs and smiles. ”If you don’t come back with your best season yet,” he says, ”you’re an ass.”
After a poorly received season 6, coupled with a nearly 20-month hiatus (save for November’s TV movie Redemption), the 24 gang had every reason to want to blast out of the gates. And thanks to some savvy readjustments, the series has clearly regained its creative swagger. Now it’s winning back critics with another horrific day of drama, this time set around an African rebel regime that’s wreaking deadly havoc on our soil — with the help of some corrupt government conspirators. Fans are on board too: 24 is averaging 12.3 million viewers, down only 3 percent from its 2007 average. ”Everybody was on the same page that season 7 was kind of a do-or-die year,” says exec producer Howard Gordon. ”We all had the sense that either we were going to make the show fresh again, or we would be dressing a corpse.”
Funny, because they nearly killed themselves getting it to screen. The scribes began toiling on season 7 way back in June 2007, but a series of setbacks dogged the drama. First, the August 2007 start of production was delayed for rewrites. Next, Sutherland was arrested for drunk driving in September 2007. (As part of his guilty plea, the star arranged it so his 48 days of jail time, which began Dec. 5, 2007, would not interfere with production on 24.) Then the writers’ strike nixed plans for a January 2008 return. Finally, production was halted well into filming for additional rewrites. Fortunately, those problems seem to be in the past. We’ve peeked at the next four episodes, and they don’t disappoint. ”From episode 8 to the end,” promises Sutherland, ”it’s like a bullet.” Before the season whizzes by, let’s take a longer look at the five moves that are helping 24 return to form, and preview a little of what’s on the way.
1. Moving the action to D.C.
Over six seasons, Los Angeles endured almost every possible type of terrorist attack, not to mention a few credibility-stretching presidential visits. ”The improbability was starting to show across the line — both for the writers and producers, and for the viewers,” says Gordon. So Team 24 shrewdly decided to shift the action this season to a New Jack City: the home of political intrigue, Washington, D.C. ”It not only gave us a new look, but thematically it was the right place to set the show,” says Gordon. ”All the institutions of power, justice, law and order, and the things worth protecting are there with iconic clarity.” One of those institutions will emerge as a surprise target in episode 11. The show will also delve into the world of private military contractors, and reveal more about the villainous Jonas Hodges (Jon Voight), who was introduced in Redemption. ”He’s unafraid to go toe-to-toe with the government,” says Gordon. ”Clearly he’s got something invested in the coup [led by the African rebels].”
2. Electing a new president
Over the years, 24 has given us two memorable Oval Officers — stately David Palmer and weaselly Charles Logan — but the will of the viewers wasn’t served last season by David’s ineffectual (and at times comatose) brother, Wayne. ”The idea of an evolving president tested at a very early point in his administration was tricky to dramatize,” concedes Gordon. Cherry Jones’ President Allison Taylor, however, has the West Wing back on the right dramatic track. She’s standing by her no-negotiations-with-terrorists policy that has resulted in hundreds of American deaths — possibly including the First Gentleman (Colm Feore). And don’t expect our new prez to cower to Bauer. ”If you believe in the law, Jack’s a very challenging ally,” says Jones about the Taylor-Bauer pairing. ”In a 24-hour period, it goes through every dynamic of a very long marriage.” Hints Sutherland: ”This guy has never come out of one of these days unscathed, and they’ve written President Taylor in a similar vein. Staking out the moral high ground is expensive, and you’re going to pay for it.”