Paranoia will destroy you: The never ending anxiety of 24

Kiefer Sutherland has aged a lot in three days. That's because, as all 24 fans know, his days as government agent Jack Bauer have been stretched out over three full television seasons. I'm not a loyal watcher, having lost the plot sometime during season two, but even I can tell that Jack looks even more pouchy-faced and desolate than usual. Last season he vanquished a lethal virus threat, kicked a smack habit, chopped off a colleague's hand, saved the world (again), and was fired from his job at the Counter Terrorism Unit. This time around, his girlfriend, dopey daughter, and most of his co-workers have disappeared, to be replaced by an almost entirely new cast. That includes a fresh bunch of malicious foreigners, in particular a close-knit Turkish family/sleeper cell forced to deal with issues ordinary immigrants face, like, is it OK to date an American girl when you're plotting to destroy her country?

Balancing out the terrorist family circle are Secretary of Defense Heller (William Devane) and his brood: a sexy, obedient daughter and a rebellious son who harangues him for America's warmongering policies. "Spare me your sixth-grade Michael Moore logic," Heller shouts at his son. "America has enemies!" 24 clearly takes the dad's side, mounting an endless series of threats that give Heller an excuse to bulk up the defense budget and keep Jack in the hero business. Jack still solves every crime, and his new job as Heller's sidekick is the perfect perch for sniffing out potential terror activity.

The adrenaline-fueled format of 24 originally felt like a real innovation: heart-pounding plots unfolding in real time, split screens dividing into a mosaic of misery and tension. But now the show has worn out those particular neural pathways. Perhaps it's because terrorism has become an utterly routine part of our daily news cycle, or maybe it's just that you can only spin out anxiety so long before it stops being entertaining, but the fantasy element of 24 has worn thin. A wild American loner, with no regard for rules or conventions (like that Geneva thingie), defeating those big bad Muslims—it all sounds uncomfortably like a White House wet dream.

 
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