Tonight, the news becomes official: The clock will stop ticking on "24."
After putting the tireless Counter Terrorist Unit agent to work for eight extra-long days, snapping necks between his thighs and protecting presidents (except when they're evil), Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly has ordered that Jack stand down at this season's end.
Although everyone on set reacted to the news emotionally, no one is perhaps sadder than the man who brought Jack Bauer to life.
"We've done eight years we're very proud of, and we're very excited about going into the film world with this," said Kiefer Sutherland in an interview with The Times. "It's very sad, the only thing tempering this from being all-out heartbreak is the fact that we have this sense of accomplishment. That's the only thing holding people up. Because, for me, and all these people who've been with us since the beginning, it's a very special thing and it's very sad to see it end."
Termination comes in the middle of Day 8, which has been, well, a mixed bag so far, and network executives at Fox seem to think that the Kiefer Sutherland-starring action drama doesn't pack the punch it once used to.
"Everyone concurs that we want the show to end as close to peak form as possible," executive producer Howard Gordon said."If they said tomorrow that you have a ninth season, it's not something we'd be up for because we realize Jack's story in the real-time format has been told. Jack is a wonderful character who can live past the '24' real-time franchise. As far as doing this high wire act...this is far as we can take it."
The ratings have reflected that. The most recent episode of the show drew 8.7 million viewers on Monday -- down 34% from Season 7's average of 13.3 million. While the ratings have cooled, the cost of producing "24" has continued to increase. And critics panned the first several episodes this season. Cancellation was hinted at earlier this month.
The timing of getting the axe could be brutal for loyal viewers. While it's still too early to tell -- "24" turns in a game-changing episode a couple of times over the course of a season -- the show may be headed out the door on a less-than-explosive note: This season began with Jack -- or, as Kim's daughter has dubbed him, "Grandpa Jack" -- attempting to get out of the torture biz but being unable to resist the call to duty when CTU finds itself needing the Power of Bauer one last time.
But it's been slow going: The main stories have revolved not around Jack kicking butt but on his loose-cannon love interest Rene, and a not-so-urgent plot involving missing nuclear rods. Jack has also been overwhelmed with what well may be the lamest of the series' C-story lines (among them, a truly terrible waste of actress Katee Sackhoff.)
But Sutherland and Gordon said writers are working on a finale that he thinks will give the franchise a talked-about send-off.
"We began the season knowing it really could be the end," Gordon said. "We swung for the fences. We're taking some risks and it's going to a place that I gotta say is pretty challenging. My feeling is that when the seconds tick down, I hope people are sitting forward saying they want more. How it ends is far grayer and more complex and more '24' like than anything else."
"What I do like about the ending and what I can say about it is that it's very definitive about where Jack is going to end up," Sutherland said. "It can be perceived as a cliffhanger on some level, but there's no questioning his options. That's something we've never been able to do in the context of this series."
Also comforting for the fans: Jack may not be retiring just yet. Sutherland is eager to get started on a "24" movie. The film side of 20th Century Fox has already hired a writer, Billy Ray, behind the film adaptations "State of Play" and "Shattered Glass," who pitched his own version of a bad day for Bauer. (The movie would send Jack to Europe.) Sutherland personally brought in Ray's idea to the studio.
At its peak, "24" helped transform Fox into a ratings powerhouse in the early 2000s. Alongside shows like "American Idol" and "House," it vaulted the network into to the No. 1 spot among the coveted adults 18-49 demographic. "24" changed television in more ways than one.
"What I've enjoyed is that it's been part of a monumental shift in what television is compared to what it was...it became the home of drama, a phenomenal outlet for actors and writers," Sutherland said.
Over the years, Jack's methods extracting crucial knowledge from terrorists have included tractor-flipping his enemies and, one more than one occasion, snapping their necks with his thighs. According to the official "24" Wiki, he's killed at least 238 people on-screen. A debate about the show's depiction of torture has raged over the years.
The show's creative merits earned it both Emmy and Golden Globe awards for drama and actor Kiefer Sutherland. "24" has also received Emmy Awards for writing and directing, and last year Cherry Jones won an Emmy for supporting actress in a drama.
Known as one of the most grateful actors in the TV business, Sutherland said he is "doing everything in my power not to think about" the fact that there are only two weeks left of production.
"We’re still working, and I’m desperately trying to keep my head in that and I think everyone else is as well," he said. "I know the end will be a very difficult day, and I would love to have avoided it. It’s hard. I broke it down the other day: I've worked on '24' more than half of my professional career. We've made 196 hours of TV...close to 100 movies. That's a very successful career in itself. I think Gene Hackman and my father are the only two people who've made more stuff than that. So it would be silly for me to pretend the end of this would not have a huge impact on my life."
The series finale of "24" airs on May 24.
Photo credit: Fox
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