Jack Bauer has been through hell and it's starting to show. Over the last four years — one day at a time — the superhero of Fox's "24" has saved humanity from terrorists, beaten confessions out of close friends, battled heroin addiction, discovered his murdered wife's body, and, last year, even faked his own death. All with little regard for himself.
But now, as the hit series starts up its fifth season with a two-night, four-part marathon (Sunday and Monday, 8 o'clock, EST) , the stress on Bauer, an agent for the fictional federal Counter-Terrorist Unit (CTU), is finally taking its toll.
"This time, something happens to Jack on a very personal level that pisses him off," says Bauer's alter-ego, star Kiefer Sutherland. "Because he's presumed dead, a lot of the boundaries he was restricted by — by virtue of who he was working for — simply don't exist now. And he's mad."
Until now, Sutherland has only subtly allowed the stress of selflessly saving the world to show on Bauer's boyish face. This season, however, besides being cranky, our clean-cut action hero is looking downright disheveled.
"The weight on people who are responsible for making decisions that affect so many lives, you can only imagine what that must be like — putting 10 lives at risk to save 1000," the actor says.
Bauer has been in a constant fight against not only terrorists but often the bureaucracy of his own government.
"Sometimes bureaucracies are incompetent, just by virtue of the fact that they're bureaucracies," says co-executive producer Howard Gordon. "And, sometimes, Jack has to do things outside the law."
Gordon notes that while Bauer has a strong moral compass, "he's sort of politically agnostic. He has a humility and respect for the government on one hand, but a contempt for it on the other ... Jack's strength is in his ability to navigate these really narrow straits, keeping the greater good in mind, even while doing the most loathsome things."
Having faked Bauer's death at the end of last season, the new story line was a challenge for the writers. "We had kind of painted ourselves into a corner," grins Gordon.
Creating a "Jack-centric thriller this year puts him on a collision course with the people who thought he was dead," he explains.
That world includes his one-time mentor, Christopher Henderson (Peter Weller), who is introduced this season.
"Henderson schooled him on the finer points of counterterrorism," says Weller. "The backstory is ... Jack had investigated some CIA agents and CTU guys. While the other people were brought up on criminal charges, they could never prove anything with me. So for my part, he's my protege — who turned me in when I was innocent."
Weller probably has a better understanding of Bauer's character than most. "My father was a colonel in the Army who flew President Johnson by helicopter in Texas. He was answerable only to the President," he says.
"This show really gets it," the actor continues, "about how the bureaucracy of the United States gets bogged down in minutia, and yet it can all be severed by one phone call from the C.O."
In addition to Sutherland and Weller, "24" has been able to attract other top-notch talent from the feature-film world, including Sean Astin and JoBeth Williams, who both joined the cast this year.
"We shoot this like one big movie," explains co-executive producer Jon Cassar, one of two directors who helm the majority of the episodes. "The film actors are used to having one director throughout a project, which is what we essentially offer them here. They're quite at home."
Nonetheless, Astin, who plays Lynn McGill — sent by the President to oversee the goings-on at CTU — found the TV world required a little adjustment.
"The main challenge was memorizing all the techno-talk. There are five- or six-page scenes full of dialogue! 'Yeah, that's television,' I was told," he laughs.
Gordon notes that the series — which plays out in real time, with each season covering 24 hours — doesn't "go after big names just for their reputations. Our material is deceptively challenging to deliver (credibly), some of these outrageous twists and turns ... and it requires the right amount of seriousness, intelligence and emotion. And Kiefer, of course, sets the tone."
"Kiefer can bring all that backstory and pain in his character, and he does it without hitting you over the head with it," comments Weller. "And he's incredibly professional. On his days off, the guy comes in and reads off-camera lines for the other actors. Most guys take the bullion and are gone to the Bahamas!"
The series films at a former pencil factory in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley on a cavernous set that houses not only the impressive CTU headquarters but the beautiful West Coast retreat for the show's President Logan.
For all of Bauer's toughness, his humanity almost sneaked into one episode filmed recently.
"There's a running joke among fans that Jack never goes to the bathroom," Sutherland recalls. "We had a scene where I was running towards a sign pointing 'BATHROOM' to the left and 'OFFICES' to the right. I did a double-take and ran towards the bathroom! We sent it in to the network, as a joke reel. But, quite frankly, nobody wants to see Jack Bauer go to the bathroom."
So how many more years — or days — does Bauer still have in him?
"That'll be up to an audience when they start to feel that someone else should come in and do it," Sutherland says. "Personally, I'm hoping that's a long way off."
'24' airs on FOX, which is owned by News Corp., the parent company of FOXNews.com.