So Long, Jack

I’ve been under the weather lately, so I used it as an excuse to stay home and watch the final six episodes of “24.” It was just what the doctor ordered.

Over the past eight seasons, the show has been one of my guilty pleasures. I knew I shouldn’t watch it for a dozen reasons, but at the start of each season, I’d come back for “just one more.” (Like every other addict.)

And yet it was an honest love affair. I was a fan despite the program’s many faults. It could be maddeningly inconsistent, brilliant one week, downright stupid the next. Sometimes I’d get the feeling that the writers were literally one week ahead, feverishly turning in their scripts at the eleventh (or twenty-third) hour. My standing joke was that they should rename it “12,” because they only had enough material for half a day. (For those who’ve never seen “24,” the gimmick was that all events took place in real time during one really bad sleep- and-bathroom-deprived 24-hour period. Of course, the writers would fudge a bit, as in letting a character travel from downtown L.A. to the San Fernando Valley in four minutes. Now that’s fiction.)

Whole seasons could go off the rails in a hurry, starting out with great promise before lapsing into talky placeholder episodes or worse. About halfway through each season, we would be subjected to an “unexpected” plot twist that ultimately became predictable and formulaic.

So why did I stick with it? In two words, “Jack Bauer.” The baddest badass on television.  (Although “Justified’s” Timothy Olyphant is waiting in the wings.) Kiefer Sutherland brought an intensity and danger to the character that made me a true believer. (I’ve heard he’s nuts in real life, which certainly helps. Maybe he can move in to all those twisted Dennis Hopper roles now that there’s an opening.) To paraphrase ESPN’s Sports Center, you couldn’t control Bauer, you could only hope to contain him. This season, even that possibility flew out a bullet-shattered window after Jack’s only real love interest, FBI special agent Renee Walker, met her fate at the business end of a Russian sniper’s rifle. (Something you should know. If you were an FOJ – Friend of Jack’s – you weren’t long for this world.)

So this time, as the posters say, it’s personal. Jack Bauer on a rampage is something to behold, an unstoppable avenging angel of death, off the grid and out of his mind, determined to mete out his personal brand of justice one heinous set piece at a time. Gruesome, disturbing, and oh so satisfying. He could teach Sarah Palin a thing or two about going rogue.

Sure, you can lecture me on the decay of modern society and sending the wrong message and blah, blah, blah. I know all that. That’s why I would never let my kids watch a show like this. But last time I checked, I’m an adult (marginally). I actually know the difference between fiction and nonfiction, right and wrong. I understand why we can’t have Jack Bauers running around in real life playing judge, jury and executioner. Maybe that’s why I can enjoy the vicarious righteous retribution even more. Be honest. Hasn’t there been at least one person in your life you wanted to hang by a meat hook and gut like a fish? I’ll bet you didn’t do it. Neither did I. Jack did it for us. I think that’s healthy. And a lot less messy.

Most season finales are big letdowns. (“Seinfeld” and “Sopranos” come to mind, although I like them both a lot better in retrospect.) But “24” let Jack Bauer go out with a bang, not a whimper. It was time to put him out to pasture and they made the most of it before Jack’s true blue colleague, Chloe O’Brian, uttered the fitting final line, “Shut it down.”

I’ll miss that ticking clock.