The new season of 24 is upon us and it is as addictive as ever. Set in my hometown of New York City, Jack Bauer must once again save us all from those who plot our destruction. Bauer, played with gravitas and bravado by Kiefer Sutherland, is the tragic hero of our time, sacrificing his own happiness for the good of his country and the safety of its citizens. Full of his own imperfections, he nevertheless rises above any hurdle, endures any pain, and puts himself in the line of fire to set things right again.
When I call the character of Jack Bauer a tragic hero, I'm referring to the traditional Aristotelian definition: a flawed but noble figure who faces misfortune and suffering that leads to an epiphany or a catharsis. Many people consider Jack to be the ultimate superhero that can do no wrong, but what makes him so likable is his neverending commitment to achieve his goals despite his imperfections, despite the dangers to his own life, despite his fears (which exist even though he hides them well.) If he were perfect, his superheroics would be boring, but the flaws in his character and the punishments and tragedies he endures make his victories all the more satisfying.
The tragic hero is the hero of myth, the guy who goes on the hunt to slay the dragon, the knight who lays down his life for the cause, the champion who often gets driven more by fate as the story progresses than by his own actions, at some point just swept up by the overwhelming circumstances that surround him.
Jack Bauer of course is the ridiculous caricature of machismo, but Sutherland portrays him with vulnerabilities and human emotion that make all the outrageous situations he constantly finds himself in all the more palatable, allowing us to suspend our disbelief.
Like the loners of the best adventures who sacrifice their own happiness and rewards for a higher cause, Jack Bauer answers the call for the fight that others would normally shun because of the risks involved. And we root for him because of his selflessness.
We see ourselves in comic heroes, but in tragic heroes we see who we are afraid to be. Jack Bauer is a modern version of those tragic heroes like Sir Lancelot, Hamlet, Samson, King David, and countless others. It is why so many of us tune in to his adventures every season, not because of the gimmick of each episode taking place in real time, but because Jack Bauer fills a void in a society that yearns for real life superheroes willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of all.