05/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

24 : Down for the Count?

It's end of the line time for 24, the ground-breaking TV series that, as much as any, seemed to symbolize the Bush/Cheney era. The word came out late last Friday from Fox that the series was ending, "by mutual agreement."

Ironically, the show hit a high-water mark for the season last night, with a tense, rousing episode harkening back to its glory days. And there wasn't a torture scene in sight.

Actually, the writing was on the wall last fall, when Fox executives said that this eighth season of the show might be the final one. And so it is. Ratings dropped during the Winter Olympics and haven't come back up. Before the Winter Olympics, 24 averaged nearly 11 million viewers per episode. That dropped suddenly to 8.5 million when the Olympics began and never recovered; viewership is down to 8.3 million. (Despite the big drop, 24's ratings are still only a little lower than those of Lost.)

The German language trailer for season 1 of 24, which quickly became an international hit.

Meanwhile, contracts are up -- star Kiefer Sutherland (resolute series anti-hero Jack Bauer) reportedly makes $13 million per season and certainly wasn't likely to take a pay cut -- and so are costs, as happens with any long-running series. And by the end of this season, 24 will be the longest-running espionage series ever.

It would be tempting to say that 24's controversial -- and very unrealistic -- reliance on torture as a ready solution to thorny plot points has something to do with ratings going down in season 8. But that would be wrong. (Be warned that there are a few spoilers ahead.)

The reality, as a brand-new CNN poll shows, is that most Americans agree with the hardball approach that 24 embodies. Popular support for closing the notorious prison at Guantanamo Bay is down sharply. It was 51% last year; now it's down to 39%.

Not surprisingly, Congress isn't going along with President Barack Obama's plans to close Gitmo. The Senate voted against closure. Congress refused to appropriate funds to refurbish a prison in Illinois to house Gitmo prisoners. And New York has rebelled against hosting the trial of accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

The problem with torture in the real world as a means of gaining information is not that it is immoral and never works in gaining information; it's that it's immoral and is very erratic.

24's season 8 trailer.

The problem with torture on 24 is that it always works. That's just ridiculous. You would think that once, in all this time, a bad guy would figure out that, given the press of time, all he had to do was send Jack Bauer and colleagues rushing off in the wrong direction in order to wreak absolute havoc upon America.

With regard to the show's ratings in what is now its final season, the problem isn't with its politics, which in any event have always been more liberal than the Limbaughs of the world like to think. In fact, I don't think that Jack Bauer has tortured anyone this season. (And no, I don't think that conservatives looking for their torture fix have tuned the show out in disgust, either.)

No, the problem with the show is that it has run through its very demanding paces so many times that it is increasingly implausible and/or obvious.

How many domestic nuclear threats can there be? How many moles can infiltrate the super-secure Counter Terrorist Unit? How many times can the ultimate villainous mastermind of a season turn out to be three or four or five times removed from the seeming big bad early on? How many times can Jack Bauer demonstrate the stamina of a terminator?

So there is an inevitable fatigue factor at work. Not to mention irritating subplots. This year's seemed especially egregious. 24 picked up a terrific new co-star in the form of Katee Sackhoff, who played the memorably conflicted/kick-ass fighter pilot Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica.

The pre-season promo for season 1 of 24.

Would she be Jack's new partner? Er, no. She would be a wimpy pretty blonde, oddly dressed in a cocktail dress as the action begins, a data analyst bedeviled by one of the most annoying story lines in the show's history: Her secret juvie criminal past, replete with a redneck ex-boyfriend and his psycho running mate, who force her to use her cyber expertise in the midst of a national security crisis to pull off a score. Where's a cougar when you need one?

Imagine my relief when she turns out to be this season's mole! I mean, the plotting seems preposterous, but at least now as the mole she's the opposite of the mope she was for the first half of the season. She's not Jack's partner. She may be something better: Jack's evil antagonist, Starbuck gone very, very bad.

Incidentally, I've noticed reviewers getting this wrong. She doesn't work for the terrorists out to bring down the now peace-loving president of the Islamic republic, who'd been on the verge of signing an historic peace accord at the UN with the American president so well-played by last year's Emmy winner Cherry Jones. No, she's been assigned to help the terrorists.

My hope is that she's been assigned by someone like Max, the shadowy, barely glimpsed international figure apparently behind infiltrations and machinations early in the series. Specifically those of Nina Meyer, Jack's former flame (and 24's first mole) who killed Jack's wife in the stunning season one finale, and Mandy, the terrorist-for-hire who blew up the airliner (after jumping out of it) in the series premiere and nearly assassinated President David Palmer.

Ironically, 24 had its best episode of the season on Monday night, following the cancellation announcement. It had tension, action, moral dilemmas, and strong use of the show's intriguing female characters, often given short shrift with the exception of perpetually grumpy infotech maven Chloe, memorably played by Mary Lynn Rajskub.

Kiefer Sutherland promised a softer side to Jack Bauer this season.

If the show keeps going down this road, it can go out in a blaze of glory. And, not coincidentally, set up the feature film that has long been talked of.

24 has had a very good run, with 68 Emmy nominations to date, seven of them for Kiefer Sutherland's acting. It's hard to remember that 24's real-time conceit and innovative quick cut/split-screen narrative style was confusing to audiences when the show began airing in November 2001. It was not a hit at first; it became one later.

While it became the ultimate post-9/11 show, 24 started out somewhat differently. Torture was not the motif starting out that it became in later seasons.

In fact, the show's roots are actually in the Clinton years (Bill Clinton has been one of the show's biggest fans), when terrorism was a significant problem, as it's been for decades, but not an obsession. That was before we were so dramatically attacked on 9/11. Before, as it happens, the Bush/Cheney Administration cared much about terrorism at all.

Let's not forget that the report of the US Commission on National Security, appointed by then President Bill Clinton and chaired by former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, which predicted a major terrorist attack inside the US, was ignored by the new administration. Or that then national security advisor Condi Rice was about to give a speech on what the White House saw as the prime national security threat -- missiles in the hands of hostile nations -- on 9/11 itself.

The first hour-by-hour day of 24 took place on the day of the California presidential primary. Season 1, which began airing less than two months after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, was about a threat to assassinate the first African American with a serious chance to become president, a youngish, idealistic-sounding basketball aficionado named David Palmer, played by the estimable Dennis Haysbert. Jack Bauer's mission, after some early confusion, was to protect Palmer -- who oddly prefigured Barack Obama before any of us had ever heard of Barack Obama, then a state legislator -- from assassination on the day of the California presidential primary.

In season two, Bauer's mission was to protect Palmer again, as Palmer struggled to prevent a war with an unnamed Arab country that was secretly fomented by a cabal of oil traders and arms dealers.

In fact, the bad presidents on 24 have been Republicans. The good presidents have, until this season and the last, been African American Democrats, first David Palmer, then his brother Wayne, who after playing RFK to his brother's JFK, worked for peace with a former Islamic terrorist.

In 24's second season, America's first black president is secretly unseated for opposing an oil war.

The worst president was a fellow named Charles Logan (played memorably by the Emmy-nominated Gregory Itzin), a vaguely Nixonian weasel who had David Palmer assassinated and conspired to create a fake terrorist attack in order to gain more power over the country and serve shadowy business interests. (Thankfully, ex-President Logan, who knows how to deal with corrupt schemers, will be back to help close out the series.)

This season, as with season 7, the show has another new president -- presidents don't tend to last long on 24, what with all these constant mega-crises -- a resolute, idealistic-sounding Hillary-like figure. You could say the producers guessed wrong there. Or that they'd already had not one but two Obama figures in the White House.

In retrospect, the show clearly reached its peak in season 5, when Sutherland won the Emmy as best actor and the show won for best dramatic series. But the show lost most of its most compelling characters other than Jack Bauer. Dennis Haysbert's now ex-President Palmer was assassinated early in the season premiere. Carlos Bernard's Tony Almeida, a longtime fan favorite, and his wife Michelle Dessler (played by Reiko Aylesworth) were also murdered. (Tony Almeida was brought back, rather implausibly, last season.)

After the heights of season 5, season 6 was the show's nadir, with a confusing plot about the villains being Jack Bauer's brother and father, out to do what I mercifully have forgotten. A year lost to the writers strike, and the need to reboot the show, in the end didn't help much as the show lost momentum.

Now its clock is ticking down, at least on the small screen. In one of those quirks of fate, or at least of programming, 24's series finale, on May 24th, will come the day after the series finale of another famed television high-wire act, Lost. May they both end in thrilling and satisfying fashion.