Jack is back, blah-de blah. I want to talk about Chloe —
This is what makes Fox’s revival of “24,” which premiered yesterday, worth watching: Chloe O’Brian, the brilliant computer geek, formerly of the fictional Counter Terrorism Unit, now a foul-tempered free agent. Jack Bauer, the gruff action hero played by Kiefer Sutherland, is determined to save the world. But he’d be nothing without Chloe, who might be the most meritocratically powerful female character on television right now.
“24,” which first premiered in 2001, has always managed to reflect, in real time, what America is thinking: Our ambivalence about torture, in earlier seasons, gives way in this installment to ambivalence about drones. This season also gives a nod to the free-information wars: When we first encounter Chloe, she’s soured on the US government and has started working, instead, for a clone of Julian Assange. The pace of this show is such that loyalties swiftly change. But the fundamental fact about Chloe — what has made her a breakout character since her first season — remains just as true today. She’s principled, valued, and good at what she does, and her power has nothing to do with sex appeal.
This is a big deal, perhaps shockingly so, given the current state of TV (and the rise of the glamorous CEO). Yes, we have a fine collection of strong female characters, but there’s usually a strong link between style, power, and romance. Olivia Pope of “Scandal” has a Beyonce swagger and a collection of haute couture clothes. Daenerys Targaryen, on “Game of Thrones,” is the reigning queen of both realpolitik and desert chic. Peggy Olson of “Mad Men” is competent and smart, but she’s suffering these days from her ineptitude at basic office politics and mired in self-pity over her miserable love life. Carrie Mathisen, of “Homeland,” followed her heart off the rails.
And then there’s Chloe, played unapologetically by Mary Lynn Rajskub: unstylish, unlovable, indispensible. Last night, Jack had to rescue her from the clutches of CTU (she was tortured, CTU-style. But, Chloe-style, she refused to break). But soon enough, she emerged as a hero in her own right, hotwiring cars, recognizing obscure foreign mob tattoos, and whispering sweet intelligence into Jack’s ear.
No CTU spook is a match for their combination of wits and brawn. Jack is the heavy; someone mentions that he once tortured folks, and he punches him out. Chloe is his brain stem, and also his conscience, for what it’s worth. Their platonic relationship is far more compelling than any romance the show has tried to portray; Jack’s string of girlfriends has never offered much in the way of chemistry, and the female agent du season is just a cipher, earnest and brave in her cardigan sweater. A female uber-villain — you know who I mean — will tickle fans of genre TV, but I doubt that Chloe will let her run the world.
In fact, if this show didn’t feature an explosion or hideous death every fifteen seconds, it would probably be instructive for kids: Showing them a female role model who is whiz-bang at STEM subjects, cavalier about her wardrobe, and unabashed about her opinions. She can be precisely what she wants, and still manage to save the world by the end of the day. Probably with minutes to spare.
Correction: A previous version of this column said Chloe appeared in the first season of “24.” She first appeared in Season 3.