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Bauer bowing out: 24 will call it quits after this season stops ticking

24 will be no more after the clock runs out on this season.

In a joint announcement Friday night, Fox and the show's co-executive producers -- who include star Kiefer Sutherland -- said they had mutually agreed to put Jack Bauer out of his various miseries. The Season 8 finale, on May 24th, also will be the groundbreaking series' final hour, although a big-screen 24 is still a strong possibility.

"While the end of the series is bittersweet, we always wanted 24 to finish on a high note," Sutherland said in a news release that was emailed at 7:20:36 p.m. central time Friday. "So the decision to make the eighth season our last was one we all agreed upon . . . Looking ahead to the future, (co-executive producer) Howard Gordon and I are excited about the opportunity to create the feature film version of 24. But when all is said and done, it is the loyal worldwide fan base that made it possible for me to have the experience of playing the role of Jack Bauer, and for that I am eternally grateful."

24 premiered on Nov. 6, 2001, and will have a grand total of 194 episodes when it ends in May. Bauer currently is trying to thwart yet another terrorist plot to deeply wound the United States with a nuclear detonation. The series ranks 30th nationally in the season-to-date Nielsen ratings, averaging 11.5 million viewers per episode.

"24 is so much more than just a TV show," Fox entertainment chairman Peter Rice said. "It has redefined the drama genre and created one of the most admired action icons in television history."

Sutherland, during a session at January's Television Critics Association "press tour," said he's "always been shocked that people I'm flying with say, 'Oh, I feel safer on the plane.' I'm thinking, 'You must not watch the show because everybody around me gets killed.' "

During the course of his many travails, Bauer repeatedly has tortured and been tortured. His brutalizing of suspected terrorists drew criticism from some quarters, leading to the show's decision to put Bauer on trial for his alleged excesses at the start of Season 7. But he eventually was exonerated, even while feeling a bit guilty at times. In one of that season's signature scenes, an FBI driver told Bauer that the U.S. Senate committee investigating his methods shouldn't have been so rough on him.

But Bauer said he was fair game because "we've done so many secret things over the years in the name of protecting this country, we've created two worlds -- ours and the people we've promised to protect. They deserve to know the truth. Then they can decide how far they want to let us go."

Bauer so far has more or less protected and served six presidents, only some of them grateful. It all began with a thwarted assassination plot against presidential candidate David Palmer, who eventually won election but later was killed. Then came presidents John Keeler, Charles Logan, Wayne Palmer, Noah Daniels and the current incumbent, Allison Taylor. Sutherland says it always surprises him when 24 is accused of having a right-of-center political agenda.

"We had the first African-American on television playing a president," he said at the TCA session. "We indicted a conservative president for criminal behavior. Jack Bauer, to me, has always been the most apolitical character, very much like the Secret Service. You don't protect a president because of your political beliefs. That's your job, and you serve that President, regardless.

"One of the things that I was always so unbelievably proud of is that you could have our show being discussed by Bill Clinton and Rush Limbaugh at the same time, both using it and citing it to justify their points of view. So I simply can't tell you a specific point when we changed any kind of political ideology of the show . . . It was balanced from the very beginning."

The announcement of 24's demise as a series at last gives Bauer a fighting chance to end up reasonably happy and contented -- at least until the planned movie plunges him back into a mess of much shorter duration. At the beginning of this season, he even smiled while in the company of his granddaughter. By Sutherland's recollection, it was the first time since the only other time -- in Season 3.

"He had captured Nina (terrorist Nina Myers) and was flying back with her on the cargo plane, and he had her in handcuffs. He looked at her and smiled. And that was about four episodes before he got to shoot her."

Meanwhile, this season and 24 itself have just 11 hours to go. It's ample time for Jack Bauer to do a lot more damage in the interests of saving the world anew. Perhaps he'll even allow himself to smile again at the end of it all. It wouldn't hurt.