I am Federal Agent Jack Bauer, and these are the longest eight and a bit days of my life. Terrorists are planning to assassinate a presidential candidate, the actual president, and probably someone else. My wife has been kidnapped, and my daughter is suicidally stupid. In all the even numbered days, Islamic terrorists have gotten hold of nuclear weapons. In other days, it turns out to be someone I pissed off years ago. Events occur in real time except for things like driving and going to the toilet.
24 marked a turning point in television. Until then, shows had been episodic affairs, with executives afraid of serialising shows too much in case the viewers were alienated to the point that they might switch off and do something else. 24’s extreme serialisation and race-against-the-clock format instead proved to be a massive hit, the addictive nature sucking viewers in rather than turning them off. Crucially, the timing was right for a espionage and terrorism show, airing just a month after the September 11th attacks. The show inadvertently became the de facto flagship show for the war on terror decade.
The intense plotting meant that several story beats ended up being used again and again, and as the show went on its anyone-can-die plotting had left most of the cast, well, dead. And as the stories and characterisation started their decline like shows often do in their later years, what once was relevant felt like a relic from a bygone age, a nasty reminder of the dark side the War on Terror had brought out in everyone, rather than the glorious antidote to it.
For a while 24 seemed dead, the movie spin off stuck in development hell and Kiefer Sutherland moving on to other projects. Yet a reboot of sorts last year showed that perhaps there was some life in the old girl yet. So, let’s see how it fared over the years, starting with the unquestionable nadir…
9 – Day 6
After five seasons of trying to outdo themselves, the writers of season 6 were faced with a dilemma – go big, or lose viewers. Their solution was to start the series with a nuke going off, and from there was nowhere else to go. As the plot meandered from Jack’s dull family drama to President Wayne Palmer’s thundering ineptitude, the wheels rapidly fell off.
The regular staples of 24, the backstabbing, the 25th amendment, the attacks on CTU were all there, but now so obviously telegraphed that the twisty turny nature of the plot left viewers only wondering when something interesting would happen. Worse, much of the season saw Jack on the sidelines, and with the regular cast mostly spending time in their graves, there was a vacuum on screen that desperately needed filling with star power.
The strings were laid bare, and once things started to go wrong, it was clear the writers had no clue where the season’s lacklustre plot was going. Unfortunately for them, the viewers had seen the ‘Islamic terrorists and nukes’ plot before – twice – and knew exactly where it was going: nowhere.
24 Fun Fact – Eddie Izzard was offered a part in season 6, but had to turn it down due to a scheduling conflict.
8 – Day 8
Season 8 will be remembered for its final, glorious send off. The moment when Jack finally went over the edge and started killing everyone was the upturn for what had been, until then, utterly utterly dreadful. The terrorist plot of terrorists and nukes (sorry, dirty bomb, completely different) threatening a new cast the audience cared little for had already been done before, and already been done badly before.
The Russians proved even more of an anachronistic set of bad guys than the traditional al-Qaeda stand ins of previous entries. And the crowning turd of all was the usually excellent Katee Sackhoff, with a mind numbing plot that would be solved in five minutes if everyone involved just stopped being an idiot (or shot themselves). If it weren’t for such a strong finish, season 8 would be ranked the worst.
24 Fun Fact – Anil Kapoor, who played Omar Hassan, went on to star in the Indian remake of 24.
7 – Day 4
Season 4 isn’t a bad season of 24 (unlike 6 and 8), but it marked the point where the same plots started to be recycled and a 24 drinking game would result in hospitalisation. An unsympathetic CTU boss who gets replaced at the halfway point! A mole in CTU! Jack goes rogue! Muslims with nukes! But there’s still a lot to like.
For a start, it remains the only season to have a central villain, rather than a central threat and an never ending parade of the-man-behind-the-man. And that villain is The Mummy! There’s also the intriguing plot of the sleeper cell living in suburban America, which is one of the few good examples of family drama the show has attempted.
But the plot itself twisted and turned a bit too much, and rather than the one central threat that had proven so effective before, there were no fewer than four different crises. Unfortunately, none of them had enough momentum to leave a lasting impression.
24 Fun Fact – A phone number shown in one of the episodes was connected to a real phone, which would be manned by various cast and crew members as a way of alleviating the boredom of location shooting.
6 – Day 7
The poor reception of season 6 and a writers strike meant that season 7 had longer in the oven than any season since the first. Things would be different, we were told. No more writing by the seat of the pants. No more trying to go bigger and better. No more reliance on Jack as the only vaguely interesting character. And by and large it was a success… for three quarters of the season at least.
Instead of Muslims, old enemies or someone else connected, the threat was now from the outside, in the form of a private military company and a weaponised prion (that was nothing like season 3’s virus, no, definitely not). And there was a delightfully meta subplot seeing Jack defending himself (and by extension the entire show) against accusations of glorifying torture.
What made 24 so brilliant in its early days had returned to some degree – the plot was twisty turny and difficult to predict, some familiar (and presumed dead) faces returned, and you could trust no one. And then near the end of the run, the writers sprang one twist too many and tried to introduce the ultimate man-behind-the-man, undermining the excellent work that had gone before.
24 Fun Fact – This was the first season of 24 to be officially carbon neutral.
5 – Day 1
Season 1 set the template for so much of 24, yet the first half of the season is quite unlike anything the show produced afterwards. The kidnapping plot was cold, calculating, brutal, and unlike anything on television on that point. In fact, if you want to get someone hooked on a TV show, show them the first season of 24. So why so low on the list?
Unfortunately, the series had been commissioned for 13 episodes, and it wasn’t until the premiere was a success that the rest of the season was ordered. And it shows. After the initial plot is resolved, we’re introduced to new villains, who want to do… the exact same thing. Kim and Teri are safe, and then Kim decides to go and hang out with her previous kidnapper for no valid reason and Teri gets amnesia, of all things. The last half of Jack’s plot consists of him sat in a dim office with David Palmer, reading printouts off the internet. And we have Dennis Hopper with a preposterous accent. Gripping.
24 Fun Fact – Before its retool into an espionage thriller, 24 was originally going to be a comedy set around a wedding.
4 – Day 2
There existed a debate at the time of season 2 about whether it surpassed the first. Contemporary opinion would tell you that no, it did not. But I think time has been kinder to season 2 than season 1. The plot is expansive yet tighter, the stakes are higher yet still personal, and the mid season plot shift actually improved matters rather than rehashed them.
No matter which way you cut it, international intrigue and a nuclear weapon in LA are more interesting than David Palmer’s hotel room and Jack’s wife’s forgetfulness. The only downside was Kim Bauer, shoehorned into the plot ostensibly to provide an emotional centre for Jack, but actually to look good in a tight top. Yet as stupid as her plot might have been, lurching from one unlikely disaster to another did prove entertaining, but probably not for the reasons the writers intended. If only she really had been eaten by that cougar…
24 Fun Fact – Finsbury Park Mosque in London was depicted as being a meeting place for terrorist cells. Not long after, police raided it and found that it indeed was.
3 – Live Another Day
What should be called season 9 was the biggest retool the series had undergone. Gone were the 24 episodes (although retained was the real time format… mostly), gone was America. The London setting and the shorter format allowed for a much, much tighter storyline, once again relevant with its drone threat, keeping the traditional 24 tropes but ditching the padding that had so much plagued the show since the beginning.
But what was a real winner was the cast. Returning characters such as Heller, Audrey and of course Chloe lent an air of authority, but Michelle Fairley provided one of the show’s strongest villains and Michael Wincott’s turn as Julian Assange Adrian Cross gave us a character you never really knew which way would turn. In fact, it’s difficult to think of anything the comeback did wrong, other than making me wish they were going to make another season.
24 Fun Fact – Live Another Day’s finale marks the first time in over 200 episodes that the show broke with the real time format.
2 – Day 3
Lessons learned from the first two outings, season 3 ditched the extraneous subplots and relegated Kim to a desk job in CTU (yes, just ignore the fact that the girl who hangs out with her own kidnappers and gets terrorised by wild animals is now a computer programmer). Jack is actually working at CTU and doesn’t need a reason to get involved.
The mid season plot shift is orchestrated by the characters themselves. And despite season 2 having a nuclear bomb as a threat, season 3 upped the ante with a virus that could wipe out half the population. The only plot not related to the threat was David Palmer’s personal troubles, but that gets a pass simply because of Dennis Haysbert’s wonderful performance.
Season 3 hit the ground running and never looked like slowing down, but crucially had that 24 magic which meant you never knew what would happen next. Handy.
24 Fun Fact – The resolution of season 2’s cliffhanger was in fact told in 24 – The Game, leaving only a vague mention in the opening episode.
1 – Day 5
Season 4 had subtly marked the quality decay that plagues all long running shows, so by rights season 5 should have continued the inevitable. Instead, the writers decided to discard the formulae of previous seasons, and instead of one (or in the case of season 4, three) abrupt plot shift, every aspect of the plot would flow out of one massive cock up by the villains and CTU’s attempt to control the damage.
This was announced by an explosive first episode which wiped out half the main cast. All bets were off, and would stay off until the last unpredictable twist. Add into that some of 24’s most memorable turns from Gregory Itzin as the delicious bastard President Logan and Peter Weller as Jack’s old mentor and season 5 kept moving through relentless, character based conflict. The only thing that was annoying about season 5 was that you absolutely could not stop watching it.
24 Fun Fact – Despite having few lines until his famous “Is there anything, Charles?”, Aaron Pierce was the only character apart from Jack to survive from the show’s first season to the end.