All words: Tristan Lejeune
The best part of college, for me, was getting to spend so much day-to-day filler time with my closest friends. We went to parties and planned vacations, of course, but the everyday exposure was such that I doubt I’ll ever have it again: classes, meals, studying, lazy PJ sessions—it was like working 12 hours a day with your buds.
And, it goes without saying, we watched TV together. Good stuff, too. The best years of South Park and The Gilmore Girls aired while I was an undergrad, as did the return of Family Guy, Ken Jennings’s run on Jeopardy, the beginning of Lost, Arrested Development, and the Torino Winter Olympic Games.
But perhaps the show Brice, Brendan, Lauren, Erin, Julie, and I made the biggest social point of watching — the one we never, ever missed, even when it was really, really bad — was Fox’s counterterrorism drama, 24.
We took turns ordering pizza.
A realtime serial about really bad days in the life of super spy Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) told in servings of two dozen episodes each, 24 turned its gimmick into a great narrative, with a host of memorable characters fighting and secretly abetting those who would attack America with theft, kidnapping, and murder. The editing and cinematography were worlds better than most network stuff, the writing and performances often ditto, and the clock was always ticking.
The fact that tonight Fox is bringing back a show that debuted way back when I was high school (the pilot, which featured an exploding jet plane, aired less than two months after Sept. 11, 2001) speaks to the cultural handicap that there are even fewer new ideas out there than there used to be. But 24 was such a product of its time, such a Bush-era, Murdoch-sanctioned action/horror tool that its redux will have to show the world how very different it is if it wants to succeed, not how well it’s recaptured any old “magic.”
Magic it certainly never was. Like its contemporary Alias, a far more comic-book themed espionage drama that debuted the same year, 24 ran the gamut of television quality. They were the best of spy shows, they were the worst of spy shows.
But where the ABC series Alias simply had two stellar first seasons that it was never able (or willing) to match again, you never knew what you were getting into with 24. An episode or a plotline could fall apart, splintered by contrivance, implausibility, or just lazy storytelling. Or it could suddenly lift off, buoyed by a clever twist or satisfying resolution. Some say the show jumped the shark way back in year dos when a main character somehow stumbled into a bear trap and got menaced a mountain lion, but that was a B, C, or D storyline while elsewhere people were acting like intelligent human beings. The finest season of 24 was preceded and succeeded by the two weakest, which rather implies that those involved never knew how to make it work.
When it was good, it was very, very good, but when it was bad, it was infuriating. A tedious subplot about a technical snafu or an unimportant love interest could drag on for hours, meaning weeks. A logic jump that pissed you off way back when it was introduced might ripple poison for the rest of the year. And those problems hit even strong seasons.
Still, the show did some fascinating things. Some said (and they were right at least part of the time) that it was a conservative screed about why invasive surveillance, enhanced interrogation, and shoot-first, ask-questions-at-the-commercial-break law enforcement were necessary weapons in the war on terror. So, to justify the stakes, the show’s protagonists sometimes failed — and spectacularly.
More than once, nuclear bombs went off on American soil. A sitting U.S. president was shot down in Air Force One. Another watched helplessly from the Oval Office as two jet planes were sent crashing into each other, hours before herself being captured and forced to record a video mea culpa at gun point. In season three, an entire hotel of civilians dies horribly in a biological attack and the U.S. government surrenders to a terrorist’s demands to murder a high-ranking intelligence officer. The good guys definitely don’t always save the day.
And there has never been a show where actors were less safe. You think Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead are callous about offing favorite characters? Then you’ve never experienced 24‘s long, long butcher’s bill. Even those who’ve somehow managed to survive (like that poor young woman in the bear trap) have largely been shuffled way, way offscreen, so that the promo art for the return of 24 (Live. Another. Day. May 5. 8 p.m.) has been reduced to Jack and tech genius Chloe O’Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub) surrounded by arty, Brit chaos. In truth, sustaining momentum was always one of the issues, so a 12-hour variation is not the worst idea in the world.
I can’t tell you if the London-calling, half-day 24 reboot will be worth watching, but I can tell you which of the previous seasons were, so, hey, that’s something. Two were amazing, two were wretched, and all are best distinguished by the threat Bauer and the Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU) had to fight. The first run has moved from Netflix to Amazon Prime, in case you were looking. I’ll sum them up, grade them, and hope the new offering can compete.
The first John Le Carré spy novel to be published in the post-Edward Snowden era will no doubt get lots of attention, but 24 has always taken that level of Orwellian overlords as a given. Where will it go now that we know privacy is a misty dream? It lived in the dark — it thrived there, and it killed there. And sometimes it was that adjective that TV producers would themselves kill for: unmissable.
Season 1 Primary location: Los Angeles; Terrorist threat: Political assassination;Start and ending time: 12 a.m.
Hard to believe it, but back before Dennis Haysbert was little but an Allstate spokesman, he played Sen. David Palmer, set to be elected president, unless an intricate plot to have him killed succeeds first. His would-be assassins are a family of evil Serbians (led by Dennis Hopper!) seeking double revenge on Palmer and agent Jack Bauer for an operation years ago near Kosovo. They kidnap Bauer’s wife and daughter to try to force him to do their bidding.
In retrospect, the first season of 24 looks almost quaint — the writing was largely pre-9/11, the technology now charmingly out of date, but the cold, shadowy headquarters of CTU was itself an instant classic, right up there with the most iconic TV sets of all time. And if season one is not without its maddening subplots (amnesia, anyone?), then neither does it lack for brilliant performances, with standouts from Penny Johnson as a Lady Macbeth political wife who could give Claire Underwood a run for her money and Xander Berkeley as wiseass George (to Jack: “Have you noticed, wherever you go, there’s a body count?”). The finale is an air-tight masterpiece.
The best parts of the first season were a four-way poker game between CTU agents Jack, George, Nina, and Tony. Turns out Nina always had the best hand, but Jack outplays her anyway.
Season 2 Primary location: Los Angeles; Terrorist threat: Nuclear bomb; Start and ending time: 8 a.m.
The stakes are slightly higher this time out as a nuclear weapon is set to go off in L.A. “today.” They really didn’t leave themselves too many places to go after that, did they?
Even more than the first season, this one really set the template for all future efforts: the swirling group-memo, anti-terror bureaucracy on field agent and White House levels; the uneasy blend of anti-Islamic xenophobia and self-aware over-correction of same; the civilians drawn into the sticky web like flies; the pulse-pounding mechanical music (the score’s closest descendent: Breaking Bad); and, most importantly, the crucial two-thirds plot shift.
When Jack, George, Nina, Tony, and now-President Palmer (all of whom are given new moods and shades to play) fail to deactivate the nuclear device and can only evacuate it to an uninhabited desert, the story changes to the blame game and a race to prevent a Middle East war with countries being framed for the attack. It was a solid gamble to get TV viewers to care as much about “Can we stop an unjust airstrike?” as “Can we prevent the deaths of millions of Angelinos?” and it worked.
24.2 introduced two likeable, competent female characters who shared and created many of the season’s strongest moments, Reiko Aylesworth as CTU player Michelle Dessler and Michelle Forbes as executive office staffer Lynne Kresge. In typical, confounding 24 fashion, the former would go on to be one of the series’ most reliable faces, and the latter would never be mentioned or heard from again. Guess Forbes just had to settle for high-profile turns in Prison Break, Battlestar Galactica, In Treatment, True Blood, The Killing, Orphan Black…
All-time series highlights include Jack’s monologue about his loss, which is as touching as the series ever tries to be, and the haunting image of that mushroom cloud.
Season 3 Primary location: Los Angeles; Terrorist threat: Weaponized virus; Start and ending time: 1 p.m.
Out of chaos, fun TV is born.
The messiest season of 24 that still somehow managed to pull it off, round three involved such ridiculous situations as Jack being forced into a round of Russian roulette during a prison riot, a Mexican drug cartel bidding on a biological weapon, and a use of the old “Wait, wait — don’t hand him his heart pills! We actually want him to die!” The Wikipedia page for this season lists as a major subplot “Tony Almeida and Michelle Dessler struggle to prioritize national security over their love for each other,” which is all the more groan-inducing when you realize that’s a major subplot for someone or other pretty much all the time.
Still, season three was richly compelling entertainment. The big early twist was satisfying in a way that filled you with excitement, not dread, at the coming weeks. CTU additions like Chase Edmunds (James Badge Dale) and fan favorite Chloe brought a lot to the table. And the knowledge that this show would kill pretty much any character at pretty much any time produced much in the way of high tension, as did the biologic threat, which had to be contained more than stopped.
In the final scenes, Jack and Chase hunt an operative with a ticking dispersal device full of the virus through a subway station, and then an elementary school. It is, if one may flirt with a pun, a thrill a minute.
Season 4 Primary location: Los Angeles; Terrorist threat: Evil mastermind; Start and ending time: 7 a.m.
Oh man, did things fly off the rails. When the head villain in your action story is calling the American Civil Liberties Union to protect a witness so that he doesn’t give up crucial information, and the producers think that makes the ACLU complicit, you have seriously messed up.
The Islamaphobia in this season was so bad, Sutherland had to do PSAs essentially saying that Fox was not of the opinion that most American Muslims want to kill you. That was nothing, however, to the teeth-gnashingly bad story structure and decision making.
Characters were developed only to disappear. Threats were painstakingly established, and then dismissed out of hand. An innocent civilian is abused by the government for intelligence, and then lectured about his “lifestyle choices” by his father, the secretary of defense.
The big bad was introduced early this time out, presumably to give Jack a worthy foe, but his plans are so convoluted, you’d rather see spies fight a rabid cat. Those closest to Jack are kidnapped (repetitive), the nuclear football that travels with the president is captured (preposterous), and towards the end there’s a shootout at the Chinese consulate (unnecessary) that results in the death of the ex-husband of Jack’s love interest. (Gross.)
Season 5 Primary location: Los Angeles; Terrorist threat: Nerve gas; Start and ending time: 7 a.m.
A memory: My college buds and I are on the edge of our chairs. It’s spring 2006 and we’re in the basement of a since-repurposed student building (ah, the viewing rooms of yesteryear…), watching a 24 season so good, it’s almost enough to make you forget the year before.
The first lady (Jean Smart), who has rightly begun to suspect that her husband is up to no good, is paranoid and unraveling, which only gets worse when her limousine is attacked by Russian separatists. It’s armored, of course, but they come bearing assault weapons and a flame-thrower. She and her security detail are pinned down, with the bullets flying and the glass shattering.
My friend Julie peers through her laced fingers as the Secret Service returns fire. Men fall on both sides. The safety of the limo is completely compromised. The violence is invasive and claustrophobic. Terrorists and bodyguards die until only the flame-thrower and the point man are left.
“Hit the tank, hit the tank!” I yell. He hits the tank, and the man is engulfed in a fireball. “Yes!” Brendan exclaims next to me, throwing his fists in the air. Cut to ticking clock, and then commercial.
The Emmy Awards don’t always get it right, but if there was going to be a season of24 that won for best drama, it had to be this one. Conspiracies with flavor, lots of favorite characters kicking the bucket, and action pretty much nonstop — this is why we fans of the show stick with it. While seasons two and four played with making the government itself the enemy, this one dived in with gusto. President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin) is the best nemesis Jack has gotten.
It turns out, based on what follows, that what we were actually watching was the show eat itself, but what a feast.
Season 6 Primary location: Los Angeles; Terrorist threat: Suitcase nukes; Start and end time: 6 a.m.
This batch of 24 episodes of primetime television is so bad, it exhausts me even to consider describing it to you. When a successful nuclear detonation in California (what, again?) fails to draw the viewer in, things are in rough shape.
Jack’s brother and father (who for some reason is NOT played by Donald Sutherland) are the big bad guys, which is insultingly laughable. CTU headquarters gets invaded for about the fourth or fifth time. The White House has never looked worse.
Right around when real-life advocacy groups were ramping up their objections to the torture scenes, out comes a power drill.
Did I mention Jack’s young nephew is introduced as emotional pawn? Season six isn’t just to be avoided, it’s to be cursed.
24: Redemption Primary location: Fictional nation of Sangala in Africa; Threat: Rebellion; Time frame: 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
This forgettable if largely inoffensive TV movie about Jack protecting war orphans in Africa serves as a bridge from the show’s L.A.-based years to its final (so far) two seasons. Jack runs and scurries through the jungle and there are lots of AK-47s going off.
Man, did this show ever rip through American presidents! While Jack is off fighting Joseph Kony or whatever, back in the U.S. not less than the eighth commander in chief in 24‘s history, Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones) is sworn in. Though I suppose, what with all the atomic bombs going off, we might want new leadership.
Season 7 Primary location: Washington D.C.; Terrorist threat: Infiltration of cyber infrastructure; Start and end time: 8 a.m.
Welcome to the District, bitches!
Season the seventh opens with Jack facing a Senate hearing (cuz, you know, he tortured and killed all those people) before, in that most classic of spy tropes, he’s needed back on the job. There’s no rest for the government-sanctioned wicked.
Like season four, this story is a matryoshka of conspiracies, betrayals, double agents who are really triple agents, smokescreens, and counter-attacks, but the acting holds up a little better, and the use of D.C. scenery never hurts either.
In the innermost of those nesting dolls (though this plot takes forever to reveal itself), back-from-the-dead Tony seeks revenge on those behind the season five slaughter. They’re related to defense contractor Starkwater, a not very well-disguised Blackwater stand in, which carries a lot of the action into the “military industrial” Virginia suburbs.
This year introduced FBI agent Renee Walker (Annie Wersching), Jack’s most emotive partner in the field. She’s supposed to provide a counterbalance to Bauer’s smash-and-grab tactics, but we don’t really have time for that, do we?
Stunt casting with the likes of Janeane Garofalo and Jon Voight is more distracting than anything else, and the tattered pieces never really get sewn together to make a quilt, but if you know what a bad season of 24 looks like, you know this isn’t really one of them.
Season 8 Primary location: New York; Terrorist threat: Eventually? A very pissed off Jack Bauer; Start and end time: 4 p.m.
Confession: I only finished this most recent season so I could talk to you about it. Back in 2010, I finally decided my adrenaline gland had had enough (or perhaps I missed watching it in a pack) and bailed on the “New York gets Jacked” effort. Revisiting it this past week, I’m afraid I made the right decision.
See above re: stunt casting, but replace the names with Freddie Prinze Jr. and Katee Sackhoff. They do a fine job representing CTU Next Gen, but you can’t help but miss the classic gang and their smoked-glass HQ.
President Taylor is on the verge of a peace treaty with “Kamistan” (if you insist), but scores of gunmen in Manhattan might have something to say about that. Jack and Renee mostly stop them, but then she becomes a casualty and he goes all Rambo. Revenge is more direct than most of his motivations, but Sutherland solo lacks 24‘s je ne sais quoi.
What you need to know ahead of tonight’s premiere is that Bauer becomes a fugitive, an enemy to multiple governments, and apparently he’s fled across the pond. Who knows if he’ll ever find his way back into the legal system’s good graces. More importantly: will he re-endear himself to TV viewers, particularly those of us who have already given him so much (SO much) of our time?