A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Monday nights were special. At least, they were special in the lives of yours truly and his merry band of cronies in Lincoln, NE. Every Monday evening in the winter and spring months of 2006 and 2007, we would all gather at the home of our friends, Shane and Amy. We would order a delightfully unhealthy dinner (usually pizza), and sit around and shoot the bull for an hour or so. Then we would all retire to their basement. Shane would fire up his Bose home theater system and we would sit, barely speaking, as another perilous hour in the danger-saturated life of Jack Bauer, Counter Terrorist Agent, unfolded; ostensibly in real time. For over a year, during the show’s 5th and 6th seasons, we would repeat this ritual with few if any exceptions. All of my “friends” were there; Jamie, Audra, Wes and later on, even Mike.
I had strived mightily to get them all hooked on the show, 24. Anyone who knows me will tell you that, when I get hooked on a TV show, I try very hard to get others addicted as well. It’s always more fun to enjoy a story when you have others with whom to digest and discuss it. It took a while, but I caught them all! I even captured the interest of Strunky, the Curious Monkey. He would routinely nitpick each episode (not a monumental task), but he kept coming back for more. One night over penny pitchers at The Watering Hole, he tried to repay me by encouraging me to read George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. I told him, “I don’t really do fantasy.”
Two years later, my buddies Joe, Steve and I lay on the floor of apartment #10 at the Chateau Lynnewood complex in Littleton, CO, and watched as the delayed seventh season in the adventures of Jack Bauer unfolded. We had all been diehard fans since the early days, but now, our reactions to the latest shocking plot twists were muted at best. We all seemed to agree that, while the show was still fun to watch, it was wearing thin. By the time the eighth and final full-length season of 24 commenced in winter of 2010, Joe and I were watching more out of obligation than compulsion. We took in the series finale sitting on the couch in the infamous Chateau social room. We would have rather watched it at Joe’s place, but his girlfriend at the time made even mild enjoyment of the show impossible. When it ended, Joe and I just said, “Hmmm. Ok.”
Sidebar: Too bad Marwan, Saunders or Christopher Henderson didn’t know Joe’s girlfriend. She would have made an excellent weapon of mass destruction.
Last night, over a steaming hot bowl of lamb stew with my pal Ross, 24 came up again. “I used to watch the first season of that show religiously,” he said. Then he said, “Bring me some more bread, wench!”
Sidebar: Any of you who know Bridgit will understand when I say that, when Ross called her a wench, I expected his severed head to bounce into my partially empty bowl of stew in a scene that would have made Jack Bauer proud. But, she just laughed and retorted, “Fuck off.” . God love married people.
Ross mentioning 24 got me to thinking about television and what makes it endure. What makes a particular series rewatchable, even after it concludes? Many series that have been off the air for decades still capture my interest every now and then. Since I moved back to Omaha, I’ve reabsorbed The Sopranos, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Justified, The Shield and high-lights from The Rockford Files, Columbo and several of the Star Trek incarnations. I enjoy all of them; some more than I did upon my initial watch. Yet, I can never seem to muster up the interest in taking 24 out of the mothballs for a comprehensive view. I like the first two seasons, but then I get bored.
To understand why, we have to examine the genesis and ultimate trajectory of 24.
The premise was quite simple. Kiefer Sutherland played Federal Agent Jack Bauer, a counter terrorist operative who would stumble upon a plot to destroy America. The reaction of Bauer and his elite counter terrorist squad would be mirrored by a parallel plot involving the President of the United States and his/her staff. Both plots would be driven by an ominous digital clock, ever present in the background, often appearing in the foreground at the center of split screens, constantly counting down the seconds to the next disaster.
The concept of American agents saving the country and the world was far from new; it was the gimmick of the ticking clock that made the show so compelling for 21st century audiences. The idea was that each episode represented one hour in a day, the real time element a device designed to heighten suspense.
It was preposterous, of course, and we all knew it, but we didn’t care. Even hardcore fans would grudgingly admit that, “All of that stuff just couldn’t happen in one day.” Kiefer and company were just too good to ignore.
24 was conceived and partially filmed before the shattering events of 9/11, but it premiered after the tragedy. Even so, the entire series was informed by the larger, real world events of the terrorist attacks and the resulting conflicts in the Middle East. IN looking back, Jack Bauer owes his continuous (if not unlikely) survival on television to three real world counterparts; Osama bin Laden, George W. Bush and Simon Cowell.
The first two figures are obvious, but the third takes a bit of explanation. 24 was always on the bubble during its first season, meaning that it was one click away from cancelation. After the shocking finale of the first season, fans and network executives alike did not know whether Jack would be back for another harrowing day. Critical buzz was positive, but the all-important ratings were tepid. DVD sales of the first season helped seal the deal for a new day for Jack.
Despite the costly production budget and ad campaign surrounding the show, ratings continued to flounder… Until they used American Idol as the lead-in for the latter half of the show’s second season. That, plus the U.S. invasion of Iraq, helped spike the ratings. By the show’s fourth season, 24 was being widely praised, not only by most TV critics, but by many conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham. This, plus the public outing of series creator/producer Joel Surnow as an unashamed conservative (a rarity in Hollywood), did nothing to harm the show’s already mushrooming viewership.
In reading this, one might think that the series was merely a right-winger’s wet dream, especially given the fact that Muslim extremists were often featured as the villains in the show. But one would be wrong. No race or ethnic group was immune from villainy in the universe of 24. The first villains we meet are white Americans working for a paramilitary unit. The second group of baddies are Serbian warlords. In the show’s second season, the chief villains are Muslim terrorists, but they are backed by a bunch of white executive oil types trying to start a war for financial gain. The villains in the third season are Mexican drug lords, followed by a couple of British renegades. Other villains in the series include Russians, Chinese, South Africans and even Jon Voight.
The most popular villain on the show was President Charles Logan, a pasty white dude who emerged as the antagonist during the show’s 5th and arguably best season. The critics lapped it up, seeing evident parallels between evil President Logan and doubly evil President Bush. It was no coincidence that the fifth season scored a double Emmy win for ‘Best Dramatic Series’ and ‘Best Actor’ for Kiefer Sutherland.
The biggest reason that 24 doesn’t particularly date well is not because of its themes. The show really had one theme, which was that Jack Bauer would always triumph over terrorism, no matter the personal cost. It wasn’t pro-Republican or pro-Democrat, but it was certainly pro-U.S. This was a welcome change for many fans who found plenty of anti-U.S. commentary from other critical darlings such as The Sopranos, The Wire and the reimagined Battlestar Galactica.
The impact of 24 is weakened because its central premise is built upon the simple question of, what happens next? The show’s serialized nature and real time structure meant that each episode would end on a cliffhanger. Every popular drama poses this same question, but 24 was a plot-driven show that relied on a continual raising of the stakes to keep up its momentum. Often, cliffhangers would reveal an even bigger threat, wielded by an even bigger baddy just around the corner. When Jack thwarts a presidential assassin in season one, he then must contend with a nuclear bomb on U.S. soil in season two. In season three, he tries to stop a flesh-eating virus from being released in L.A. In the fourth season, it’s a group of hackers who want to cause every nuclear power plant in the country to melt down simultaneously. Season five brings us a deadly nerve gas, then we move on to suitcase nukes, child soldiers in South Africa, an attack on the White House, nuclear missiles over New York City, and finally, deadly drones in London. It’s exhausting just writing about all of these WMD’s, let alone defeating them.
In the midst of dealing with the next looming threat, the viewer comes to understand that no character, save Jack himself, is safe. Any character could die at any time. Thus, we learn that it is not emotionally healthy to become attached to David Palmer, Tony Almeda, Michelle Dessler or Curtis Manning, because they might be killed off in the very next episode. Even Sherry Palmer, the first First Lady of 24 and one of the better villains, wasn’t immune from being whacked. The only other character who seemed safe was Jack’s able sidekick, the acid-tongued computer nerd, Chloe O’Brian.
But sometimes, death is rendered meaningless. Tony Almeda is killed during the events of the fifth longest day of Jack’s life, but on the seventh day, he returns from the dead as a villain, who’s really a hero, who’s really a villain. I know… It’s confusing, but 24 was never known for its logical consistency. In fact, you could build a wall in front of many of those plot holes and make Ramon Salazar pay for it.
In the show’s inaugural season, Jack’s main challenge is two-fold. He must save his family from danger, whilst simultaneously protecting presidential candidate David Palmer from harm. Inevitably, these two missions come into conflict and ultimately, Jack is forced to choose. He chooses David Palmer and pays the price when he loses his wife to a bullet fired by his one-time lover, revealed to be an evil mole, Nina Myers. The betrayal doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the image of Jack holding his dead, pregnant wife in his arms as he sobs is pure Kiefer gold.
But wait! The heartbreak of Jack’s sacrifice is nullified three seasons later, when former President David Palmer is struck down by another assassin’s bullet. When you rewatch the first season, you catch yourself asking, what the hell was the point? Unlike Han Solo, Jack Bauer has the right to ask that question, but the show never seems to carry the self-awareness to allow him to engage in any sort of philosophical introspection. The forward momentum of relentless action and multiplying threats , propelled ever forward by the “beep-thud” of the clock of doom, never permits any time for self-reflection, even during the commercial breaks.
And then, there’s the cougar effect. Any fan of 24 will recognize this well-known jibe.
In the show’s second season, Jack’s daughter Kim serves no useful dramatic purpose. She is adrift in the wake of her mother’s death. Yet, the writers wanted to keep her around so as to give Jack’s mission to locate and stop the nuclear bomb more urgency. She wasn’t directly involved in the main story, but they kept her in-focus by giving her a series of farcical adventures while she was trying to escape from L.A. ahead of the impending mushroom cloud. Said adventures involved an abusive husband, an injured girl, a one-legged boyfriend, a crazy survivalist and… A cougar. I’m not kidding! YouTube it! At one point, Kim gets stuck in an animal trap and is stalked by a cougar. Many of us watching at the time collectively groaned, for the cougar proved to be nothing more than an innocuous distraction. It was far less dangerous than Joe’s girlfriend proved to be
Other filler plots designed to stretch the show out to its mandatory 24-hour seasonal limit included Terri’s amnesia in season one, Chloe’s mysterious baby in season three, David Palmer’s love life in season three, the presidential family plot in season seven and Dana’s parole officer in season eight.
Despite these obvious fillers, the true jump-the-shark moment on 24 came early. It happened in the second season, after the bomb went off, around the time that Kimberly Caldwell was being sent home on American Idol. Throughout the first 40 episodes of the show, Jack Bauer was depicted as a tragic hero with human flaws. Then, in hour number 19 of the second season, Jack is captured and tortured by thugs who are seeking a valuable data chip. I mean, they brutally torture him by network TV standards; nothing compared to The Sopranos or Game of Thrones, but enough to send the Parents’ Television Council into a shit-fit. The thugs cut him, burn him and shock him to the point where his heart stops and he flat lines.
20 minutes later, he jumps up, grabs a gun and takes out his tormentors before going on his merry way. No one can bounce back quite like Jack Bauer.
… Except Patrick Mahomes, of course.
In subsequent seasons, Jack kicks a heroin addiction within a matter of hours, returns from the dead and survives exposure to a deadly chemical nerve agent. But his greatest display of human endurance occurs when he returns from China after two years in captivity, then gets stabbed in the back with a medical scalpel, then rips out a guy’s throat with his bear teeth and chops off another terrorist’s fingers, all in two hours real time.
In the space of nine seasons and one TV movie, Jack quickly transformed from damaged, flawed hero to invincible action hero. It was a transformation that often swerved into the lane of self-parody.
Along with his physical transformation comes an emotional carapace. In the first two seasons, it is clear that Jack has many regrets about his life. His attempt to put his family back together fails, his wife is killed and his daughter is estranged from him for many years. In the premier episode of season two, Jack even sits alone in his condo and contemplates suicide before a call from President David Palmer pulls him back from the brink. By season seven, Jack sits defiantly in front of a Congressional subcommittee in Washington D.C. and growls, “Please do not sit there with that smug look on your face and expect me to regret the decisions I have made. Because Senator, the truth is, I don’t.”
This defiance represented a very polarized attitude in the country at the time surrounding the issue of the torture of terrorist suspects. It was an issue sparked by the exposure of the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003. While the politics of 24 were non-partisan, it did take an unambiguous stance on the issue of enhanced interrogation. Simply put, in Jack Bauer’s universe, torture works and therefore is always justified. Of course, the constant ticking clock scenario on 24 meant that torture was always necessary. This position did not go over well with everyone in the writers’ room. Behind-the-scenes interviews reflected a divisive atmosphere, with Joel Surnow on one side of the issue and future Homeland show-runner Howard Gordon on the other.
Setting aside the moral and legal implications, the plot device of torture quickly wore out its welcome on 24. In the fourth season alone when the issue took center stage, Jack seemed to torture a suspect nearly every other episode in order to gain information on the next attack. In every case, he broke his victim within seconds and gained the information he needed. Even Secretary of Defense Heller allowed his own son to be tortured with nary a word.
I don’t condemn this tactic so much as a matter of principle as I do as a matter of lazy writing. Like the numerous WMD devices, the device of torture was over-used and predictable. Predictability is the hobgoblin of any thriller.
Other repetitious 24 tropes include the mean boss who’s only purpose was to get in Jack’s way, but who ultimately proved to be a good person only when he sacrificed himself for the greater good. Such examples included George Mason, Ryan Chappelle, Lem McGill and Bill Buchanan. Also, the mole who seems to be a good guy, but who proves to be evil. Nina Myers was the most effective use of this common espionage trope.
And Let us not forget the obligatory terrorist attack on CTU headquarters trope, the presidential coup trope, First Family drama interfering with the main crisis of the day trope, Jack on the run trope, Jack captured by a foreign power trope, and the innocent family member who isn’t so innocent trope. By the time James Cromwell appears as Jack’s cold-blooded father in season six, you know that his motives are nefarious even before he utters a word.
In hindsight, 24 was a good show for its first 39 episodes. After that, it quickly de-evolved into a solid action show, but one in which its primary star was working with material beneath his capabilities. As evidence, I present a scene from the finale of season one. Jack gets a call from Nina, who we know is a traitor. She tells him that his daughter Kim was found dead, floating in the bay. Jack collapses and weeps uncontrollably. It is a heartbreaking scene that shows Jack’s humanity on full display. After that, he adopts his cold, vengeful exterior as he wages a murderous assault on Dennis Hopper and his Serbian henchmen. This was 24 at its best.
I also want to point out another devastating scene from the first season; a scene that did not involve Jack. One of the major plots of the season involves the kidnapping of Jack’s wife Terri, as well as his daughter. The terrorists want to use Jack’s family as leverage over him in their assassination plot. At one point, one of their captors threatens to rape Kim. In a display of maternal protectiveness, Terri offers herself to the rapist instead of Kim. He accepts. You don’t actually see the assault occur, but you hear evidence of it. The scene makes me mist over every time I watch it, especially given Terri’s fate in the season finale. You would never see a scene like this in later seasons.
The first two seasons hold up very well, with less emphasis on hyperbolic action and more grounded nuance. Season five also holds up very well. Despite the high body count of main characters, the performance of Kiefer Sutherland is bolstered by those of Gregory Itzin as President Charles Logan, with Jean Smart as his emotionally troubled wife, Martha. The villains of the day also include RoboCop and Dr. Romano from E.R.
Four years after Jack Bauer ran out of time, he was resurrected in a truncated 12-hour season called, 24: Live Another Day. Joe, Steve and I gathered in Steve’s cracker box apartment to watch the first few episodes. We did it more out of tradition than anything. The two things I remember most about that evening were that Steve stopped at Burger King and poured a jigger of whisky in his large coke, and Jack Bauer somehow wound up in London. After that, life got in the way and we never finished the season together. I can’t even remember how it ended. I think Audrey Raines died. That would total four of Jack’s love interests who got dead. Another trope.
Three years after that, 24: Legacy premiered after Super Bowl 51. Corey Hawkins replaced Kiefer Sutherland in the lead. Tony Almeda returned yet again. I didn’t even bother to watch. 24 without Jack Bauer would be like Breaking Bad without Walter White (hello, El Camino.) I think Joe watched it, but you can’t blame the guy. He was lonely in Phoenix. We all do desperate things when we’re lonely. That’s why I pay a woman once a week to come over and imitate Sarah Clarke’s voice as she gets naked. I get more turned on when she does evil Nina, rather than good Nina.
As for the merry band of 24 cronies in Lincoln… Well… All I can say is, we’re all victims of time. We might escape the cougar, but the clock always gets us in the end.