Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

24 revolutionized TV drama—then disappeared down a memory hole

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodeswe examine shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced or reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.

Quick. Name the last broadcast network series to win the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series? It’s not Lost, which won in 2005 for its first season then never again. It’s not Grey’s Anatomy or The Good Wife, either, both series that attracted attention for their acting but not for the big prize. No, the answer is 24, which not only won a series trophy in 2006 but also brought home a prize for lead actor Kiefer Sutherland in the iconic role of Jack Bauer. Even more surprising was that 24 won that drama series Emmy—its first—for its fifth season. It’s rare for a TV show to win its first series Emmy so late in its run, but 24 managed it for season five due to one simple reason: In 2006, 24 was probably the most influential show on the air, the perfect Venn diagram intersection between critical cachet and huge viewership, a show that was watched by just about everyone who wanted to keep up with what was important in the culture at large. It was, perhaps, the last time a network drama would hold that title.


Yet in 2014, 24 occasionally seems like an afterthought at best and a joke at worst. While working on this article, I asked a number of people the question that opens the above paragraph, and only a handful came up with 24 as the answer. That even extended to friends with copious knowledge of awards trivia, who often had to mentally comb through a couple of other shows before arriving at the right answer. Look at many of the series’ rough contemporaries and the degree to which 24 has seemingly disappeared grows even more baffling. The Sopranos is still considered a key work to watch when understanding modern drama, while fans still endlessly debate the twists and turns of Lost. Series like The Wire and Deadwood have only grown in stature since that time, and even soapy Grey’s Anatomy continues to draw buzz for cast changeovers and occasional plot twists. But when was the last time you stumbled into a conversation about what the best season of 24 was? (The proper ranking, by the way, goes two, one, five, three, four, seven, eight, six.) Even as the series takes aim at a resurrection as a limited series with the debut of next week’s 24: Live Another Day, and even with a masterful publicity campaign for that show, it continues to feel like a series whose time has passed, despite being one of the most influential TV dramas that has aired in the last 25 years.

The reason for this is simple: Through essentially no fault of its own, 24 became a series not just about a man trying to stop terrorists, but also about the way America felt about the War On Terror. It was accidentally one of the most timely and relevant series of all time, debuting two months after massive terrorist attacks that inadvertently made its central premise (a man works to stop nefarious terrorist acts over the course of one exhausting day) seem less cartoonish and laughable than it had when creators Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran initially pitched the series. (At the time, terrorists were introduced as the main threat to play up the show’s action movie credentials. John McClane fought ambiguously European terrorists in the Die Hard films, so Jack Bauer would do so on TV.) The show turned into an amazing amalgamation of the nation’s worst fears about both external and internal threats, briefly segued into an anguished examination of the cost of battling those threats, and finally limped off the air in an era where all it had once stood for seemed increasingly suspect.

24, for better or worse, got inextricably linked to the administration of George W. Bush, and when he left office with low approval ratings, the show seemed to slowly deflate. It ran for two years of Barack Obama’s presidency, but those years would see the ratings slowly slide and the series wrestle with how to approach its hero, a man who was willing to do anything to keep the country safe, even if it meant resorting to torture. In reality, 24 would grow much more troubled about the use of torture and its potential aftereffects on both the tortured and the torturer around the middle of its run—roughly after a roundly lampooned season-four scene that saw Evan Handler playing a buffoonish ACLU lawyer trying to stop Jack Bauer from violating a suspect’s human rights. As recounted in Alan Sepinwall’s terrific book The Revolution Was Televised, despite his conservative politics, Surnow increasingly found the torture scenes weak and repetitive as storytelling devices, while fellow producer (and eventual showrunner) Howard Gordon, who was more of a lefty, thought the series needed to tamp down on them in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandals. Either way, the damage was done: 24 was increasingly painted as a politically conservative show meant to prop up the Bush Doctrine, despite numerous scenarios in the series that functioned much better as left-wing nightmares. It wasn’t just a show that featured torture; it was the show that supported torture.

Step away from the political arguments that came to define the show, though, and it’s much easier to appreciate it as what Surnow and Cochran originally intended: an action movie, told in real time, over 24 episodes of television. The idea at first seemed less like an idea for a television show than a dare the two writers made to themselves. Could a single season of TV depict one tumultuous day in real time (leaving room for commercial breaks)? And could TV compete with the Arnold Schwarzenegger blockbusters that marked ’90s action cinema? Notably, the terrorists of season one aren’t Middle Eastern in descent. Instead, they’re fighting an old war, with the season’s Big Bad turning out to be a Serbian played by Dennis Hopper, angry at Jack Bauer and Senator David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert, as a character who would later become president) for atrocities committed in the Balkan wars. Here is a familiar story about the ghosts of wars past coming to visit the hero on his home soil. It has as much in common with John Rambo as John Ashcroft.


Step even further away from the politics, and the show’s stunning influence on TV can be felt even more acutely. The real-time gimmick is about the only thing central to 24’s appeal that hasn’t been incorporated into the DNA of dozens of other shows. For instance, think of how often TV shows kill off major players who don’t necessarily want out of their contracts nowadays. While 24 wasn’t the first to do this, it was the first network series to really normalize the idea, as season one ended with the death of Jack’s wife (who had been holding down her own plot line most of the season, complete with amnesia).

Significant time jumps between seasons are now largely de rigueur, but 24 also normalized this idea, starting season two around 18 months after viewers last saw Jack Bauer in season one. 24 also familiarized audiences with the concept of single-season storytelling, then went one better over other shows that had played in that sandbox: Between seasons, the cast would be revamped, sometimes entirely. So long as Jack was present (and, eventually, Mary Lynn Rajskub’s Chloe), the show was free to completely ditch elements and characters at will, and it would prove astonishingly ruthless in doing so, giving it much of its appeal. There’s not so very long of a distance between that concept and the limited-run anthology miniseries like American Horror Story and True Detective that have become so popular now. Hell, even the scheduling of 24 (starting with its fourth season) would become influential, as Fox went out of its way to program the show to run straight through from January to May, beginning and ending with blockbuster, multi-episode events. It was considered a huge risk at the time; now, the majority of heavily serialized shows are rolled out in this fashion.


Most importantly, however, 24 familiarized a mass audience with the idea of watching serialized drama. Unlike many of its descendants, it was incredibly easy to drop in and out of 24 at will. Every episode of the show boils down to a central mission or two, and that mission is usually wrapped up over the course of the hour. By breaking a macro-task down into many micro-tasks, 24 was always able to make larger stories more palatable to a larger audience. It also frequently ignored the rules of logic and common sense if it made for a better story. The show was written by the seat of its pants—and all the better for it. Famously, the assassination threat against Palmer that was to drive all of season one was dealt with in episode eight because the writers were tired of figuring out how to string the plot along. This led to things like Teri’s amnesia and the later ludicrous story of Jack’s daughter, Kim, facing off with a cougar, but it also led to masterstrokes like blowing up a nuclear bomb in the Southwestern desert two-thirds of the way through season two or revealing the president of the United States was a terrorist plant around the same point in season five. The show debuted at just the right time to familiarize audiences with these storytelling techniques. It was one of the very first series to have its first-season DVD set available before season two debuted, and it also turned into a show that benefited from early DVR usage.

24 was always a plot-driven series, but it possessed a unique talent for coming up with memorable characters who could be painted in the broadest of strokes. Jack was meant as a riff on action-movie heroes, but in the hands of Sutherland, he became a kind of unchecked American id, and the show was always richer when it understood that his methods, no matter the results they achieved, were often illegal and almost always unethical. That was part of his ultra-intense appeal, too. The show’s debut two months after the September 11 terrorist attacks created a vacuum that a Jack Bauer type was always going to fill. 24 was only too happy to fill it. And yet it also acknowledged that he could go too far, and it surrounded him with archetypal good and bad guys, played by strong actors who understood all of this had just the whiff of camp. Loyal right-hand man Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard), super hacker Chloe, ridiculous mole Nina (Sarah Clarke), treacherous President Logan (Gregory Itzin), and a host of others made each new appearance a delight.


Finally, 24 created a new kind of visual template for television that went beyond even its famous split-screen images. (Each episode ended with multiple characters’ storylines reaching a cliffhanger point and shrinking into boxes that rested next to one another on screen as the series’ omnipresent clock booped and beeped away.) 24 was informed by action movies, but its visual grammar had the feel of cinema verité and felt closer to Hill Street Blues, Homicide: Life On The Street, and some of the other great TV dramas dominated by handheld camerawork. The show’s camera operators were encouraged to grab shots on the fly, and the kineticism of the camera operation became as much a part of why the show was exciting as anything else. Viewers weren’t just watching Jack Bauer; they became unseen partners in his quest to protect the United States from those who would destroy it.

The most common answer to the question of why 24 succeeded so thoroughly is that it was the right show at the right time, the one show that could deal with terrorism at a time when it was on every American’s mind, but in a way that made battling terrorism at least somewhat escapist. Yet the amount of potency drawn from that idea can only get a show so far, and 24 ran for eight seasons, 192 episodes, a TV movie, and a new miniseries. No, the fundamental reason 24 worked so well for so many people was that it acknowledged how much life in modern America had started to feel like living in the middle of a work of dystopian science fiction—then coded that idea very differently for viewers of all political persuasions. Terrorists frequently succeeded in carrying out plots more massive than September 11. The only way the government could stop them was to abandon all hopes of following proper protocol and lining up behind a man whose primary recommendation was that he was on our side and not theirs. And yet when the chips were down, the series also expressed incredible skepticism about the powers that be within the government. The true terrorist threats were rarely Middle Eastern in nature; instead, they were businessmen and war speculators and even the president himself. The key image of the whole series may come early in season six, as Jack watches a nuclear bomb explode in the Los Angeles suburbs. This wasn’t the world viewers were living in, but it was one many felt they were hurtling toward. (The show, of course, abruptly forgot it had blown up Valencia.)


The show’s best season, its second, speaks both to these strengths and the way they eventually became weaknesses. In it, terrorists are determined to blow up a nuclear bomb on U.S. soil, and the only way to stop them is for Jack Bauer to maim, murder, and torture at will. (In Sepinwall’s book, Gordon points out that most of what Jack does over the course of the series is no different from what other big-screen action heroes had done over the years, but that conveniently ignores how much more time viewers spent with Jack than they did with any big-screen hero. That time has weight, and that weight increasingly comes down on the side of Jack’s methods perhaps being impolite but getting results.) This second season has its issues—namely that cougar—but it’s both 24 distilled to its most potent form and a reminder of how reactionary the show could seem. The whole scenario with the nuke seems directly out of memos written by the Bush administration to justify torture, to say nothing of tools of the dystopia that are still with us, like the PATRIOT Act or the NSA’s PRISM program. But then, after the bomb blows up, the season turns on a dime and becomes about a nation ruled not by law but by profits, by men who would depose the president for standing in the way of a trumped-up war. Just when the series reached the heights of right-wing paranoia, it doubled down and became left-wing paranoia, a remix of American fears for both sides now and one that aired, notably, during the build-up to the Iraq War.

It’s one of the inevitabilities of television that most shows will be stuck in the eras in which they are made. The medium is more susceptible to the whims of current production and fashion than most, perhaps because its speedy production time allows for influential programs to scatter their seeds far more rapidly. Yet one of the great curiosities of television is the way that certain American shows become weirdly linked to particular presidential administrations—and how they seemingly disappear with the leaders who marked them. All In The Family seems like an essential part of Richard Nixon’s America, and Family Ties and The X-Files marked the Reagan and Clinton eras respectively. (If you’re looking for the perfect Obama-era TV show, I suspect it will prove to be Parks & Recreation.)


The flip side of this is that immense popularity during a presidential administration coincides with a disappearance off the face of the Earth once that president leaves office (usually with voters none too glad to be done with him). And yet with time, the shows, if they’re good enough, always come back. All In The Family made its way back into the conversation, and The X-Files is slowly winning back old fans, too. Our relationships to these shows, and the times that marked them, shift. Time heals all wounds. Watched in 2014, it’s still hard to separate 24 from the political times that marked it, but it’s becoming easier to do so. Soon enough, those times will seem like odd memories, and Jack Bauer will regain his primacy, headed back into the smoke to save us all over again, whether we like it or not.

Next time: Meet The Flintstones. They’re a modern Stone Age family!


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