With its ticking clock, intense plotting, and sweeping serialised story telling, not only is 24 a binge worthy slice of television, it could be said to have practically created the phenomenon of binge watching, or at least popularised it by being the first television show to become super popular on the back of its best-selling DVD box sets.
Featuring a central performance from Kiefer Sutherland, one that brought his career from out of the doldrums, 24 lasted initially for eight seasons from 2001-2010 (there was a gap year due to the Writers Strike, filled in by feature length special 24:Redemption) before coming back for a twelve episode revival in 2014 in the shape of 24:Live Another Day to great success with a soft reboot on the way this year in with 24:Legacy, featuring a new lead character but still set in-universe after the events of the 2014 revival.
Premiering two months after 9/11, 24 inadvertently became one of the most important shows of its generation, with the second season onwards seemingly being a reaction to the events of that horrible day. The Pilot episode had been written, shot and edited a few months before the attacks, not to mention the first couple of episodes, and whilst the first season dealt with its own plot line of political assassination and kidnapping, from the second season 24 became a hotbed of controversy for its dealing with subjects such as Arab terrorism, coercive interrogation and for its seemingly right-wing political attitudes.
As is the case, the truth is a little bit more complicated than that with the series being loved by both sides of the political divide, and regardless of how one felt about its politics (admittedly the accusations of its racially problematic characterisation and use of torture had some merit), 24 is a blast of ferociously brilliant television. Sometimes literally insane with its use of plot twists, such as Jack’s wife develops amnesia for a few episodes in season one, whilst his daughter Kim is a kidnap magnet getting held hostage several times throughout the first two seasons alone, however when 24 managed to settle down and become a great television show, it was one of the genuinely best on network television of its era.
The season one finale is a powerful a piece of dramatic television and features one of the most shocking final scenes in all of television, whilst the third season episode where the “Big Bad” of the season, Stephen Saunders (Arrow’s Paul Blackthorne), orders the execution of Jack’s boss Ryan Chapelle (Paul Schultz) or he’ll release a deadly virus, is one of the most brilliantly distressing hours of television ever produced, whilst the show’s fifth season, the year it won the Best Drama Emmy, is masterful all the way through and seldom puts a foot wrong.
Running for eight seasons in its first time out meant that the show wasn’t always perfect. After the high of season five, the sixth season dropped the ball a little bit, especially coming off the back of a strong start, whilst season seven did see a return to form for the most part, it eventually gave way too a weak run of episodes towards the end ,while season eight had a mixed start but finished very strong.
Created by Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran, the first season was primarily directed by Predator 2’s Stephen Hopkins, who brilliantly established the show’s visual style, with Jon Cassar taking over from season two onwards. The show was notoriously one of the most difficult to direct on television, relying on a plethora of hand-held camera filming techniques and split screen. The show was one of the most visually dynamic on television and frequently looked more like a big screen action thriller than a television series.
On top of great directors such as Hopkins, Cassar, Ian Toynton and Brad Turner, the series had a great staff of writers including Howard Gordon (one of this reviewer’s favourite television writers), Michael Loceff, Evan Katz, Stephen Kronish, Manny Coto, David Fury, Patrick Harbinson, Chip Johannessen and Alex Gansa. Gordon and Gansa, who had previously been writing partners and did a lot of work together on the first season of The X-Files, would go on to crate Showtime’s Homeland, a more sedate thriller but a wonderful companion piece to 24.
For all its problems in terms of controversial content, attitudes towards the War on Terror and frequently outlandish plot twists, 24 was without a doubt one of the most entertaining shows on television. It could go from being thought-provoking and well done one minute to absolutely crazy the next and the fact was we couldn’t get enough of it.
The series is the epitome of addictive, binge viewable television, moving at a fast pace, ending each episode on a cliffhanger and featuring plot lines that run from one episode to the next. With a frequently changing cast, blistering production values, intense action and one of the great central performances and characters in television, 24 is a fantastic piece of work. Not without its problems, but when its good, it’s bloody brilliant.
AIRDATE: November 2001-May 2010; 24:Live Another Day: May-July 2014; 24:Legacy-February 2016 Onwards.
NUMBER OF SEASONS: If you count Live Another Day and the forthcoming Legacy, then 24 is currently sitting at ten seasons, with the television movie 24:Redemption bridging the gap between seasons six and seven which was brought about due to the 2007-2008 WGA Writer’s Strike.
NOTABLE WRITERS: Howard Gordon was the key here, one of the best writers in its first four seasons, he assumed showrunner status from season five onwards and would frequently be credited with writing or co-writing the most intense and emotional episodes.
NOTABLE DIRECTORS: Stephen Hopkins, who directed the Pilot and crafted the visual direction of the show. Given the high number of phone calls in the Pilot, it was Hopkins who suggested the use of split screen, which would become a key trademark of the show. Although credited with directing twelve episodes, Hopkins more or less did a lot of uncredited work on nearly every episode of the season and was burned out by the end of the year. Leaving after the first season, Jon Cassar took over and ran with the style of the show with great aplomb, directing nearly ten episodes a season, while Brad Turner and Ian Toynton would frequently direct many of the best episodes also.
NOTABLE ACTORS/ACTRESSES: It goes without saying that Kiefer Sutherland’s portrayal was one of the most brilliantly intense in all of television, but despite a constantly changing cast (24 had to have had the highest body count in all of television), Mary Lynn Rajskub stood out immediately when she debuted on the third season as Chloe O’Brien and the writers knew a good thing when they had it. Pretty much staying the course of the show, her character grew from quirky and borderline annoying to a wonderfully portrayed character, gaining a husband and son, which gave way to a horrific plot twist in Live Another Day, but it did give Rajskub a chance to reinvent the character, and her performance was an undoubted highlight of the entire series.
Despite having a rotating cast, it was very easy to care for many of the characters, no doubt helped by having such great actors in the roles, meaning that when the show hurt them or even worse (which was a frequent occurrence with the series), it really hurt. It helped that performers such as Carlos Bernard, Reiko Aylesworth, Xander Berkley, Leslie Hope, Elisha Cuthbert, Louis Lombardi and Kim Raver played their characters to absolute perfection. Carlos Bernard was in particular a fan favourite as Tony Almeida and his journey in the show is a tremendous one, but equally preposterous, but wonderfully so, in a way only 24 could pull off. In the middle of it all was Dennis Haysbert, who was an undoubtedly class act as President David Palmer. Classy, dignified, but realistically flawed, along with Sutherland, he was a tremendous presence for the show and the series’ beating heart for sensible thinking in comparison to Bauer’s rash, in-the-moment judgements. His performance as the first African-American President of the United States came six years before President Barack Obama’s election victory.
BEST SEASON: It’s really a competition between the first five seasons, but overall it has to be the fifth. Nearly all twenty-four episodes are brilliant, it never has a dull stretch, and from beginning to end the season grips like a vice and never let’s go until its darkly intense cliffhanger. Honourable mention must be made of the first season also. Although it drops the ball somewhat halfway through with a totally ridiculous amnesia story, the first thirteen episodes must surely rank as some of the most brilliantly suspenseful action-television ever produced.
WORST SEASON: Probably season six. It starts fantastically well, but this was the year the show got into serious trouble with its depiction of torture, whilst its use of villains from both the Middle East and Russia, not to mention replaying key plot lines from all five seasons before, made it feel as if the show was repeating itself, whilst the plot lines involving Jack and the villains threatened to take the show into soap opera territory.
BEST EPISODE: It’s a toss-up between the season one finale, 11:00pm-Midnight, or 6:00am-7:00am in season three. No spoilers, but these were not only brilliantly crafted episodes of television, but their combination of intense thriller and emotionally draining hardships were indicative of the fact that 24 was never afraid to go to some very dark places.