Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to remember ’24,’ the television program which showed us that torture is sometimes necessary, that evil is rarely absolute, and that government agencies are infiltrated with alarming regularity.
To see the program now, it’s hard to imagine that the whole thing started with a gimmick. The initial marketing campaign for ‘24’ focused mainly on one thing: The show would occur in real time. An hour long episode would actually cover one hour of the characters’ lives. Given the subject matter, the possibilities were endless: Terrorist deadlines and ultimatums, government agents rushing to get somewhere in time, interrogations that have to succeed before it’s too late…
Equally present with the “real time” gimmick were the pitfalls. Would the audience actually have to see government agents taking a 10-minute drive from Point A to Point B? Don’t certain government meetings and negotiations take hours to complete? Doesn’t it often take days, or even months, for the government to cut through institutional bureaucracy and actually get things done?
‘24’ managed to sidestep these risks by masterfully weaving multiple storylines. The show usually had at least four distinct stories happening at once, all with their own characters and their own setting. There was obviously the Jack Bauer storyline, which featured the main character and held the rest of the show together, but tangentially there was always a presidential/government storyline, a terrorist storyline, and a CTU/government agency storyline. These served as escape valves whenever one of the stories experienced downtime, and managed to keep the show constantly moving despite the constraints of real time.
Multiple storylines also gave ‘24’ the opportunity to develop many strong characters, which is something the show never gets enough credit for. Although Jack Bauer is the focal point of every season, he has shared the spotlight with the likes of David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), Bill Buchanan (James Morrison), Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard), Chloe O’Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub), and perhaps the best secondary character ever conceived, Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin). All of these supporting players were tasked, at one point or another, with taking the pressure off Jack Bauer for an episode or two, and they all proved strong enough to hold the audience’s attention. Not every character succeeded, of course, with Kim Bauer (Elisha Cuthbert) and John Keeler (Geoff Pierson) being notable disappointments, but ‘24’ ended its run having had plenty more hits than misses. Other than ‘Lost,’ it is the strongest stable of characters of any television show in recent memory.
Another aspect of ‘24’ which is often dismissed is the strength of its plotlines. Though these have been criticized (and rightfully so) for their blatant repetitiveness, there is still a good deal of substance behind them. Yes, the show always revolved around an imminent terrorist threat, but that is because the show was about a counter-terrorist unit. Yes, those imminent threats were quite often similar, but that’s because there are only so many ways that a terrorist can attack a society. Granted, it would have been nice to see ‘24’ get through at least one season with no double agents, but nothing in this world is perfect. All in all, the plotlines were solid, providing a sturdy foundation for phenomenal action with plenty of twists.
Speaking of plot twists, let’s take this time to end the discussion about how unbelievable/irrational/illogical ‘24’ was. Clearly, certain things that happened on the show made little or no sense. Nobody could be as unlucky as Jack Bauer apparently was. No government agency (one would hope) could be infiltrated as often as CTU was. The fact that Tony Almeida was somehow alive in season 7 might never be logically explained. Putting all that aside, let’s remember that this is a fictional drama – drama, as in complications that may not happen every day, but which make life more interesting when they do. In other words, no one would want to watch a show about a government agent who catches a terrorist at the border, processes him efficiently and sends him off to trial. That’s probably how things usually happen, and it’s a good thing that they do, but it isn’t very exciting. ‘24’ has to entertain, and entertainment requires plot twists. Some are unbelievable – deal with it.
Putting everything aside, ‘24’ should be remembered as a show that managed to transcend television and become a viable part of American pop culture. It rejuvenated Kiefer Sutherland’s career, and made Jack Bauer as popular as Chuck Norris in the world of internet lists. People would gather to watch it, and those unlucky enough to miss a new episode would avoid social media and entertainment news sources lest they contain spoilers. ‘24’ doesn’t simply have fans – it has devotees, zealots, disciples.
And today, we observe a moment of silence for the best television show the world has ever seen.