US drama series centered round a Counter Terrorist Unit.
192 episodes and one television film. Fox. 2001-2010.
One of the most ambitious dramas to appear on
American television, each season of this serialized political thriller centred on a day in the
life of Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) and his work as an agent for the fictional Counter
Terrorist Unit (CTU). Each season consisted of 24 episodes, one for every hour in the day. And
the formula worked: 24 managed to capture a sizeable fan base–along with controversy over
Bauer’s actions, including torture and other punishments for those who crossed both America and
Jack’s own moral compass. But it made for riveting viewing–and it was probably the one American
television series that clearly defined real events in the post-9/11 world.
The series made its debut November 6th, 2001–nearly two months after the deadly attack on New York City’s World Trade Center. 24's Los Angeles-based CTU was created to fight terrorism against America. (This was before the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, along with expanded and controversial counter-terrorism efforts during the Bush Administration.) The first season began on the day of California’s presidential primary: Bauer was assigned to protect candidate and Senator David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), the first African-American president (years before Barack Obama won the office in real life) from an assassination plot, while trying to save his own family that was held by those wanting to do harm to Palmer. (Seems those behind the assassination plot wanted payback for Bauer and Palmer’s involvement with a covert mission.) Jack had help from other members of the CTU, which varied with each season. Subsequent episodes had Bauer in dire trouble as he attempted to save the world from terrorists, nuclear disasters, evil (or well-meaning but flawed) politicians. Along the way, Jack became addicted to heroin, had romances with various women, was framed for murder, detained in a Chinese prison, caught up in a military coup, and targeted by both American and foreign governments. With all that, it was amazing Jack survived! Each episode featured a real-time clock, ticking down the hour minute by minute before and after commercial breaks. 24 also made liberal use of split-screen technology, showing different clips of various situations on the one television screen. (It was especially effective with the advent of high definition TV, with the wide screen helping to keep viewers in suspense).
Joel Surnow (a conservative Republican in real life) came up with the concept
and approached fellow producer Robert Cochran, who initially dismissed Surnow’s vision; the pair
began work the following day. Fox executives liked the unique program and signed on for a full
season. Critics immediately took to 24, but initial ratings were low. Still, Fox ordered a
second series; thanks to a stronger lead-in (American Idol), 24 doubled its audience.
24 became a target of critics at a time the Bush administration began fighting the war in Iraq
and tortured suspected terrorists. (Bauer’s “interrogation” of suspects seemed to portray torture
as an ends to justify the means–not to mention effective and showy.) That forced members of the
U.S. military to meet with 24's creators; they were urged to downplay the torture, fearing
real-life soldiers would imitate the show’s techniques. Indeed, the torture was reduced in later
seasons, but the debate over 24 continued. Former president Bill Clinton felt torture should
not be part of American policy, but noted “If you're the Jack Bauer person, you'll do whatever you
do and you should be prepared to take the consequences." And conservative U.S. Supreme Court
Justice Anton Scalia–in response to a Canadian judge’s remark–defended the fictional Bauer and his
methods, arguing law enforcement officials deserved latitude in times of crisis, and felt a jury
would not convict Bauer for torture.
In a 2008 law review article, author Steven Keslowitz wrote how Jack Bauer
influenced Congressional law-making and judicial review–not to mention the audience:
“When Jack Bauer tortures a suspected terrorist, the television audience is expected to debate the
legality and morality of torture in “ticking time bomb” scenarios. Furthermore, when we
watch characters on 24 attempt to invoke the 25th Amendment in order to unseat a sitting
President, we ask pointed questions: Does the 25th Amendment really permit this—and if so, should
it? Such public scrutiny of the actions of...Jack Bauer led to normative evaluations of the law
as portrayed in...the world of 24.... such evaluations can lead to a real influence in terms of
the development of law.”
Ultimately, the growing opposition to the Iraq war probably spelled doom for
“24,” as ratings fell for the final seasons. The final season had Jack set to leave for Los
Angeles with his daughter Kim, her husband and young daughter, when CTU brought him back to
uncover a Russian plot to kill an Islamic leader, leading to extremists creating a dirty bomb for
leverage and the exposure of a government cover-up. The final episode (on May 24th, 2010) showed
Jack now being hunted by American and foreign governments. Soon after, producers announced plans
for a 24 film, but the rejection of an initial script has placed the movie on hold.
There was a made-for-television film during 24's run: Because of the industry’s 2007-08 writers
strike, producers had to delay the show’s seventh season. To fill the gap, 24: Redemption was
produced. Airing in November 2008, it was set more than three years after the sixth season, and
had Jack involved in a fictional African nation called Sangala while America was swearing in a new
president, Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones).
24 was not unnoticed by the Academy of Television of Arts and Sciences; it
was nominated for 68 Emmys and ultimately won 20, including best drama and best actor for Kiefer
Sutherland (both in 2006), along with outstanding writing for the show’s pilot episode and
outstanding music composition for composer Sean Callery. 24 was also included in the American
Film Institute’s best television series of 2005. The AFI probably summed up the 24 experience
as well as anyone could:
This is a masterpiece of episodic storytelling and continues to deal with the
bright colour issues in America's war on terror with a degree of difficulty that is off today's
television charts. Powerful and involving, with characters who are more fully realized with each
season, the show still has viewers on the edge of their seats, both riveted to the action and
begging, pleading for a modicum of relief.
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