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24’s most satisfying season is not its most celebrated

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Previously on 24…

Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is quietly the country’s most effective counter-terrorism field agent, having thwarted multiple large-scale terrorist attacks both under the auspices of the federal Counter Terrorism Unit and as a rogue civilian. No one is willing to go further to stop mass casualties than Jack, who unblinkingly wields torture and threats to pry information out of suspects. His aggressive, maverick approach frequently puts him at odds with his CTU supervisors, who tend to be by-the-numbers middle-managers more interested in avoiding political scandals than preventing attacks. Despite his erratic behavior, Jack’s near-perfect track record leaves him beyond reproach.

But Jack’s professional successes have come with devastating personal losses, including the death of his wife Teri (Leslie Hope) at the hands of a double-agent within CTU and an increasingly distant relationship with his daughter Kim (Elisha Cuthbert). The only relationship in Jack’s life that’s flourishing is his bond with President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), who trusts Jack implicitly after Jack thwarted an assassination attempt against him in season one.


By season three, Jack and Kim are in the process of repairing their bond after Kim accepts a job as a technical analyst at CTU, where Jack is now the agency’s acting director. Jack works alongside his colleagues Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard), a competent field agent who lacks Jack’s fatalistic sense of duty, and Chloe O’Brien (Mary Lynn Rajskub), a computer savant whose antisocial tendencies compliment Jack’s moral relativism. There’s also Chase Edmunds (James Badge Dale), a young field agent who idolizes Jack and wants to win his favor, if only because he’s carrying on a clandestine romantic relationship with Kim.

The season ends with Jack and Chase rushing to avert the release of an airborne biological weapon, and cornering the target in a vacant school. Chase manages to wrestle the canister away from the terrorist by handcuffing himself to it, but that decision Jack has to quickly isolate the canister bomb before its clock counts down to zero, forcing Jack to amputate Chase’s hand in order to free the device. With another national tragedy prevented at the cost of more personal trauma, Jack sits in his car and weeps, marking the show’s first time to end with a quiet character moment rather than a shocking cliffhanger.


In the beginning…

24 lived and died by its singular real-time format, which set it apart from anything else on the dial as broadcast networks were dominated by primetime game shows, multi-camera sitcoms, and reality competitions. Real-time television had been attempted before on an episodic level, but 24 creators Robert Cochran and Joel Surnow were the first to conceive of a serialized story covering a 24-hour time frame. According to series lore, Surnow pitched the idea to Cochran based on nothing more than the fact that 24 episodes was a standard season order at the time. Together, they used the real-time conceit to write a story in which there is a literal ticking clock and every decision is an urgent one.

Fox was immediately sold on the unorthodox concept, but the show’s ambitious goals ran up against the practical realities of television production. 24’s writers crafted the first 14-episode batch the network ordered without any guarantees of a back-10 pickup. They approached the story as if they might not have a chance to finish telling it, then figured out how to conclude the first season after the full order came in. In fairness, television writers commonly hold a “We’ll cross that episode when we get to it” perspective on the process, but the standard approach was consequential to the last 10 episodes of 24, the final pieces of an intricately assembled serialized story. The result was later installments of season one—in which Jack races to disrupt the assassination of presidential candidate David Palmer—that were sloppy and disjointed. The writers struggled most to figure out what to do to keep Jack’s family busy, and it shows when Teri develops amnesia and Kim gets kidnapped on multiple occasions. 24 stuck the landing, with Jack mourning Teri’s death at the hands of Nina Myers (Sarah Clarke), a CTU turncoat with whom he’d once had an affair.

Season two improved on the first in nearly every way. Jack went from being a highly competent public servant to the tortured messiah of the War On Terror. In the premiere, Jack’s ignoring calls from CTU and attempting to reconcile with Kim, who put distance between them following her mother’s death. Only when the newly elected President Palmer calls him personally does Jack relent and agree to go back into the field to stop an imminent nuclear threat. With a full-season commitment from Fox, the 24 writers had the latitude to build a story capable of sustaining the whole day, hence the season’s much-improved pacing. The show also introduced intriguing new elements the second season, including the shadowy conspiracy threatening to upend Palmer’s presidency. The threat of mutiny became a recurring annual theme, but it was never executed better than in season two, when Palmer’s treacherous ex-wife Sherry (Penny Johnson Jerald) squared off against Lynn Kresge (Michelle Forbes), Palmer’s fiercely loyal foreign policy expert. The interpersonal squabbles in the White House and the constant turmoil within CTU lent the show the feistiness of a nighttime soap without sacrificing the action or the urgency.


In its third season, 24 suffered from the same curse of success that befell other acclaimed serialized dramas—Damages, Desperate Housewives, Lost—with innovative narrative structures. Once the audience has fallen in love with a formula, it’s tough to justify abandoning it, even as the rigidity of that formula takes a cumulative toll on the show’s quality. Season three ratified the elements of the show that would had become tiresome tropes: a cynical and world-weary Jack is lured into the field by a potentially catastrophic threat; Jack’s standing within CTU fluctuates wildly; a highly placed mole smuggles intel to the enemy; and many, many more. The producers made several character-based tweaks to rejuvenate the formula, saddling Jack with a heroin addiction, introducing Chase as Jack’s less-intense partner, and tricking the audience into thinking a loyal CTU agent was actually a mole. But the most enduring shift was the budding friendship between Jack and Chloe, one of the few relationships to remain constant as 24 shuffled and restocked its cast with every new season.


The peak season

Choosing the best season of 24 is a tricky endeavor because of how insulated every season is from the others. The producers set the show in a “perpetual now,” which allowed the show to remain plugged into the War On Terror zeitgeist while the show’s timeline jumped months or years ahead to give Jack time to recover from his last grueling workday. Each premiere worked as a new pilot, revealing Jack’s latest whereabouts, the upheavals within CTU, and the leadership changes in the White House. The annual reset of 24’s chessboard makes it relatively easy for new viewers to jump into any season with little to no initiation, and the constant introduction of new characters keeps the show at least somewhat fresh, even when those characters are crammed into familiar functional roles within the story. Every season is familiar and unfamiliar all at once.


24’s formula is its greatest asset, but no matter how closely a season follows the established recipe, the new ingredients determine how the final product comes out. As a result, there’s no such thing as a flawless season of 24, and every year, at least one plot line is completely botched. The show’s frantic, unrelenting pace helps—whatever isn’t working won’t be on screen for long, and the real-time approach means silly plot points are often swept away as quickly as they’re introduced. But in a show that constantly tosses out ideas to see if they’ll stick, not everything will, and every season has at least one groan-inducing element. (The most infamous goofy plotline comes in season two, when Kim winds up being menaced by a feral cougar. It’s a long story.)

The fourth season has just as many flaws as seasons past and future, but its place in the show’s timeline primed it for success. Season three was the show’s first time experimenting with a muted conclusion rather than a shocking twist ending, and though the prior cliffhangers had limited ramifications for subsequent seasons, the season three ending left the show with a clean slate. The season four premiere takes full advantage of the fresh start, and Jack is introduced looking as happy and unburdened as he’s ever been. He’s finally in a successful romantic relationship with Audrey Raines (Kim Raver), and a much less stressful job guarding James Heller (William Devane), the U.S. Secretary Of Defense and Audrey’s father. CTU has restocked its staff, and with President Palmer out of office, there’s no one left to call Jack with a crisis only he can defuse.


Everything changes when a commuter train is bombed to create a diversion while Audrey and Secretary Heller are kidnapped, leaving Jack as the only agent qualified and relentless enough to secure their release. It can be argued that by putting Jack’s love interest in harm’s way, 24 is playing into the “women in refrigerators” trope, in which female characters have limited purpose beyond motivating male ones. But of all the times that Jack had to be reactivated despite his hesitation, Audrey’s kidnapping was the time the trope felt the most real. Jack has lost everything and everyone important to him, and his relationship with Audrey is the closest he’s come to a win in his personal life. For the first time, Jack is motivated to intervene in the situation as opposed to other seasons where Jack is basically walking down the street and trips over a nuclear warhead.


Jack had personal stakes in his quest prior to season four, but his relationships were with people whose continued involvement put undue weight on the story. David Palmer was a terrific character in seasons one and two, but his season-three story was a convoluted mess involving a sex scandal and another improbable return by Palmer’s ex-wife. Kim was always a problem in search of a solution, between the multiple kidnappings in the first season and the snarling cougar in the second. Her character was thrown scraps to keep her busy, and not even landing a job at CTU in season three made Kim’s presence less frustrating. Nina Myers, the mole who kept popping up to antagonize Jack after murdering his wife, was finally killed in season three. Season four freed the show of the characters that were most loved by fans, but also the hardest to write for as their circumstances took them further away from the action.

Meanwhile, the introduction of Audrey injected hope and levity into a deeply cynical show and gave 24 its most durable romance. With Teri dead and Kim mostly out of the picture (and super annoying when she was in it), Audrey allowed Jack to maintain a dream of a life after he’s done saving the country every few years. That dynamic eroded in later seasons, as Jack and Audrey’s relationship became increasingly tragic and Jack became less like a dimensional television character and more like the faceless protagonist of a first-person shooter. But when they were in their hot-and-heavy phase, Jack and Audrey’s relationship gave the show a different kind of emotional weight. Better still, Audrey worked alongside her father as an interagency liaison to the Department Of Defense, so her knowledge and background made her easy to integrate into the story without Jack around.


Jack’s attempts to rescue Audrey and her father leads naturally into his quest to stop a new terror cell from triggering the meltdown of dozens of nuclear power plants around the country, which leads to a shady defense contractor, which leads to the assassination of the president. It’s a lot of stuff to cram into a 24-hour time frame, but season four’s story is efficiently and logically structured, with one mini-crisis leading to the next rather than one major fire to put out. By breaking the season into three-to-four episode mini-arcs, 24’s already brisk pace is accelerated even further. 24 seasons tend to crater in the middle, but season four was conceived to sustain intensity and leave no characters sitting idle.


Season four also features the best villain ever to face off against Jack. Habib Marwan (Arnold Vosloo) was originally designed as a jihadist middle-manager who would last no more than six episodes. But after the show’s producers were impressed by his performance, Marwan became the first villain that seemed to give Jack a challenge. Jack Bauer is the ultimate anti-hero, and stories about antiheroes don’t hit their stride until the introduction of a character that is as smart and instinct-driven as the main character. (See: Breaking Bad.) Marwan was that character for Jack. More than any other villain in the show’s history, Marwan was prone to risky gut decisions that frequently paid off, much like Jack. While some of the other adversaries seemed like philosophies embodied, Marwan seemed like a real person thanks to how the character was conceived and how Vosloo played him.

Marwan arranges the assassination of the red-shirt president, who is shot down while in Air Force One. The vice president, Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin) succeeds him, only to panic and flail while former President Palmer is brought in to guide his hand. Itzin’s performance as the Nixonesque Logan was largely responsible for the Outstanding Drama Series Emmy 24 earned for its fifth season. But Logan is best in limited doses, and therefore works better as a smaller element of season four than a major element of season five. And Logan’s role in the show continues long past the character’s natural life cycle, like so many other characters to appear in multiple seasons. By season five, which is identified by many as 24’s finest moment, Logan is a feckless, noodle-spined leader one moment and an evil mastermind the next, a balance that never made sense outside of the show’s tendency to top itself with more outlandish storylines.


Because escalation is the controlling principle in 24’s storytelling approach, the show couldn’t help but eventually trip over its feet. The threat of a nuclear attack and the potential assassination of the president were enough to fuel the first seasons, but the danger has to be bigger each season. With season five, the next broken taboo was directly involving the president in a sinister cabal, and while it was thrilling to some, it also cost the show some of its topicality. The threat of terrorist attacks is real, but in season five and beyond, it doesn’t feel real: It feels like television. The fourth season of 24 combines the show’s characters, themes, and classic elements in a way that feels urgent and dangerous, but also rooted in relationships and actual stakes.

Availability: The entire run of 24 can be streamed through Amazon Prime Video.