24 is one of my favorite shows of all time. The storytelling conceit is a great one, it gave birth to the concept of binge watching, and it had an incredibly diverse cast of both heroes and villains over its eight-season run. It’s returning on Monday evening, so to celebrate that, I thought it might be fun to list the seasons from best to worst, along with some thoughts about each of them. Feel free to discuss and debate, would be fun to get other perspectives on this, even though I’m fairly convinced that I’m right.
Spoilers on, by the way…
Everything you could ever want in a season of the show, and that this year garnered a couple Emmy wins is no coincidence. Renegade Jack, twists and turns that actually track on multiple viewings, meaningful deaths, all culminating with the most heartbreaking, gut wrenching cliffhanger since season one. Something unbelievable and awesome happens at least every two episodes, and Bauer never felt as primal and unhinged as he did here when chasing down Palmer’s killers, and uncovering the biggest conspiracy the show ever served up. Those that insist 24 was really a fancy populist justification for the so called “war on terror” must’ve missed this season, where the actual President of the United States turns out to be the biggest bad of all.
Also, when it comes down to it, this is the story about the intense lengths that a number of characters go to defend the legacy and life of a slain black man. There’s a scene right in the beginning where Jack first hears the news, and you can feel the loss coming off him. Or when he sees Palmer’s hand peeking out from beneath a sheet his body’s been covered with. Always loved that Jack and Palmer had this intense, enduring friendship, but they never actually saw each other much on screen. Little details like this gave the entire affair an emotional weight that other seasons could never quite match, and whenever the subsequent seasons ran into problems, they reflexively reverted back to a character or plot development that was used to much better effect here. The fifth run was the show’s true masterpiece, and got almost everything exactly right.
For all the discussion the show garnered for casting random fake Middle Eastern countries as hotbeds of terrorist activity, the most persistent and insidious bad guys were always government officials and corporations. In fact, the one critique about this that I will accept is that the evil brown people were always really working at the behest of the evil white people, but since this is often a problem across the entertainment spectrum, they get a reasonable pass. The show is mostly one man fighting against highly ingrained corruption at the high levels of influence, that are all too willing to use their powers to crush and disrupt the people actually trying to save lives. That’s really this season in a nutshell, which yanks Jack away from his grief, shaves his “I just don’t give a fuck anymore” beard, arms him, and sets him loose once again.
This is probably the year the conversation about the show quickly embraced the idea that it was really a kind of populist mouthpiece/defense for the Bush administration, but that came from people that watched one season or a string of episodes and then declared themselves experts on the show. Those that watched the whole thing know that the show changed from stereotypical GOP “ends justify the means” rhetoric to sweetly liberal, idealistic platitudes as quickly as CTU hired moles. The point embedded into every season of 24 was, this shit is really complicated, and this year displays that notion to brilliant effect.
The Middle Eastern dude turns out not to be a terrorist, but his blond haired, blue-eyed fiancé does. The Islamists are really working for the white corporate puppet masters, who want to start a war for oil. And in a government gone mad with panic and terror, a black man stands up and does the right, moral thing, even though it almost costs him everything. I know some people might think it’s all torture and Kiefer growling things at people, but there’s some definite subversion at play here.
So much greatness, and the season in which Jack’s travel times were the most honest and realistic, before Bauer was given a personal helicopter, or everything important just happened to happen in an eight mile radius. The first half is a tightly plotted well thought out thriller, followed by a frantic attempt to pilot a show no one was that confident would make it past episode thirteen. There is some stumbling to be had, a brief flirtation with amnesia, and the repetition of certain themes, but the ending is tremendous, and something that reset the bar for how brutal and unforgiving a network show could be. And it was spoiled for me by a co-worker, who innocently commented to me during finals week that, “Me and my wife don’t believe Teri’s really dead.” Unfortunate, but it told me that even parts of the audience didn’t believe what they’d just seen. Had to be a trick. Had to be some type of misdirection. No show who’s central premise was about a brave, flawed man sacrificing everything to protect his family would end with that family being taken away from him in the worst, most intimate way possible.
Well, 24 was that show, and was only getting started really. Also, I think this is the only season where somebody gave Jack something to eat along the way, and it featured the most face-to-face Jack Bauer and David Palmer scenes in the entire series.
The bunker rescue is the best staged and executed action sequence the show has ever done. I remember watching it the first time, heart pounding as Bauer pretty much attacks an entire building of terrorists, before they can execute his boss, Secretary of Defense Heller. Oh, and Jack’s also in a secret relationship with Heller’s daughter, who is also being held hostage in the compound. Oh, and the President has decided to bomb the building to prevent the world from watching the execution live on the internet. Seven minutes until the missiles hit, and Bauer ain’t waiting for no damn back-up.
This is the kind of absurd, wonderful nonsense that 24 always excelled in, and watching this sequence basically tells you everything you’ll ever need to know about the show, and why it worked. Also, props to Bauer for taking a nice leather laptop bag and turning it into something which produced weapons and ammo at just the right time.
Few years ago, I would’ve had this lower, but with a couple repeat viewings, I have to acknowledge that there’s a lot about it that I’d been mentally demanding for years. A kickass female character that could hold her own when paired with Jack, a new locale after six years running around LA, and an arc of the story where Jack is sidelined and other characters have to get the job done in his absence. For me though, what ultimately makes this work is Renee Walker, and the story of her essentially becoming Jack Bauer over the course of one very traumatic day, which strips away everything she thought about the world and herself. In a lot of ways, she’s the lead character here, and the frequent poignant moments between her and Jack as the relationship and understanding builds between them, rescues the season from the Almeida related double and triple crosses.
Ah, Mexico and the Salazar arc. This is where this ridiculous idea of Bauer actually convincing people that he was betraying his country, before turning the tables on them and shutting them down, was truly born. An idea which is incredibly hard to swallow, wrapped all up in a show full of things that are incredibly hard to swallow. I give the creators a lot of credit for recognizing when something wasn’t working, and running like hell to get out of it, ultimately recovering and delivering some of the best stuff they’ve ever done in the back quarter of the season. Bauer actually breaks down into a crying, sobbing heap at the end, and it’s one of the most honest moments the series ever had.
Also, 24 has had some incredibly awful people in it, but Sherry Palmer cemented her status here as THE most diabolical baddie in the show’s history, all without ever shooting anyone to death. Also again, can you even quit heroin pretty much cold turkey? Suppose if anyone could, it would be Jack Bauer…
This is the season of the show that triggers the most passionate fanboy response from me. Despite some interesting bits, the one-two combo of What Was Done to Get Rid of Renee and How Stupid President Taylor Suddenly Becomes sinks it for me. Still not my least favorite season ever, but those two things are pretty unforgivable in my eyes, and sacrificed two of the show’s strongest characters for one-note plot developments to create phony tension/motivation for Bauer.
First four episodes are quite cool actually, but everything after Curtis’ death face plants. The moment when a drill bit actually enters someone’s arm during a torture sequence was also a major tipping point in the show’s frequent displays of torture. It crossed even their own self-defined line, and the less said about Bauer’s psycho family members, the better.