By Jonathan Peters
Ask any serious viewer to name the most influential TV show since 2000, and a few familiar responses – Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos, The Wire – will be invoked. One frequently overlooked, yet returning to our screens this month, is 24.
The series was an instant critical and commercial hit when it burst onto the scene, featuring Die Hard-worthy action sequences and shocking political drama on a weekly basis, all anchored by Kiefer Sutherland’s iconic performance as counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer. It revolutionised the television landscape, making long-form, serialised storytelling the norm, displaying a willingness to kill off beloved characters long before Game of Thrones began to break viewers’ hearts, and adopting a real-time format so that the events of each episode lasted for exactly as long as it took to watch them.
So why has is it no longer really discussed in the same league as these other shows?
24, despite its numerous Emmy wins, tarnished its own reputation, over eight seasons stretching its central concept to breaking point. The storylines became repetitive – a mole infiltrating CTU may have been an exciting twist in Season One, but the organisation was compromised so many times over the show’s run that the revelations became stale and groan-inducing. Even by 24’s own tenuous logic the plotting grew sloppy – the relatively restrained Season Three spent several episodes exploring the implications and effects of a virus leak in a hotel, but Season Four appeared to feature a new terrorist scheme every week, each peril supposedly masking the ‘true’ threat to US soil. Season Six completely jumped the shark, detonating a nuclear bomb in central Los Angeles in its jaw-dropping fourth episode, then failing to ever deal with the consequences as Jack quickly moved on to the next set piece. The fact that the characters never seemed to eat, drink or sleep turned into a point of ridicule, addressed just once in the show when Mary Lynn Rajskub’s Chloe suffered from dehydration in a late-series episode.
More importantly however, and the reason this writer is pessimistic about the show’s return, is that 24 was very much a product of its time. Although conceived in the vein of Schwarzenegger and Willis-headed ‘90s action movies, the series, which aired its premiere in November 2001, suddenly took on an element of realism in the eyes of the American public. In presenting a reality where the US faced constant danger from mobilised and well-equipped terrorist organisations, the show perfectly encapsulated the zeitgeist immediately post-9/11. Here were supposedly very palpable scenarios, yet viewers could tune in every week to a macho fantasy and watch their nation triumph. At least within the show America refused to negotiate with or bow to the wills of its enemies, the foiling of insurgent attacks proving cathartic for audiences conditioned by climate of fear that characterised the early ’00s.
However, as time wore on the situations depicted seemed more far-fetched, and it became clear that terrorist networks were not nearly as well-funded or poised to exact the devastating blows that 24 suggested. The show could not even be relied on for entertaining escapism, as the actions of its protagonists came increasingly under fire from dissenters. A public who initially accepted the torture scenes as a necessary evil in the War on Terror appeared to wake up to the serious moral implications of the tactic. The Bush administration ended, and Obama’s began with overwhelming calls for the closing of Guantanamo Bay, as well as unprecedented criticism of CIA interrogation techniques. To witness Jack Bauer continuing to mutilate his suspects on the show became unpalatable for the more cynical viewership of the last few seasons. The series was now considered out of touch, so ratings dwindled, and 24 was cancelled.
Now the London-set 24: Live Another Day is airing, but in order to survive the series will need to shift its focus. We live in an era where the greatest threats are perceived as internal, where the likes of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden expose the dangers and moral failings of our own governments rather than external forces. The new iteration of 24 should reflect this, with narrative arcs resembling the fine political intrigue of Season Five, where the Nixon-esque president was revealed as the arch-villain, rather than some Islamist cell of the week. Only then will it become vital viewing and regain its place among the great shows of the 21st Century.
24 season rankings:
5, 1, 3, 2, 4, 7, 8, 6