Remembering… 24

Each month, I rummage through the annals of television history, reviewing shows past. This time it’s a race against the clock as we join Jack Bauer in 24 and look at how it reinvented the format.

Most TV shows take place over a few days or even a few weeks, but 24 creators Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran had a fresh take – a drama that unravelled in real time over the twenty-four hours of one day. It’s very ambitious stuff when you realise every minute must be accounted for, and it was no doubt a strain on the writing staff.

For those of you yet to be gripped by this heart-racing espionage thriller, 24 follows Los Angeles-based Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU) agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland).

What starts as a threat in the first episode soon becomes a full-blown terrorist attack over the course of one day, as Jack attempts to track down those responsible before it’s too late. In the show’s eight seasons, threats have included presidential assassination attempts, bioterrorism and cyber warfare, as well as government and corporate corruption.

Supported by a small team based at CTU headquarters, such as Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard), Michelle Dessler (Reiko Aylesworth) and his most trusted colleague Chloe O’Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub), most episodes consist of Jack running around up against it.

At times it’s a little hard to believe. How can all this happen in just one day? And why hasn’t Jack gone to the bathroom or eaten anything? But the fast pace keeps you on the edge of your seat like no other show out there.

Due to 24’s real time set up, it genuinely felt like you were following every second of the action. You never felt cheated by the storyline – it never jumps into the future, leaving you wondering how the characters got to that point. Every so often we’re treated to a collection of shots of each location at one moment – Jack racing somewhere, CTU employees analysing evidence, the president waiting anxiously – supported by that clock in the centre, counting down the hour with an unnerving pounding sound as each second passes by.

I remember attempting to watch the entire second season of the show within 24 hours. Starting at nine o’clock in the morning, the plan was to get through it and feel the tiredness and strain that Jack must feel when he passes the 12-hour mark. I use the word ‘attempt’ because I fell asleep around three o’clock in the morning and had to finish it the next day. Of course, as the show is broadcast on Fox, commercial breaks cut it down to around 45 minutes, so it wouldn’t have lasted an entire 24 hours anyway. But I tried.

Another of 24’s tricks was its trust factor. With so many characters, it soon became difficult to know who was good and who was bad. Season one introduced this paranoia with a sudden betrayal and murder, which made for one of the most shocking endings to the show. From then on, we questioned every character’s actions, waiting for that killer blow again, and we got it. Several times.

After finishing in 2010, the show recently returned for a twelve-hour one-off series. It stuck with the real-time format, though there’s a time jump in the final episode. It’s clear audiences continue to love the concept and the protagonist, Jack Bauer. It’s certainly a unique show and one that will definitely go down in history.

Next month, we head into orbit and jump aboard Battlestar Galactica to explore how it successfully remade a classic and took sci-fi writing to a new level.

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