The TDF Top 10: 24
We continue our TDF Top 10 with Kiefer Sutherland's 24. New writer Eamon Hennedy picks his top 10 episodes...
Premiering on the Fox Network two months after 9/11, and making its way to the UK via the BBC in March of 2002 (before a controversial move to Sky two years later), 24 was very much the definitive post-9/11 television series, dealing with terrorism, US foreign policy and enhanced interrogation in a manner that was confrontational, thrilling and also very controversial.
One of the biggest shows to premiere during the DVD era, and possibly being a pioneer in creating the term ‘binge viewing’, 24 was massively entertaining, especially in those first five seasons, incredibly cinematic and yet its politics were amongst some of the most fascinating of the era.
Here was a series made up of a (predominantly male) writer’s room that skewered both sides of the political spectrum, writing stories that were led by one of the most intense lead characters in pop culture and which held a light towards US foreign policy and the War on Terror through dazzling cinematic production values, slick split-screen editing and some of the most stomach-churning plotting of the era.
There are many episodes to choose from across the eight seasons and sequel series 24: Live Another Day. But which of the 200+ episodes stand out? Here are our top ten episodes of 24...
10. 10:00pm-11:00pm (4.16)
24 could deliver some brilliantly stomach-churning twists that bordered on the preposterous; it was always part of its strange, dark charm, and nowhere is that more clear than in season four when they shot down Air Force One fifteen episodes into the season.
While being somewhat of a big-budget series, there were some things they obviously couldn’t do on a television budget. But what’s most brilliant about this episode is how it distils the plot to bring down the world’s most famous plane to a two-person play in the final act of the episode as Bauer attempts to talk the stealth bomber pilot targeting the plane, Mitch Anderson, out of doing it. There is a brief moment when it looks as if things might be alright, but this is 24 and as was a custom of the show, the series plays the worst-case scenario. Air Force One, President Keeler and all, goes down in a hail of smoke and fire.
9. 7:00pm-8:00pm (7.12)
Four years before Hollywood decided ‘Die Hard in The White House’ was a storyline worth pursuing twice, 24 did its own version of a White House siege, right in the middle of the seventh season.
The most troublesome year for the series in terms of production, having been delayed by the WGA Strike and having to shut down production to-write the last batch of scripts, Day 7 was meant to be a return to form after its divisive sixth year. While not the greatest season of the show, it does have some brilliant highlights, and the preposterous siege inside the heart and soul of US democracy is definitely the biggest one. It’s 24 on pure action movie mode and it’s exhilarating.
8. 10:00pm-11:00am (9.12)
After four years off the air and numerous attempts to make a feature film that came to nothing, 24 returned in 2014 for a limited series made up of twelve episodes, with a much-publicised time jump to represent 24 hours. That time jump happened in the final episode, and amazingly it worked well, with the final episode of the Jack Bauer era of 24 (the franchise would relaunch with 24:Legacy three years later) being a typical gut-wrenching combination of drama and thriller.
The episode brought to a head Jack’s never-ending battle with recurring antagonist Cheng (Tzi Ma), and his relationships with Audrey (Kim Raver) and her father, now President, James Heller (William Devane). A non-real-time episode of 24 seemed strangely like heresy, but this is one of 24’s most dramatic episodes, and while we still wait for a potential return of Jack Bauer, the episode’s tragic trajectory still feels like something approaching an appropriate end for the character.
7. 7:00am-8:00am (5.24)
You could probably compile a top ten list of Day 5 episodes alone. Without a doubt, the best season of 24. The season started with a bang (well, several) that laid waste to some of the most popular characters on the series and the pace never lags all season. There isn’t even the usual little lull just after the halfway point as the series recharges its batteries; it just keeps building and building, eventually taking us to a climax involving a plot twist reveal that one of the key architects of the day’s events was, in fact, President Logan (Gregory Itzin in an Emmy-nominated performance).
Better yet, the season doesn’t even build to a typical Jack Bauer-driven shoot out, instead opting to put its focus on Logan and his long-suffering First Lady (an equally brilliant and scene-stealing Jean Smart) in what amounts to 24’s equivalent of a Shakespearean political drama. Of course, a morally and politically corrupt President in cahoots with Russians seemed very far-fetched in 2006.
6. 10:00am-11:00pm (2.03)
The second season of 24 moved away from the smaller scale revenge-driven story of season one and right into the realm of a War on Terror drama in season two. Having wowed and traumatised audiences right at the very end of that season with the death of a regular character, the third episode of the second season, with a typically brilliant Howard Gordon teleplay, ups the scales with considerable ferocity very early in the season by having the CTU blown up by a far-right militant group. Did I mention this is only the third episode of the season?
5. 12:00am-1:00am (1.01)
It’s almost hard to describe just how unique 24 felt when it premiered. Right away it felt less like a television series and more like a Hollywood action movie split into twenty-four segments. Watching the pilot episode on its first night (in the UK the BBC put it together with The X-Files on Sunday nights), it was like watching a different kind of television series.
The real-time element felt original, while the deployment of split screens and rotating credits was more akin to a big-budget feature film, a lot of which was down to choices made by director Stephen Hopkins. It builds the world of 24 (CTU, a mole in the organisation, the infrastructure of the agency) brilliantly and hooks you right away with pace and verve, deservedly winning its creators Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran an Emmy award for Outstanding Writing in a Television Drama.
4. 7:00pm-8:00pm (5.13)
24 always had a brilliant habit of doing something in the middle of their seasons of a high concept nature; the White House siege in season seven, the virus outbreak at the Chandler Plaza Hotel in season three, but arguably the best action movie they did was when they had CTU gassed in the middle of its fifth and most consistently brilliant season and with it several deaths. The most heartbreaking of which was the lovable Edgar Stiles (Louis Lombardi) who perished right at the end of the previous episode, but the season’s thirteenth episode keeps hold of the baton and runs with it, proving to be a claustrophobic work of brilliance.
It’s effectively a bottle episode, keeping everything contained to the CTU set. But it continues to double down on 24’s ability to be simultaneously thrilling and disturbing in equal measure, filled with dire character moments, moral quandaries that ask big questions of the characters and the audience, and stomach-churning levels of suspense that other network shows might have been more prone to ignore.
3. 10:00pm-11:00pm (2.15)
Day 2 of 24 very much felt like a reaction to what was happening to the world by 2003. After accidentally becoming a show of relevance in that first season, the writer’s room grasped the terrorist part of CTU and plunged Jack and his fellow agents not only into a race against time to stop a terrorist group from setting off a nuclear weapon, but also a third World War. All the while, an actual US-led war was playing out on the news, much of which was down to phoney and sexed-up evidence, which gave the season even more uncomfortable prescience.
The season’s hunt for the bomb reaches a superb crescendo with Jack and a dying George Mason (Xander Berkley) flying the bomb out to the desert in a mercy mission where only one is coming back. On top of indicating that 24 could do the big action stuff, for all the controversy over its content and handling of its storylines, it showed it could also do complex emotional stories with aplomb as well. Berkley was a major MVP of the series those first two seasons and here they give the character of George a magnificent, heroic death, in a performance that should have earned Berkley an Emmy nomination at least.
2. 6:00am-7:00am (3.16)
Without a doubt 24’s most harrowing race against time, as Jack Bauer is forced into executing his boss for the greater good. Each season of 24, even the weaker ones, had that one episode that was indicative of just how brilliant a series it could be, usually throwing in all sorts of suspenseful entanglement of moral quandaries, usually centred around the question of ‘does the end justify the means’. Nowhere is that taken to more dramatic extremes as when Jack and President Palmer are faced with killing CTU boss Ryan Chapelle (Paul Schulze in a truly brilliant performance) to potentially save millions.
It’s a magnificent hour of television, very nearly the greatest thing that 24 ever done (I pretty much went back and forward on whether this or the eventual number one would have the top spot), drenched in suspense, an impending sense of doom and death, and a never-better, haunting use of the silent clock in the show’s history. The final image is one that is never forgotten.
1. 11:00pm-12:00am (1.24)
The first season of 24 had its ups and downs admittedly. The first thirteen episodes are amongst the greatest run of any television series, but the second half goes off the rails what with Teri's amnesia and Kim Bauer repeatedly getting held hostage. However, the final stretch of episodes involving a psychotic guest appearance from Dennis Hopper saw the series find its footing again, building to one of television’s most shocking endings. It’s as grim a climax to a season of television as ever produced; the murder of Jack’s wife and his finding of her body, coupled with the reveal that the popular character of Nina Myers (Sarah Clarke) was the mole at the CTU, indicating that this was a television series that wasn’t going to be afraid to take chances.
It’s an episode filled with memorable moments and haunting images, from the shoot out at the docks, to the CCTV footage of Nina murdering Jamey earlier in the season and that fourth wall breaking look to the camera, effectively challenging the audience to accept that this beloved character was the antagonist all along. But it’s the final scene of Jack cradling his now long-gone wife, begging for forgiveness and that fade to black followed by the first use of a silent clock that is truly one of television’s most shocking moments of the decade.
What are your favourite moments of 24? Are there other episodes that make the list? Let us know in the comments below...