When good TV goes bad: how 24 became torturous viewing

Kiefer Sutherland’s action show was ahead of its time, tackling terrorism on telly in the aftermath of 9/11. But by series six it had become obsolete

Beep, beep, beep, beep, beeeeeeeeeep. And so began every episode of 24. Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer was the hero of the hour – or rather 45-ish minutes, allowing for ad breaks. Events took place in real time, with each 24-part series depicting one nightmarish day in the life of the special-forces-soldier-turned-director-of-Los Angeles’s-Counter-Terrorist-Unit (CTU).

We’d never seen anything quite like 24 before. When it first aired in the UK on BBC2 in March 2002 – it began the previous November in the US – 9/11 was very much on our minds. Our leaders told us of growing terrorist threats, warning that new laws would be needed for this changing terrain. While 24’s first series didn’t deal with Islamic extremism, subsequent series did and it tackled these concerns head on. We saw the good guys caught between a desire to keep their country safe and the pesky laws inhibiting their operations, while various plots played to prejudices or subverted them – see Marie Warner’s radicalisation in series two. But it wasn’t all torture and rightwing wish fulfilment – there was escapism, too. Liberals aghast at George W Bush’s agenda found comfort in 24’s David Palmer as well as The West Wing’s Jed Bartlet.

For the most part, if you can ignore the crudely drawn stereotypical villains and expositionary dialogue, it was a rip-roaring ride; a show that leapt from one high-octane moment to the next. No plot twist was too severe, no character was safe.

Back in 2002, it was still a novelty to see a star of Sutherland’s calibre on TV every week. He wasn’t the first, but he was at the start of a trend that saw A-listers migrate to long-running, big-budget series. And while the US audience were slow to appreciate 24, we loved it in the UK, with DVD sales strong enough to convince Fox to commission more episodes of a series they had planned to axe.

But somewhere along the line, 24 went bad. Not Nina Myers bad, but bad nonetheless. It was always implausible. Take Kim Bauer. Jack’s ever-in-peril daughter was kidnapped three times in the first series. The second series saw her, for reasons too convoluted to go into here, stalked by a cougar, only to fall into the hands of a mad survivalist, played by Matt Dillon’s brother Kevin.

But while 24 was often ridiculous, the tipping point came with series six. It took place several years in the future, with David Palmer’s rubbish brother Wayne installed as president. The early plot saw Jack released from Chinese prison solely so he could be executed by a terrorist. But Bauer escapes (by biting through his captor’s neck, no less) and shortly afterwards, kills a colleague, seemingly on a whim. No thanks.

No amount of getting Bauer back to basics in series seven could rescue 24. By this point, we’d seen The Wire, we’d seen Breaking Bad, we wanted something more cultured, more considered, more, well, better.

The brand was recently revived in the shape of 24: Legacy, but even a sexy overhaul and the combined heft of Jimmy Smits and Miranda Otto couldn’t save it. Producers say another strand is in development and vow the franchise will live to see another hellish day, but let’s leave it there. Some things, like Jack’s ill-advised highlights in series one, are best left in the past.

Contributor

Andy Welch

The GuardianTramp

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