The pure intensity of this show was like nothing I had experienced up until this point. This series hit right after 9/11, when the national mood was pointedly anti-terrorist and we rallied behind the ones who could keep us safe.
The show followed the exploits of Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), as he would go through the gauntlet of horrors each day to keep the country safe. Along the way, Jack would break all manner of laws, both of man and God, in his quests. Whether Jack is a hero or a villain is something that is open for debate (I would actually argue that on balance, Jack is a bad person). But the reason why we remained attached to Jack was that every morally bad decision he made tore at his soul, and we saw that in Sutherland's performance. And no matter what, Jack wants to do what is right, even if he thinks that he must compromise his morals. He rarely does the violence he does out of spite or vengeance. Instead, he always does it for "the greater good." There was one episode where someone wanted a pardon from the President in advance for killing Jack. Jack told the President to give the pardon if it meant that his murderer would help solve the current crisis. That doesn't make him right, but it does make him relatable. And it is the only thing that keeps him from becoming Walter White from Breaking Bad. But through Jack, we get to put ourselves into the Jack's shoes and imagine how we would act.
The genius of 24 was the crunch of time. It wasn't so much the sound of the countdown (although that iconic sound helped add to the overall aesthetic). But by getting rid of the standard film convention of cutting ahead in time through editing, every second of screen time was meant to matter.
But the core of the show was Sutherland. His performance is one of the great ones of television. Sutherland pulls off the intelligence and ruthless desperation that Jack needs while making him horribly vulnerable.
DAY 1 - 5:00AM-6:00AM
Up until this point, the show had been a fairly intense show. But apart from the real-time aspect, it wasn't yet anything special. Jack was on the hunt. His daughter Kim and her friend Janet had been kidnapped. Jack's wife Terri and Janet's dad had been trying to find the girls.
But then 3/4 of the way through the show, everything you think you know is thrown for a loop. And this is part of the show's signature. It would hit you with horribly unpredictable plot twists. You never knew who to trust and you never knew who would live and die. At this point, everything was up for grabs and watching became a dangerous thing. 24 was a show that threw out a lot of the basic rules of storytelling, including the necessity for cathartic happy endings. You never new how the show was going to turn out.
JUMP THE SHARK
Day 3: 5:00 P.M.-6:00 P.M.(3x05)
Jack has to spring a drug kingpin from a prison. And it all goes horribly wrong. While there are a lot of horrific things that happen on this show, in this episode escaped prisoners force prison guards to play Russian Roulette. What is so distasteful about this episode that all the innocent deaths that occur in that episode are Jack's fault. And it wasn't part of some grand plan. Jack stupidly set free all of the prisoners to cover his escape and as a result, murder upon murder occurs. When we find out why Jack is doing what he is doing, we find out that all of it was absolutely needless.
Day 8: 5:00P.M. - 6:00P.M.(8x02)
This episode stuffed in every single bad 24 cliche that could be found. There were obvious misdirects, personal problems of side characters we don't care about, moles, and the worst was that once again everyone suspects and second guess Jack. This made sense in seasons 1-2. But after saving the country multiple times, it was nothing but frustrating to hear the head of CTU tell the President that they should arrest Jack... AGAIN!
Day 2: 10:00 P.M.-11:00 P.M.(2x15)
In this episode, someone has to fly a nuclear bomb into the desert to keep it from killing everyone in LA. Of course, Jack volunteers. Not only was this episode horribly intense, it has Sutherland's best performance as he says goodbye to his daughter. The episode was amazingly well-crafted and had a rare moment of heart and meaning.
24 was a bold experiment that could have easily devolved into a gimmick.
But the acting and intensity makes this the 24th greatest drama of all time.