The first season of 24 remains an insurmountable triumph. Every subsequent season has followed its example and lived in its shadow, iterating the original template with varying success but never quite recapturing lightning in a bottle. Some have come close, but the first season is still the most successful and the most significant. It still exudes innovation in a way that few other television shows have come close to matching.
A Recipe for Success
These are bold statements, but there are strong arguments to support them. Generally, the best seasons of 24 are those that feature a single threat and a strong narrative current from beginning to end. Having a solid frame in place and a clear direction for the story helps tie everything together, including the characters and themes. It allows for greater overall consistency and cohesiveness in the writing.
Conversely, the weakest seasons of 24 are generally those that feature multiple threats and shifting narrative currents. They move from one threat and one antagonist to another, sometimes with little connective tissue between them. This is not inherently an issue, but it can suggest that there is a lack of direction for the story as well as an absence of confidence in the writers. This can quickly lead to inconsistency and fragmentation in the writing.
The first season of 24 is an excellent example of this principle. The season is framed by the events of Operation Nightfall which spawns three closely interconnected plot threads; the assassination attempt on Senator David Palmer, the threat against federal agent Jack Bauer and his family, and the presence of a traitor in the Counter Terrorist Unit who is leaking classified intelligence to the terrorists.
The first season is relatively focused and tightly plotted, allowing it to move towards an endgame where the aforementioned threads dramatically converge. The ending was not planned in advance, but the final episode still feels like a natural culmination of everything that happened during the previous 23 hours. This is precisely because of the sharp and unwavering focus that the writers maintained throughout the season.
The season never once loses sight of these threads even when tangential subplots emerge. They are clearly introduced in the pilot and conclusively resolved in the finale. The murder scandal involving Keith Palmer that is brought to light and the amnesia that Teri Bauer experiences after believing her daughter is killed in a car explosion are often considered pointless filler at best, but they are still peripherally related to the assassination plot.
An Anthropomorphic Story
They also tell us more about the characters and the world they are living in. While the show has often been criticised for getting side-tracked by office politics and interpersonal conflicts, they are necessary elements for the show to work. They provide material that sustains the show for 24 hours as well as generate additional suspense and intrigue. They can be hit-and-miss but, without them, the show loses much of its substance and meaning.
The characters and their relationships take centre stage in the first season of 24. This means that the characters drive the plot rather than the other way around, providing more intimacy without sacrificing intensity. It is also the only season of the show where the threats are levied exclusively against a handful of distinct individuals as opposed to a group of faceless people. The calculus of war that dominates later seasons is almost entirely absent here.
The anthropomorphic nature of the first season imbues the story with greater authenticity. The stakes are not as high; but they feel more personal. The scale of the threat is smaller, but it has a more significant impact on the characters. The pacing is slower, but the passage of time has a more noticeable effect on the characters. Action set pieces are smaller, but seem realistic and resonate more strongly. Less people die, but each death feels significant.
Even the real-time element of the show is more closely adhered to during the first season. Later seasons saw the threats increase in magnitude and the plotting become denser, necessitating the reduction of excessive travel time. Characters started covering large distances in impossibly short timespans. The real-time constraints were ignored for the sake of convenience and to let characters reach their destination as quickly as the plot required.
This commitment to real-time and character-centric stories is what elevates the first season and makes it feel like a genuine 24-hour day. Arguably, the first thirteen episodes of the season are the strongest and most consistent in the show’s entire run. From the moment Richard Walsh is gunned down outside Dunlop Plaza to the rescue operation Jack single-handedly carries out to save his family from Ira Gaines, 24 makes an indelible mark on television.
Searching for Direction
Those who are familiar with the production of 24 will know that only the first thirteen episodes were originally ordered by Fox. As the first season of a brand new show in uncertain times, there was never any guarantee that 24 would take off. As a result, the writers were forced to conclude many of the story arcs by the end of the thirteenth episode. The assassination plot is foiled, the Bauer family is saved, and the traitor at CTU is revealed.
When the show was picked up for a full season, these story arcs had to be jump-started to fuel the remaining eleven episodes. A new shooter is introduced to continue the assassination plot, the Bauer family is targeted again, and a second mole at CTU emerges. This is a tad clumsy, but a necessary evil that allows the season to retain its original plot threads without performing a 180 degree turn and moving on to something completely unrelated.
Indeed, the events of Operation Nightfall continue to frame the story. The surviving members of the Drazen family dispense of the intermediaries and take direct control of the operation, pushing ahead with their plan to exact revenge against Palmer and Bauer for the ostensible murder of their father, Victor Drazen, two years earlier. This leads to the revelation that Victor survived and has since been incarcerated in a top secret prison.
Even so, the second half of the season initially struggles to find its footing. The afternoon hours are marred by melodramatic plot twists and a lack of momentum. Teri suffers from amnesia in one of the most derided sub-plots of the series, Kim is caught in the middle of a drug bust that exacerbates her tendency to find trouble, and Jack stumbles around looking for new leads that includes contending with Palmer’s goddaughter who has been sleeping with Alexis Drazen.
These aren’t inherently terrible plot twists, but they are indicative of a season that is meandering forward in search of direction again. The show has to find ways to fill out 24 episodes, keep the Bauer family relevant, and give Jack something to do in the meantime. Consequently, it manufactures sillier and more contrived ways to do so. Fortunately, these detours are temporary and the payoff is ultimately worth it.
The Personal Cost
Thematically, season one is about the struggle to separate personal lives from the gruelling demands of politics and field work. Numerous characters are compromised at some point as a result of their personal relationships interfering with their professional responsibilities. Jack and his family are affected by the events of Operation Nightfall while David Palmer’s attempt to win the democratic nomination is affected by a murder scandal involving his son.
These are the two most obvious examples, but they can also be identified elsewhere. Tony Almeida’s objectivity is affected by his feelings for Nina, Jamey Farrell becomes a traitor to financially support her family, and Elizabeth Nash engages in an illicit relationship with a man who intends to assassinate Palmer. Even Scott Baylor, who uncovers the presence of a mole in CTU, initially refuses to offer assistance after placing his family in jeopardy.
These complications tend to have disastrous consequences for the characters. Jamey is murdered by Nina to stop her from interfering with the assassination plot, Elizabeth fatally stabs Alexis in a moment of blind rage, David and Sherry’s marriage is irreparably damaged as a result of the latter’s deception, and Jack’s family is forever fractured when his wife is murdered by Nina – his former lover and most trusted confidante.
The Blueprint for the Series
Structurally, season one serves as the first entry in the first trilogy of the series. It introduces multiple ideas that continue to develop in season two before being resolved in season three. This includes the fallout of Operation Nightfall, the first presidential term of David Palmer, the rise and fall of Tony Almeida, the treachery of Nina Myers and Sherry Palmer, the transition into adulthood for Kim Bauer, and the short-term impact of Teri Bauer’s death.
Season one also establishes the blueprint for the rest of the series. Specifically, it introduces the character of Jack Bauer whose journey rapidly becomes an inextricable part of its DNA. The story begins with his humanity untarnished. His family life is imperfect but relatively normal and full of possibility. He has yet to experience the crushing losses and defeats that disconnect him from the world. This season will set him on a path from which he can never turn back.
The death of Richard Walsh in just the second hour is the first of many that Jack will endure throughout the series. A great deal of history between the two characters is implied, but there is little opportunity to explore it in further detail. Walsh appears in just two episodes, but his death has a profound effect on Jack. For the audience, it arguably has even more gravitas than the death of longer-running characters like Edgar Stiles.
In the fourth episode, Jack teams up with police officer Jessie Hampton while chasing a suspect. She is taken hostage by the suspect and killed, leaving Jack visibly distraught. This is a notable reaction given his willingness to sacrifice innocent lives to achieve a greater good in later seasons. At this very early point in the series, Jack is a man whose focus is on saving individual lives. The ‘big picture’ focus that later dominates his thinking is yet to emerge.
Jack is a more human character in the first season. He is more responsive to the terrible things that happen around him and he shows signs of physical and emotional exhaustion. There is even a moment when he starts to fall asleep while hiding from the authorities. He is not yet capable of the superhuman feats he becomes famous for, including killing dozens of people in a matter of hours or withstanding injuries that would incapacitate others.
A Cautionary Tale
In broad strokes, the trajectory of the series is telegraphed as early as the first episode. In a conversation with Nina, Jack warns about the dangers of compromise and how it can subvert even the most well-meaning people. He argues that doing so for the sake of expediency and self-interest can set a dangerous precedent, making it easier to compromise in the future until it becomes a normal and acceptable method of conduct.
The implications of this conversation are not immediately perceptible, but it becomes clear that this is the thematic linchpin that binds the entire series together. 24 is a cautionary tale about how compromise invariably leads to corruption. The downfall of Charles Logan, Alison Taylor, Tony Almeida and many more can be traced back to an initial decision that involved a compromise to achieve selfish or expedient outcomes.
Even Jack is not immune to its corruptive influence. He frequently tortures suspects for information that they are otherwise unwilling to share. He also disregards laws and protocols that obstruct his investigation. This has a cumulative effect which, in combination with the personal sacrifices he is forced to make, isolates him from the world and prevents him from leading a normal life.
Transcending its Origins
Season one enters its final hour with the revelation that Nina Myers is the second traitor in CTU; that she has been feeding the Drazen family information about Jack and Palmer the entire time. It is one of the greatest twists in the history of the series and secures her place as one of its most memorable villains. The show tries to repeat this twist in later seasons with only a fraction of the same success. No other attempt has been as shocking or as raw.
24 quickly developed a reputation for unpredictable storytelling and high-octane action, but these were to be expected from a show about assassination plots and acts of terrorism. Moles and traitors fall within the parameters of that premise. The identity of the mole might have been surprising, but the mere fact that a mole existed in the first place should not be. Mechanically, the show did exactly what was expected of it.
Sometimes, however, a story will exceed its parameters and transcend its origins. LOST is a fantastic example of this. At the end of the fourth episode, John Locke is revealed to have been in a wheelchair before crashing on the island and somehow regaining the use of his legs. A combination of excellent writing, acting, directing, and scoring create a powerful moment that shapes the future of the series in ways that were previously unthinkable.
This represents the defining moment LOST turned into something other than a 21st century version of Gilligan’s Island. Instead, the show starts drawing from an amalgamation of philosophical and mythological ideas to tell a story about a group of deeply flawed people who are trying to find themselves. They are connected in ways they cannot imagine, surrounded by incomprehensible forces, and called upon to take part in events far greater than themselves.
The death of Teri Bauer is the defining moment of 24, influencing and informing every aspect of the series going forward. The horrifying nature of the series suddenly reveals itself; people will die, tragedy is unavoidable, every victory will come with a price, and there will be no happy ending. The show transcends its origins to tell a story that is about more than simply thwarting terrorist attacks and uncovering conspiracies.
Jack suffers a gut-wrenching loss from which he will never recover, setting him on an inexorable path of loss and isolation. The next eight seasons will continue to strip away nearly every piece of his humanity until little remains. The journey began here, at the end of the longest day of his life, with the death of his wife. It seals the first season of 24 as a masterpiece as well as one of the greatest seasons of television ever made.
About the Author
Bradley Hinds is a professional copywriter and 24 enthusiast. He has a passion for various storytelling mediums, an unhealthy obsession with Pink Floyd, and enjoys writing accessible long-form analysis when he isn’t spending half the day playing a Mass Effect game.