Rewatching and reviewing the classics: ‘24’ Season 1 (2001-02) (TV review)

With “24: Legacy” premiering earlier this year, I have a perfect excuse to rewatch “24” Season 1 (2001-02, Fox; now streaming on Amazon Prime). Even without “Legacy,” this seems like a good time to get nostalgic about a show that was presciently conceived before the Twin Towers fell and went on to become the definitive post-9/11 drama.

Because the problems in the wake of 9/11 have only become worse with time – the common post-tragedy trading of liberty for “safety” wasn’t just a trend, it’s the new normal; and Middle Eastern terrorist groups seem to be as strong as ever – “24” Season 1 has barely aged. Indeed, it was ahead of its time, a bingeable show before binge-watching was invented.

Later seasons would be set slightly in the future, but this one isn’t, so the tech is out of date, but not in a distracting way. CTU (or “the CTU,” as it’s often called at this point) always has the best tech taxpayer money can buy. So while Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) doesn’t have a smartphone, he can switch his cellphone’s setting to receive an image from Jamey back at the office.

There are a couple of mentions of the need for warrants – when Jack seeks Kim’s email password, and when he later wants to tap a pay phone – dating Season 1 as pre-Patriot Act. However, in both cases, Jack is able to bypass a warrant, since his need for the information is “really important.” Season 1 knew how this stuff worked long before Snowden’s revelations and the mass awakening of the American public.

One big criticism can be leveled against Season 1: All this stuff happening in one day is insane. But I’ll launch into apologetics against anyone who takes that stance. We are watching this show BECAUSE it’s an insane day. Not only do “24’s” happenings need not be likely, they SHOULD NOT be likely. Teri (Leslie Hope) can and should have temporary amnesia on this day, BECAUSE it is this day.

With its relentlessly ticking clock, “24” is the ultimate in tension-filled TV, even though the clock only signifies the time, not a ticking bomb. Still, we subconsciously relate it to a bomb counting down, partly because there are several deadlines throughout the story — namely the Drazen clan’s stated goal of killing Senator Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) and Jack before the day is over. We also get lesser deadlines such as Alexis Drazen’s lover – who just learned he is a bad guy – meeting him in a hotel room at 4:45 p.m. for a CTU-backed sting.

“24” gained additional tension by being a high-priced Fox TV show that – like all shows of this type – could be canceled at any time. On its first airing, “Would we get to see the end of the day?” was as big of a question as “Why are the bad guys targeting Jack?” “Murder One” (1995-97, ABC) was the only previous show to serialize one storyline in such extreme fashion. “Reunion” (2005, Fox) came later and was indeed canceled mid-story, but it was so little-watched that the network suffered little backlash.

Obviously, the main reason why audiences made “24” into a long-running hit is Jack, but that’s not the soapbox I want to climb on: I’m a big-time Kim (Elisha Cuthbert) apologist. I get the impression that she is not widely liked. In a lazy bit of research to back that up, a Google search for “Kim Bauer” includes “TV’s dumbest character” on page one. “24” Season 1, though, is a great father-daughter drama. Jack and Kim are only together in the opening hour (before Kim gets kidnapped the first time), an hour or so at mid-day (when they escape from Ira Gaines’ compound) and at the end (their happy reunion).

But they always feel connected because Kim consistently acts more bravely than you’d expect from looking at her – “You’ll be back at the mall tomorrow,” one of the kidnappers consoles her, while underestimating her. A standout moment is when she tells a pushy woman with whom she’s sharing a jail cell to “Bring it on.” Surviving being on your knees with a gun to your head makes her feel invincible. Later, in a (poorly written) moment where she hurls coffee in the face of an idiot henchman, she escapes from the Drazens – marking the fourth time that day (and third time without Jack’s help) that she escapes. Yes, she is prone to getting re-captured and being hassled by people who should be her allies, but you know, trouble tends to find Jack, too. Kim is clearly her father’s daughter.

Airing at a time when other shows featured superpowered girls like Buffy and “Dark Angel’s” Max, Kim was brave and self-actualized without the benefit of artificial gifts, so she’s arguably the most impressive example of the early 21st century’s ubiquitous “strong female character,” even though she’s never cited. Maybe it’s the later seasons that push her from this mantle.

Completing the trio of icons is Senator Palmer. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say he helped pave the way for Obama’s presidency. The idea of a non-white-male-heterosexual-cisgender president is ho-hum today, but in 2001 it was worth remarking on; other than the old cellphones, this is the most time-capsule-ish broad element of Season 1. (The most locked-in-time SPECIFIC scene is when Terri and Alan York are stopped by a traffic cop, who ends up letting them go, despite their abrasive behavior. This is quite a contrast with “Legacy,” where the hero needs to get arrested as part of a plan. He simply stands on a street corner “while black,” and he’s being brutalized by cops in a matter of minutes.)

Indeed, Palmer’s race is remarked on – but only a couple times. However, Palmer is intriguing to watch almost entirely because Haysbert drips charisma. The California-Senator-turned-Democratic-nominee is really a rather standard politician who is climbing the ladder. He jokes with constituents about how he needs their energy plant to be successful so he can get more taxes out of them; they laugh at his joke, because he seems like a good guy. He IS a relatively good guy, but only in contrast to his manipulative (and insane) wife and the entrenched structure she represents.

Sheri (Penny Johnson Jerald) recruits the campaign’s speechwriter to seduce her husband and report back to her, and then she compromises Jack’s plan and Kim’s safety by revealing that David was not killed in an explosion. And this is after she had resolved to turn it in after a long day of manipulating people. Sheri isn’t a part of a secret shadow government – she’s just wants to become the First Lady at any cost – but Season 1 does broadly comment on the idea that David is such a cog in the machine that it doesn’t matter what he personally stands for. As his aide tells him: “The people we work for, David, they know how to get what they want.”

From the beginning, “24” employs a robustly neutral stance on American governance. It’s utterly prone to corruption and infiltration. Yet Jack – the director of CTU’s L.A. branch when the show begins – is an unqualified hero who always tries to do the right thing. If he must kill Palmer to save his wife and daughter, he’ll try to save his wife and daughter without killing Palmer. “24” is mostly statist and a bit left-leaning – the loaded term “assault weapon” is used by a CTU agent at one point – but it also gives a nod to the downside of war-gaming. Indeed, we ultimately learn Victor Drazen (Dennis Hopper, whose character is not decapitated in a subway tunnel, as per my memory, wherein I conflated “24” with “Speed”) is going after Palmer and Bauer because they were behind the military mission (Palmer ordered it, Jack led it) where Drazen’s wife and daughter were killed.

Season 1’s final scene deserves a mention. Jack discovers Teri is dead, having been shot by Nina (Sarah Clarke). (Side note: The reveal of Nina as the traitor at the end of hour 23, when we hear her speak German, is a tremendous twist, backed up in the finale by the revelation that she staged Jamey’s “suicide.” It’s so well handled that we can assume the eventual “mole inside CTU” cliché came from the writers’ desire to equal Nina’s Season 1 arc.) (And a trivia note: Teri is the first “24” victim to get “silent numbers,” the show’s equivalent of a moment of respect.)

Teri’s murder made for an unsatisfying ending when it aired, and it still is. It’d be like if in the medal ceremony scene in “Star Wars,” an Imperial mole jumps out of parade rest and guns down Princess Leia. After 24 hours of hell, Jack – and the audience – needed and deserved a happy ending.

On the topic of “Star Wars,” “24’s” adventure is chronicled through music in much the same way. Sean Callery’s score is wildly propulsive (note the end-credits music), but I was struck by the variety of music this time – including, ironically, the reflective emotional piece in that final scene I dislike.

Some things drag a bit and get convoluted (Sheri’s cover-up of son Keith’s self-defense killing of daughter Nicole’s rapist is clunky as heck). But I love the slow-burn style of the early morning hours – Season 1 takes place in a literal day, from midnight to midnight — namely the rising tension as we realize Kim’s and Janet’s potential boyfriends are actually kidnappers. I don’t think that pacing, or the brilliant way it gave us characterization through intimacy rather than backstory, was ever recaptured.

Other elements would push later seasons toward high quality – including Chloe, who I am stunned to find out doesn’t pop up till Season 3. But the purity of this successfully executed, extremely risky storytelling experiment – played out on traditional TV, where the season finale isn’t fully conceived when the pilot episode airs — makes Season 1 tough to top. Maybe I’m just on a “24” high from Jack’s threats to pull out a suspect’s stomach lining with a towel or from Callery’s music. But I think “24’s” first day deserves a spot among the greatest TV seasons of all time.