Written by Robert Cochran & Joel Surnow
Directed by Stephen Hopkins
Original Air Date: 6th November 2001
Towards the end of 24’s award winning pilot episode, the character of Mandy (Mia Kirshner), who has been travelling on a 747 from Munich bound for Los Angeles, is revealed to be a terrorist who steals the I.D of the photographer sitting beside her, and who we’ve been led to believe was an assassin on his way to kill Senator David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), arms an explosive device that destroys the plane, killing everyone onboard, while she skydives away from the explosive carnage falling out of the sky.
What made the scene such a stomach churning one at the time was that the episode was airing not long after the events of 9/11; two months, in fact, in the US, and eventually premiering on British television, via the BBC, in March of 2002.
That 24 began not long after the events of that day and would play for nearly a decade on our screens as US foreign policy was dictated by the administration of George W. Bush and the War on Terror, along with uses of terms such as Axis of Evil, fuelled by figures in the administration such as Vice President Dick Cheney, cannot be underestimated; if there was a show that was summing up where the world and America was in terms of geo-politics, 24 was it.
The first season of 24 would be something of a cult hit as opposed to a massive commercial one, but a more substantial level of success would eventually take hold in season two with a storyline that was set to engage with real world events in a much more overt way, but during its first year on the air 24 was more of a critically acclaimed cult show, ensnaring a devoted audience but whose low numbers were somewhat put down to it being a show that was intensely serialised. The 2001-2002 season was one where the Fox Network was losing many of their shows that had been previously hits; The X-Files, Ally McBeal and Dark Angel were all about to face the axe or come to conclusions and 24 was too distinctive a newcomer to let go off.
Not only was the show launching itself into an era of American network television that was about to fully embrace shows with a sustained serialised narrative (Alias would debut on ABC a few weeks before 24, and subsequent years would see the premieres of Lost, Prison Break, Heroes and too many others to list here, but many of which would barely make it past a single season), but it was doing so while the news was recounting events in Afghanistan and Iraq, wars fuelled by the terrorist acts that brought down the World Trade Centre in 2001, while the subject of enhanced interrogation would become a major source of controversy and discussion, and which 24 would find itself right in the middle of due to its own depiction of a lead character whose primary belief seemed to be that the ends justifies the means.
To go back to the first season of 24 is almost to be presented with a different show to the one it was about to become famous for, but then again those first batch of episodes, including its opening episode, were written and filmed during a period of time when Osama Bin Laden wasn’t exactly a household name.
While the first episode introduces a narrative related to a political assassination of David Palmer, the first African-American to have what is described as the first legitimate chance of being President of the United States, the episode and the subsequent season that is about to follow isn’t as concerned with the political landscape as it was about to be somewhat controversial and famous for.
The series was the creation of Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran; Surnow had written for The Equalizer and Wiseguy, while Cochran had contributed to Falcon Crest and Jag, while together the two became showrunners of USA Network’s popular remake of La Femme Nikita starring Peta Wilson, and which various actors and behind the scenes talent would end up becoming involved in 24 at various points in its run.
Serialisation on American network television wasn’t something that was ground-breaking or new in 2001; ever since Steven Bochco created Hill Street Blues, American networks had taken to dabbling with shows with storylines that weren’t necessarily resolved within a week, but some of those shows ended up being more critical darlings with small but devoted audiences than becoming huge ratings successes; the 90s had seen Bochco create Murder One, a criminal law series that focused on one case across the entire twenty-three episode run of its first season, complete with brilliant central performance from Daniel Benzali and a superb supporting turn from Stanley Tucci, but the less than stellar ratings saw that series break its second season up into three smaller arcs as well as replace Benzali with Anthony LaPaglia and with it the loss of that devoted following that stuck with season one.
In fact, at various points during the first season of 24 it was clear that the Fox Network had something special on their hands; the fanbase the series ensnared that first year were devoted to the show and critics’ reviews, especially in the first half of the season, were stellar, but there was even talk during that year of changing things to a more formulaic run should it get renewed for a second year, talks which came to nought and the show was allowed to stick with its sustained narrative formula for each subsequent season.
Right away, the series is filled with bravado and confidence, and this is one of the most assured openings to any television series of the era; we now talk a lot about cinematic television, but 24 was right in the middle of that era when movies and television were starting to intermingle in a way that they never had before; The West Wing had brought Rob Lowe to television and back to the public eye, and in a similar piece of casting, 24 turned to the Brat Pack and relaunched the career of one of its most famous faces whose career wasn’t flourishing as it had once done. The choice of Kiefer Sutherland would become a defining part of the series’ fame and popularity, with nearly every piece of promotion for the series centred around Sutherland in character as Jack Bauer brandishing a gun or getting ready for action like a less suave, American James Bond.
When we meet the character here for the first time he’s married, having moved back home after a trial separation from his wife Teri (Leslie Hope). While Teri and Jack’s daughter Kim (Elisha Cuthbert) are at loggerheads, Jack is in good graces with both on their own separate terms, but any potential happiness is out the window along with Kim as she sneaks off for a night of partying with her best friend and two boys.
It was the missing daughter element that Surnow and Cochran talked about early on in developing the series. Surnow had the idea for a real time show that took place over a twenty-four hour time frame but the two of them couldn’t quite grasp what the story would be or what could keep characters awake for that period of time. Both fathers, they figured a missing child would be one thing, while a political assassination would be something else to hang a series like this around.
While there had been other espionage flavoured series on the air over the years (Mission: Impossible, Danger Man and The Man from UNCLE), 24 instantly moved away from the heightened, James Bond-esque world of those types of shows into something more evocative of an NYPD Blue, with director Stephen Hopkins, of Predator 2 and Blown Away fame, utilising hand held cameras, and also being the one to suggest split screen due to the amount of telephone conversations throughout the episodes.
It was these decisions that would cement a visual style for 24 that would make it the most distinctive show of the decade and the era. Right away the series, which the BBC aired in widescreen format upon its UK debut, looked legitimately like a feature film. Instead of going for a clear cut title and credit sequence like so many other television shows, we get a title card bleeping the number 24 to dramatic life, followed by Sutherland telling the audience what time and day the episode takes place in, which then segues to a credit sequence where the credits themselves change position depending on where the split screen boxes are on the screen.
The first episode moves quickly, even if little of the show’s trademark action is in full force, at least compared to later episodes. The air plane sequence is the one element that reminds you that this is indeed 24 with its ability to go worst case scenario, but there is a wonderful sense of world building throughout; the characters are introduced crisply and cleanly, with very little clumsy exposition (something the show would make a habit of in later seasons), while there is a lived-in feeling to proceedings that makes conversations regarding Jack busting agents for taking bribes, his antagonism with Tony (Carlos Bernard) and respect for Richard Walsh (Michael O’ Neill, pulling double time with this and The West Wing) feel real and plausible.
We get a sense of Kim’s troublesome behaviour when she lies to impress potential boyfriend Rick (Daniel Bess) that her dad is dead, and while Teri has little to do other than stay at home, make coffee and worry, the ending takes her out to those darkened LA streets to find her daughter.
Then there’s David Palmer. Seven years before we’d see a person of colour as President, the series was presenting an African-American aspiring for the highest political office in the US. There’s a good-natured feeling to Palmer here, and a charm that the series will twist and turn with over the next couple of seasons. Dennis Haysbert has a presidential aura to him, exuding a commanding, yet charming presence, but this being a drama, there must be something dramatic to drive his story.
A telephone call from a reporter hints at some darker drama, an allegation of some sort that appears to rub the character up the wrong way. Suffice to say I’ll not spoil it here, and it’ll not take too long for subject of that call to be revealed, but the creators were always honest that they didn’t even know the nature of that call when they wrote the pilot.
Race and 24 would go hand in hand and sometimes not always for the best. One doesn’t want to get ahead of themselves when writing about the pilot episode of a television series, and while 24 was applauded for not only delivering a storyline involving an African-American character striving for President, it would also get into trouble when dealing with storylines involving characters from other regions, countries and religious backgrounds.
All those things were in 24’s future, and for now the series was focusing on a smaller scale story, but which would be told with one of the most innovative formats conceived for television at the time. Of course, 24 wouldn’t be made in this way now. Even when it came back for two subsequent revival seasons in 2014 and 2017, they would cut the episodes down to twelve and use one of them to utilise a time jump to make it a twenty four hour period.
Sitting down to watch 24 in 2002 on that Sunday night on BBC 2, there was a genuinely new and original feeling to it. Sure, stories involving political assassination and a mole in the organisation were nothing new and had been part and parcel of the spy and espionage genres for as long as they had existed, but the fact the series was doing it with such visual panache and with a concept that meant we were watching events in ‘real time’ made it feel different and original.
It was the beginning of one of the most controversial runs of any mainstream hit on television in a very long time, a piece of work that was award winning, commercially popular, era defining and yet would ask big questions of everyone who worked on it and watched it about the events of the decade and the show’s own stance on those subjects.
The clock was ticking.
24 is available to stream on Hulu in the U.S, and on Star via Disney Plus in the U.K.