24 – 2×01: ‘8:00am-9:00am’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Written by Joel Surnow & Michael Loceff
Directed by Jon Cassar
Original Air Date: 29th October, 2002

In many respects, the opening scene to 24’s second season sets out the stall of the series’ upcoming intentions right away. A terrorist suspect is being tortured for information, only here it isn’t by American armed forces who are waiting in the next room, but from who I assume are South Korean intelligence agents as the scene takes place in Seoul.

While the second season of 24 would get its knees deep into the realm of torture and would frequently be unabashed in having its heroic lead dole out of some of the more creative use of ‘enhanced interrogation’, the opening scene here suggests that the writers of the series were a little apprehensive at such an early stage of the season at showing ‘Uncle Sam’ be comfortable with crossing such lines to ensure public safety.

After the assassination plot of season one, the 24 writers upped the ante considerably with a second season that would not shy away from where the American psyche was post-9/11. Despite premiering two months after the events of the day, a portion of the first half of the season was planned, written and filmed before the attacks, and as such it feels very much like a pre-9/11 season of television.

That would not be the case with the series from this point on. If season one was content with a high octane but lower stakes story involving familial kidnapping, assassinations of senators and a revenge plot, right from its opening moments season two opens the world of 24 up to a more expansive nature; David Palmer is now President and we’re a long way away from the hotel rooms he occupied throughout season one.

Based at the Northwest Operations Command Centre, and referred to throughout as The OC (but not the Josh Schwartz one), long gone are the days when Palmer was running around hotel corridors and being able to sneak off to underground parking lots. He is now surrounded by an abundance of people and technology whose job it is to serve at the pleasure of the President and keep America safe and where a conversation with the Prime Minister of other countries is just a phone call away.

An assassination threat has given way to the worst-case scenario of a nuclear weapon under terrorist control, with the threat coming from a Middle Eastern source, with potential political backing.  It’s a new playing field that the series is operating in and one that it clearly feels very comfortable with.

This opening episode is fast paced, but not enough to unbalance the way in which it reacquaints us with characters we’ve come to care for while introducing us to some new faces both with the President and at CTU. Most of the new faces come from Palmer’s staff with the always welcome Michelle Forbes by his side and Timothy Carhart looking shifty even as he delivers plot exposition.

Back at CTU there is the welcome return of George, still stuck there because the recently elected President clearly didn’t make good on his deal to promote him, and Tony, both of whom are welcome sights to see, and who are now working alongside Michelle and Paula, played by Reiko Aylesworth and former Roseanne star Sara Gilbert.

The real meat of the episode belongs to Sutherland’s more embittered Jack. Still mourning the loss of Teri and with Kim wanting to keep him at arm’s length, this is a very different Jack to the one we were introduced to at the beginning of the first season. Bearded and clearly in the throes of depression, only the voice of Palmer and the threat being posed snaps him out of his melancholy, but also brings with it a level of extremity that we haven’t seen before from the character.

Certainly he had a ‘break the rules’ reputation as we saw last season, and nearly lost his job because of putting family before duty, but the last act of the episode suggests that the series is going to take the rogue agent quality of the character to heights that the first season never even suggested.

If any scene suggests where the headspace of the season is going to be, it’s when Jack brings in a former suspect turned FBI witness. The character, Marshall Goren, is a right-wing extremist and a paedophile with a list of crimes that are clearly stomach churning. His FBI deal means that he won’t face prosecution and he brags about it to Jack who then promptly shoots him dead and declares he needs a hacksaw, all the while explaining to a panic-stricken George that if you want results you have to get your hands dirty.

It’s this part of the character that would come to define Jack Bauer from this point on and we still haven’t gotten to the image of his interrogating suspects tied to chairs, being beaten all the while Sutherland screams about wanting the location of the bomb (it’s coming, trust me).

The political stance of the series is one that many debate, fuelled mostly by the fact that co-creator Joel Surnow was a vocal conservative who wasn’t shy about being friends with the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes. That the series will swing amongst the political pendulum frequently gets forgotten about, but here you get the sense that the series is using the platform of the series to somewhat play out the fantasy of how to deal with a terrorist threat, all the while in real-life the world would be dismayed by pictures coming out of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Gharib.

Guantanamo will get name-checked later in the season, as will Homeland Security, the latter being created in the aftermath of 9/11. It’s an indication of the wheel houses that Surnow, Cochran, Howard Gordon and the writers’ room of the series are about to grasp at.

It has the knock-on effect of being simultaneously a little off-putting and yet hard to look away from. 24’s ability to combine feature film production values, fast paced storytelling and taking the suspenseful edge that made the first season such a wonderful piece of work and marry it to a story of this nature means that you cannot switch it off. This is a series that has hooks that cannot help but grip you tightly. It’s too good to look away from, even if will become a more controversial series as a result.

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