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Revisiting 24: Day One

NOTE: If you've never seen the first season of "24" you might want to skip this article, as it contains significant plot revelations. A Spoiler Warning is included below.

When the clocks began ticking and the screens split, the world was introduced to a concept both invigorating and terrifying – real-time action where every second counts. On November 6th, 2001, the premiere of "24" burst onto our television screens, breathing life into a genre that had become somewhat predictable. But there was something unique about this series that set it apart from its contemporaries.

"24" was not just another spy thriller. It was a roller-coaster of emotions, delivered in 24-hour real-time episodes. Every episode represented one hour in the life of its protagonist, Jack Bauer, played with unmatched intensity by Kiefer Sutherland. The show, with its groundbreaking format, gave viewers an adrenaline-infused hour of action-packed drama, interlaced with personal stories, betrayals, and of course, the ever-present clock ticking down.

Jack Bauer, an agent with the Counter-Terrorist Unit (CTU) in Los Angeles, was the quintessential action hero – intense, skilled, and haunted by his past. Kiefer Sutherland, previously known for movies like "Stand by Me" and "The Lost Boys", breathed life into Jack, adding layers of depth, pain, and vulnerability. Over the years, Jack's character would evolve, face personal losses, moral dilemmas, and countless threats, but his commitment to saving his country never wavered. And while we got to see Jack face numerous challenges over the years, Day One remains a crucial focal point in his journey.

Joining Sutherland was an ensemble cast that elevated the show to new heights. There was Leslie Hope as Teri Bauer, Jack's wife (remember her in "Crimson Peak"?), Elisha Cuthbert playing their daughter Kim Bauer (later to be seen in "The Girl Next Door"), and Sarah Clarke as the complex Nina Myers (who also appeared in the "Twilight" saga). Carlos Bernard played Tony Almeida (a face recognized from "The Orville"), and Dennis Haysbert brought gravitas to the role of Senator David Palmer, a character whose political journey would play a central role in the show's universe. He's more widely known for his role in "The Unit".

"24" launched with a riveting pilot that set the stage for its groundbreaking real-time format. Opening with a midnight raid in Kuala Lumpur, the narrative swiftly transitions to Los Angeles, introducing us to Jack Bauer, a dedicated agent at the Counter-Terrorist Unit (CTU) grappling with personal challenges involving his wife, Teri, and daughter, Kim. Jack's world is turned upside-down when he learns of a plot to assassinate Senator David Palmer, a prominent African-American presidential candidate. The stakes escalate when Jack's daughter goes missing and he's faced with the prospect of a mole within CTU. To compound his challenges, Jack is confronted with a staggering revelation: he might be ordered to carry out the assassination of Palmer himself. Juxtaposing high-octane action with personal drama, the episode delves into themes of trust, duty, and the gray areas of morality. The real-time format, emphasized by the ever-present ticking clock, coupled with the use of split-screens, immerses viewers into the urgency and intensity of Jack's world. The pilot masterfully blends political intrigue with personal stakes, laying the foundation for a series that promises to keep viewers on the edge of their seats.

"24" debuted at a time when the United States was grappling with the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, an event that profoundly shook the nation and altered the course of world events. The show's premiere in November 2001 was barely two months after the tragic events that saw the Twin Towers fall. The nation was in mourning, the War on Terror had been initiated, and a palpable sense of anxiety and patriotism permeated the American consciousness.

This intense socio-political backdrop significantly influenced viewers' reception of "24." The show's themes of terrorism, national security, and the moral dilemmas faced by those entrusted to protect the nation resonated deeply with audiences. Jack Bauer's relentless pursuit of terrorists mirrored America's own determination to bring the culprits of 9/11 to justice. The threats Bauer faced on-screen were reminiscent of the very real threats the US was confronting.

Furthermore, Senator David Palmer, an African-American presidential candidate in the series, seemed to foreshadow the political landscape's evolution, which would later see Barack Obama becoming the first African-American president. The show became not just entertainment but a reflection of the zeitgeist of the era, capturing the fears, hopes, and complexities of a nation at a pivotal moment in its history.

In addition to this, several behind-the-scenes elements made "24" the phenomenon it was. Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran's creation was a genius blend of narrative and technique. The split-screen method used in the show was innovative, keeping track of multiple storylines simultaneously, ensuring viewers were always in the heart of the action. The real-time format, while challenging, added to the urgency of the narrative.

Throughout its debut season, "24" raked in impressive viewing figures, with a debut that attracted 11.6 million viewers in the U.S. By the time the season closed, its consistent storytelling and cliffhangers ensured a dedicated fanbase, with over 8.6 million viewers tuning in for the finale. And it wasn't just the jaw dropping finale, rather throughout the whole of Day One there were twists that left fans gasping, betrayals that broke hearts, and moments that are now etched in television folklore.

Spoiler Warning:

  1. The Mole Within CTU: One of the major plot twists of the first season was the revelation that Nina Myers, Jack's colleague and former lover, was a traitor. This betrayal was a shocking twist, especially since she had been assisting Jack throughout the day. Her duplicity was further emphasized when she killed Teri Bauer to cover up her tracks.

  2. Teri Bauer's Pregnancy and Death: Another heart-wrenching twist was the discovery of Teri's pregnancy, followed by her tragic death in the hands of Nina Myers in the season finale. This double revelation intensified the impact of Nina's betrayal and set a dark and tragic tone for Jack's character moving forward.

  3. The Real Target: While most of the season centered around the assassination threat to Senator David Palmer, it was revealed that the actual motive behind the day's events was revenge against Jack Bauer. The Drazen family sought vengeance for the death of their family members, which Jack was responsible for during a past mission.

  4. Andre and Alexis Drazen: Initially, it was believed that the primary antagonist was Victor Drazen. However, as the season progressed, it was unveiled that his sons, Andre and Alexis Drazen, played pivotal roles in orchestrating the events of the day, adding more layers to the conspiracy.

  5. Amnesia Subplot: After escaping from her captors, Teri Bauer suffers from temporary amnesia, which adds another layer of tension to the story. Her memory loss, combined with her perilous situation, heightens the emotional stakes and adds a touch of personal drama amidst the overarching political and action-packed scenarios.

Each twist in the first season of "24" served to elevate the stakes, complicating the narrative in unexpected ways and ensuring that viewers remained glued to their screens, anticipating the next unpredictable turn.

"24" set the tone for shows that followed. The likes of "Homeland" and "Prison Break" borrowed elements, be it the intense pacing or the high-stakes drama. Yet, "24" remains in a league of its own, with Day One serving as the foundation for an era of television that dared viewers to blink.

In retrospect, "24: Day One" was not just another season of a TV show; it was a cultural moment. It reminded audiences of the fragility of time and the lengths one would go to save the day. It brought action, politics, personal drama, and suspense together in a blend that few have replicated since.

The legacy of "24" is undeniable. But to truly appreciate its impact, one must go back to where it all began, with a ticking clock, a man on a mission, and a day that changed television forever.

View all our 24 retrospectives here.

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