I recently rewatched the first season of the nail-biting real-time show 24. And with the exception of a few brick cellphones and ancient computer monitors, the show really hasn’t aged a bit. It is still holds up against the heavily serialized action-oriented programming we see today. However what intrigues me the most about this early season is not just Jack’s flowing blond hair (which would soon disappear in later seasons) but rather the dedicated effort the writers put in to fleshing out Jack as a character. Specifically Jack comes into the show with a strongly defined backstory.
While 24 is pointedly about stopping terrorist threats, the show consistently lays the groundwork for creating memorable characters and establishing genuine conflict between them. Some of the most exciting elements of the show are not shootouts or car chases but instead quieter character moments between two people each with very different motivations and point-of-views. Sometimes it ends with reconciliation but other times with bitter finality and standing animosity. It could be Jack apologizing for being a distant father or it could be the President firing his top aide. Either way because we are rooted in the characters and their hours of development and set up, these conversations tend to be just as thrilling if not more so than the actual conflict with the terrorists.
Season One hinges around two main storylines: Jack’s attempt to rescue his family and Senator David Palmer’s handling of an impending news story concerning his son. Both these stories are connected by an impending assassination attempt on Palmer, one which Jack is assigned to prevent. While the narrative takes on different modes, switching between discovering moles, locating kidnapped family members, discovering startling new information, and Jack repeatedly breaking protocol, the show always stays grounded in the history of these characters.
In the opening episode we meet Jack Bauer in a state that we will rarely ever see him in: a family man managing mundane family issues at his home. We find out right away that things are not all well at home. Jack and his wife Teri have been separated and only recently Jack has decided to move back in. Caught in the cross-fire is their daughter Kim who plays the classic rebellious teenager. Right off the bat we know that Jack is not a perfect guy. He is trying to make things work but clearly his work often takes priority over his family. As we will see quite vividly throughout the rest of the season, Jack will pretty much do anything necessary to protect his family regardless of whether it jeopardizes his career or breaks the law. His motivation is simple. He wants to make up for his past mistakes. As it turns out, he is the very reason why they are in danger at all.
Only a few minutes into the first episode, Jack is called into the office, the Los Angeles branch of the fictional Counter-Terrorist Unit where he just so happens to be the director. For about one and only one episode in the entire nine season run, Jack is the head of CTU. While he won’t spend much time in his glass office upstairs, the location is an important reminder that Jack is (or used to be) in charge around here. Even when he is in custody or facing serious accusations, that office always hangs overhead as a reminder that in someways Jack is more qualified and more experienced to handle the current threats than anyone else in the room.
At CTU things are also a bit complicated. We find out more very quickly about Jack. During his separation from Teri, Jack had an affair with his second-in-command, Nina Meyers. The drama at the office is compounded by the fact that Nina is now in a relationship with another high-ranking CTU agent, Tony Almeida. To add another layer to the drama, Jack is less-than-popular around CTU these days for exposing several agents who took bribes and putting them in jail. This plot point will pop up later in the season when Jack’s tactical support team is headed by the vengeful partner of one of these disgraced agents.
What do all these things have in common? They all refer to events that took place before the show’s central conflict started. Jack is not some nameless faceless expendable agent. He is a struggling family man, a romantically entangled boss, and a controversial figure within his own agency. It doesn’t hurt that in the very first episode Jack demonstrates his peculiar methods by shooting his boss George Mason with a tranquilizer gun and blackmailing him to get information.
From the outset this show had a clear vision for Jack Bauer as an intensely Machiavellian hero, one who is willing to get the results that no one else can through extreme measures. If Jack often operates in a morally gray area where ends justify the means, he generally seems reluctant to hurt people and always accepts the consequences of his actions. To keep Jack from being defined by these traits, the first season is built around his family dynamics and pays close attention to his relationships with his co-workers at CTU. Jack quickly emerges as a well-rounded character who is good at his job and relatable on a personal level.
This personal touch extends even to seemingly minor characters like CTU district manager Richard Walsh. A potentially forgettable figure, Walsh doesn’t last more than a few episodes. Yet before he dies, we find out that he saved Jack’s life once. Walsh is one of Jack’s mentors. Regardless of the many revolving doors and plot points on the show, the writers take special care to add a sense of history to the characters. It may feel more earned in some places than others, but it’s character focus like this that elevates 24 above many other spy shows in this genre.
Just as Jack begins the show in media res, so does his counterpart Senator Palmer. At the forefront of everything going on is the reality that David Palmer is first serious African American presidential candidate in American history. He has a shot at the White House. So whether it’s assassination by bullets or character assassination by the media, the success of Palmer’s campaign always carries a greater symbolic weight than just the career of one man. And as it turns out, Palmer’s greatest challenge is not so much winning an election but rather managing his family. We find out early on that there is indeed much backstory that effect this day’s events.
It begins with a seemingly baseless accusation against Palmer’s son Keith, a rumor that turns out to be true. When Palmer looks into it he discovers that his son, daughter, wife, and sleazy adviser Carl have been covering it up for seven years. Things only escalate when some of Palmer’s largest financial backers find out about it and take matters into their own hands. The inciting incident is buried long in the past but only now has emerged to exact vengeance.
Underlying all of this is story of rapidly deteriorating trust between Palmer and his ambitious wife Sherry who continuously takes matters into her own hands. She has been undermining her husband for years but always because she believes it to be in his best interest. Sherry will go to any lengths, right or wrong, to protect her husband’s political career. It’s been happening long before the day’s events but it is only now being fully revealed to Palmer.
Great backstory results in great characters and ultimately great drama. It gives texture and flavor to what might otherwise be the routine proceedings of intelligence reports, political scandals, and computer technobabble. 24 is widely praised for its inventive format, its relentless action, and its endless dramatic thrills, but I think much of its greatness comes from its willingness to develop its protagonists through events that precede much of the main narrative.