When Bob Cochran and Joel Surnow developed their ambitious pitch for a real-time TV series set in the world of counter-terrorism, they could have had no idea that eight weeks before the first episode was set to air, the nation would be plunged into exactly the kind of horrific turmoil the show would be exploring for the next eight years.
But that’s what happened when “24” premiered on Nov. 6, 2001.
Somehow, viewers put aside their anger and confusion over world events long enough to embrace the show’s gritty escapism, making “24,” which wraps its eight-season run Monday night with a special, two-hour finale, a cultural phenomenon and a major hit for Fox.
Cochran, who left the series during Season 6, and executive producer Howard Gordon, who ran it since early in the first season, sat down with The Wrap to choose the 24 greatest moments in the “24” pantheon, presented here in chronological order.
So you’d better start reading; we’re on the clock –
Boop… beep… boop… beep… boop…
SEASON 1 | Episode 1 | Date: Nov. 6, 2001
The first episode begins with words on a screen and the low-key voice of Special Agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland): “The following takes place between midnight and 1 a.m. on the day of the California presidential primary. Events occur in real time.”
Those last four simple words signified a historic experiment in TV storytelling. Never before or since has a series taken place without cutting ahead or flashing back in time.
2. Mile-high terror
SEASON 1 | Episode 1 | Date: Nov. 6, 2001
A man and woman flirt on an international flight. We’ve been told there will be an attempt on the President’s life, and this guy looks suspicious. But it’s the seemingly airhead woman who’s the terrorist, which we find out when she steals his press card during sex in the bathroom, jabs a flight attendant in the neck with a hypodermic needle, sets off a time-bomb and ditches via parachute just before the plane blows to bits.
The scene was chosen not for its gripping suspense and cool special effects, but because it establishes a pattern of misdirection frequently seen on the show. Nothing is ever as it seems.
3. Trust no one
SEASON 1 | Episode 6 | Date: Dec. 18, 2001
Jack’s daughter Kim and her friend Janet York have been kidnapped. Janet’s father Alan has been running all over town with Jack’s wife Teri looking for them. When he finally finds the girl and gets some time alone with her, he kills her. We later learn he wasn’t really her father, a misconception we’d been laboring under for five episodes.
Cochran: “This was one of those early scenes that established a pattern right from the beginning that this show’s not going where you think.”
4. Nina, the mole
SEASON 1 | Episode23 | Date: May 14, 2002
We’ve been puzzling all season long over the identity of a traitor within CTU, the fictional Counter Terrorism Unit where Jack Bauer works. When we see villain Andre Drazen talking with his inside source on the phone, we know the next face we see will be that of the mole. On the other end of the call, speaking to Drazen in Serbian, is Jack’s second in command and former lover, Nina Myers.
Gordon: “We always tried to think of what was the last thing the audience could possibly expect to happen, and then we’d try to make that happen. We’d have to go back and retrofit to set up clues to how the surprises were possible. But we’d always satisfy the requirements — or at least it seemed that way in our frantic moments of desperation.”
5. A Split in the White House
SEASON 1 | Episode 24 | Date: May21, 2002
First Lady Sherry Palmer (Penny Johnson Jerald) became one of the great characters in the show’s history, not only because her Shakespearean ambitions blinded her to everything else, but also because of the effect she had on her husband. When David catches her trying to destroy evidence in the scandal surrounding their son, the two have it out. Her behavior here ultimately leads to their divorce.
Gordon: “When they fight, we we can see her point of view — that he’d have gotten nowhere without her and has been sort of off-loading the dirty work onto his wife. The façade between them falls away, and the vulnerability and anger was really chilling. It was an interesting moment of revelation on both parts.”
6. Death hits home
SEASON 1 | Episode24 | Date: May21, 2002
In one of the show’s signature moments, Nina kills the person who discovers she is the mole: Jack’s wife Teri Bauer. This scene was picked for two reasons: 1) it signified that any character, no matter how beloved or vital to the story, is fair game, and 2) it set Jack on a downward emotional spiral that lasted well into the next season.
7. How far will Jack go? Nope, farther than that
SEASON 2 | Episode 25 | Date: Oct. 29, 2002
The season opens with the still-grief-stricken Jack being summoned back to CTU to stop a terror group from detonating a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles. Deciding to infiltrate the group, he orders one of its sleazeball rivals brought in, and he murders him right in front of the shocked head of CTU. He then moves forward with a plan to deliver the corpse’s head to the suspected nuclear terror group.
This scene was chosen as an early example of Jack going to extremes, then immediately topping himself, which he does by eyeing the dead sleazeball’s neck and announcing, “I’m gonna need a hacksaw.” The line quickly becomes part of the Jack Bauer lexicon.
SEASON 2 | Episode 35 | Date: Feb. 4, 2003
Kate Warner, with whom Jack develops a romantic relationship, is concerned that her sister Marie’s fiancé Reza is a terrorist. In fact, it’s Marie who is the terrorist, which we find out when she suddenly kills Reza. Her last words to him before the fatal shots: “I’m sorry, you really are sweet.” The producers liked this one as another example of the series’ legendary misdirection.
SEASON 2 | Episode 39 | Date: Mar. 4, 2003
In our years of TV viewing, we’ve seen many heroes disarm many bombs, preventing many massive explosions in the nick of time. So that’s what audiences are expecting when, in the season’s 15th hour, the clock ticks down on an impending nuclear disaster.
The producers chose this scene to illustrate the show’s willingness to break unwritten rules. They also liked the drama of Jack, saying goodbye to his daughter and volunteering to sacrifice his life by flying the bomb into a relatively safe spot in the desert. He learns in mid-flight that George Mason, the head of CTU who had previously been exposed to deadly nuclear radiation, has stowed away on the plane. Mason takes over the controls on the fatal flight, sacrificing himself so Jack can escape unharmed.
10. Palmer removed from office
SEASON 2 | Episode 45 | Date: Apr. 29, 2003
How closely did the show’s story lines hew to real events? The hounding of President David Palmer by political enemies and special interests seemed an obvious extension of Bill Clinton’s old troubles. The revelation that these same forces were pushing the U.S. into a retaliatory war on trumped-up evidence predated widespread awareness of similar events from the George W. Bush administration.
The producers picked the scene in which Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) is forced from office because in clinging to his principals under such extreme conditions, he wins a level of audience affection enjoyed by no other character, with the possible exceptions of Jack and Chloe.
11. Jack home-schools Kim
SEASON 2 | Episode 46 | Date: May 6, 2003
Kim temporarily knocks out Gary Matheson, the murderous father of the child she’s been caring for. Hysterical, she calls her father for help. As Matheson revives, Jack demands that she shoot him, forcefully talking her through the ordeal. Matheson is still breathing, so Jack makes her shoot him again.
The intensity of the two actors — Elisha Cuthbert’s barely controlled hysteria playing against Sutherland’s forced emotional restraint — earned this scene’s place on the list. Gordon: “The show lived in these hyper-suspenseful, emotional moments. Where others would have cut away, we’d always try to let them play out.
12. Michelle takes a stand
SEASON 3 | Episode 64 | Date: Mar. 30, 2004
A terrorist unleashes a deadly virus, using a hotel as a crucible to prove his murderous intent. CTU agent Michelle Dessler (Reyko Aylesworth) tries to maintain order, but the situation gives rise to extreme behavior as people are beginning to die. Michelle has put the hotel under quarantine and is forced to shoot an otherwise innocent guest who tries to escape. The scene hammers home the “24” theme that individuals must sometimes be sacrificed for the common good and proves that point on the back of a sympathetic agent under duress.
13. Execution of Ryan Chappelle
SEASON 3 | Episode 66 | Date: Apr. 18, 2004
His hand forced by terrorists, President Palmer orders Jack to kill CTU director Ryan Chappelle. We can’t conceive they’ll actually go through with this, but it’s exactly what happens. Jack takes Chappelle out to the train yard, and when the doomed Chappelle is unable to pull the trigger himself, he gets down on his knees and allows Jack to plug him in the back of the head.
According to Gordon, Sutherland often mentions this scene as one of the toughest moments he ever had to play on the show.
14. Air Force One shot down
SEASON 4 | Episode 88 | Date: Apr. 4, 2005
Terrorist mastermind Habib Marwan has hired a mercenary pilot to steal a stealth fighter and shoot down Air Force One carrying President Keeler toward Los Angeles from Mexico. Jack gets the pilot on the radio but can’t force him to abort the mission. The presidential jet goes down over the Mojave Desert, gravely injuring Keeler and forcing his removal from office.
With all of Jack Bauer’s heroics, producers needed to give him some epic failures to keep things real, and this was among the biggest.
15. Chloe gets her hands dirty
SEASON 4 | Episode 91 | Apr. 25, 2005
CTU’s resident IT superstar Chloe O’Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub) is ordered into the field to retrieve some intel from a suspect’s computer. Almost immediately, the agents protecting her are murdered, and Chloe finds herself under siege. She escapes through the house, out a window and into a car with bulletproof glass, but she doesn’t have the keys. As her assailant prepares to ram the car, Chloe jumps out with a rifle and fires repeatedly, killing him.
Chloe began life on the series as a brilliant, maladjusted techno-nerd, but through her added layers of depth and loyalty to Jack, she gradually became the one of the show’s most beloved characters. This scene helps establish her street-cred, putting her in position to eventually take over as acting head of CTU in Season 8.
16. Death of Paul Raines
SEASON 4 | Episode 92 | Date:
May 2, 2005
Jack’s relationship with Audrey Raines takes a big hit when he feels he has to torture her ex-husband Paul, who turns out to be innocent. Paul forgives him and in fact, later takes a bullet for him, saving Jack’s life. So how is he rewarded? With Audrey looking on, Jack forces a surgeon at gunpoint to abandon Paul and operate instead on a criminal informant. Paul dies minutes later.
The producers continually search for new ways to torture Jack emotionally as penance for the physical torture he dishes out. By making him cause the death of the hero and rival who saved his life, they hit a new high.
17. Assassination of David Palmer
SEASON 5 | Episode 97 | Date: Jan. 15, 2006
Minutes into the season’s first episode, former President David Palmer is writing his memoirs in his brother’s L.A. apartment, when he’s killed by a sniper’s bullet. His death becomes the lynchpin to the entire season, forcing Jack back to work for CTU after he had gone underground with a new identity. It sets off a rapid-fire chain of events, including a record three moments that make this list.
18. Michelle killed by car bomb
SEASON 5 | Episode 97 | Date: Jan. 15, 2006
Jack faked his death at the end of the previous season, and only four people know he’s still alive: Palmer, Chloe, Michelle and Tony. But someone else knows too — someone who wants to frame Jack for the murder of all four. The first domino to fall after Palmer is Michelle, blown up outside her home in an explosion meant to kill Tony too. This moment changes Tony forever, driving him to desperate measures in his search for revenge.
19. Martha Logan gets ready for her close-up
SEASON 5 | Episode 97 | Date: Jan. 15, 2006
“24” may be known for suspense, gritty violence and political intrigue, but producers also took pride in drawing unique, multi-dimensional characters. One of the best was First Lady Martha Logan (Jean Smart), a cross between the Nixon era’s Martha Mitchell and Blanche DuBois. She’s introduced here, having her makeup and hair done, looking at herself in a mirror and announcing to her aide’s dismay, ” I look like a wedding cake,” before dunking her head in the sink and asking to start over.
Gordon chose this scene because it quickly establishes Martha as bold, likable and emotionally volatile — traits that later come into play as she becomes an unreliable whistle-blower against her husband’s conspiracy.
20. Collateral damage
SEASON 5 | Episode 107 | Date: Mar. 6, 2006
Jack goes to the home of his old mentor-turned-bad, Christopher Henderson to search for proof that Henderson sold nerve gas to terrorists. In an attempt to make Henderson talk, Jack shoots and injures his innocent wife Miriam, an old friend who had cared for Jack’s daughter Kim when Jack was presumed dead.
This scene highlights how far Jack is willing to go to track down those responsible for David Palmer’s murder. In fact, he does have limits, which we see here when he backs off his threat to cripple Miriam with the next shot, even though Henderson still refuses to talk.
21. Death of Edgar Stiles
SEASON 5 | Episode 108 | Date: Mar. 6, 2006
Edgar (Louis Lombardi), Chloe’s misfit male CTU counterpart, is unable to make it into one of the sealed-off safe rooms when CTU is attacked with poison nerve gas. Chloe and others watch in agony through the windows, unable to help, as Edgar falls to the ground, dying. In Edgar’s honor, the producers took the unusual step of silencing the episode’s final ticking clock. Gordon says he didn’t realize how affecting that scene would be, and it was made all the more powerful by Chloe’s devastation.
22. A nuke in Valencia
SEASON 6 | Episodes 124-125 | Dates: Jan. 22, Jan. 29, 2007
Episode 124 ends with the detonation of a suitcase nuke in Valencia. Ramping up the stakes from the Season 2 nuke in the desert, this one’s in a populated area, and casualties are high. Jack, seemingly defeated, tells his boss to apologize to the President; he can’t take any more and he’s quitting.
Still stunned by the carnage when the next episode begins, Jack spots a helicopter precariously perched on a rooftop with someone trapped inside and moves into action as if by rote. He saves the man moments before the chopper falls to the ground and explodes.
Gordon chose this two-part scene because it says something about Jack and about the human condition: “The magnitude of the event overwhelmed him and he was adamant about quitting. It took that one micro-event of saving the man’s life to get him back.”
23. The new Tony
SEASON 7 | Episode 145 | Date: Jan. 11, 2009
We last saw CTU agent Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) being killed in Season 5 as he sought revenge for the death of his wife, Michelle. Now he turns up alive — and he’s turned bad. Gordon said the creative team was aware that some might deem this bit of retro-engineering Tony’s survival a jump-the-shark moment for the show, but the dramatic impact of his return was well worth the potential backlash. In fact, producers first conceived the character as someone else — Gary Oldman was discussed for the role — but they decided bringing back Tony would have more emotional resonance.
SEASON 8 | Episode 192
Despite the fact that a script has reportedly been written for an upcoming “24” movie and that Sutherland has been talking it up in the press, Gordon refused to confirm for the record that Bauer survives the show’s final two hours. He does promise that the creators give the character a fittingly dark but satisfying sendoff that deserves a spot on this list. Only time will tell if we agree.
Boop… beep… boop… beep… boop…