The odds were stacked against Jack Bauer from the start. When Fox announced in 2001 that it would premiere an unconventional drama called 24 that played out in real time, critics were naturally skeptical: How could a network commit to a show that demanded 24 episodes when most fail after only four? Thankfully, it ended up taking eight adrenaline-fueled seasons before Fox stopped the clock on all those international crises, terrifying interrogations, and pesky government moles. In anticipation of the two-hour series finale at 8 p.m. on May 24, EW talked with the cast and key behind-the-scenes players about creating such a killer show — and why so many people on it simply had to be killed.
STARTING THE CLOCK
The year was 2000. Wrapping up a five-year gig working on USA’s La Femme Nikita, Joel Surnow was brushing his teeth in the bathroom when inspiration struck: What if he could do 24 episodes of a series in real time? He immediately pitched the idea to Robert Cochran, a friend and writer he met in the early ’90s while working on Falcon Crest.
Robert Cochran (Co-creator) I said, ”Forget it.” It was an ingenious idea but an impossible one. The whole real-time aspect would be so logistically hard to do.
Joel Surnow (Co-creator) I said, ”You’re right.” So I hung up and continued to brush my teeth. But as ideas tend to do, they germinate in your subconscious, so Bob and I met at an International House of Pancakes and started riffing on real-time ideas. What if it took place the day of a wedding?
Cochran You can imagine people staying up for 24 hours for a wedding. People start backing out, getting cold feet. Then we realized we were not wedding kind of guys.
Surnow We hit upon the idea that it’s got to be a race against time. We mapped out this whole story about a guy who is trying to stop an assassination at the same time his daughter goes missing. We pitched it to FX’s Peter Liguori, who bought it. But when we started looking at the economics of trying to do it on their budgets, it was impossible. So I told a friend at Fox.
Gail Berman (Fox Entertainment President, 2000-05) We instantly sensed it was amazing. It was a male soap opera. The question was then, Would men watch a serialized show?
Cochran We didn’t have anybody in mind when we wrote Jack, but when Kiefer [Sutherland] was first suggested we were doubtful. We still had that Brat Pack image of his in our heads. I remember asking whether he would have a teenage daughter, and someone said, ”He does in real life!” That changed things.
Kiefer Sutherland (Jack Bauer) I was drawn to TV because you couldn’t find good drama anywhere else. 24 took things to another genre that really disappeared except for The Bourne Identity.
Preston Beckman (Fox’s Head of Scheduling) I think it was the last drama pilot we picked up that year, and I remember being frustrated because we knew, logistically, it wouldn’t be the easiest pilot to make. We knew it would be a tremendous gamble because if we put it on and for some reason pulled it, we were going to get screwed.
Surnow September 11 happened two months before we were supposed to air. There was a lot of hand-wringing, even though our first-season story wasn’t really a terrorist story, it was kind of like an FBI stop-an-assassination. We didn’t get offensive until later.
Beckman The bigger issue was that we blew up a plane in the pilot, so we just took out the visual effect.
Though the show received rave reviews when it debuted on Nov. 6, 2001, the first-year ratings were underwhelming, averaging 8.6 million per episode. Still, the writers forged ahead with a plan to bring season 1 to a controversial climax.
Berman I hung up on them after they told me they wanted to kill Jack’s wife, Teri, in the finale. She was pregnant! You cannot shoot a pregnant woman in the Valley!
Surnow To her credit, Gail thought about it some more. We shot it both ways, but when everybody saw it, they realized it was the only way to end the season.
Leslie Hope (Teri Bauer) When Joel said, ”Come on, I want to talk to you” on set, I actually turned back to the crew to joke, ”Ha-ha, I’m going to go get fired” — having no idea that the character was about to meet her untimely end.
Sutherland People sent in tens of thousands of letters, all of which started with ”I hate you guys for doing this” and ”How could you do this?” But at the end of the letter, somehow they managed to work themselves back to ”I also love you for it, and that’s why I’ll watch the show.”
Elisha Cuthbert (Kim Bauer) I think everyone knew pretty early on that if they killed my mother, everyone was disposable.
It wasn’t clear whether Fox would renew 24 for a second season; the network even flirted with changing the format of the show before eventually finding a great promotional tool in the form of a DVD.
Berman We had internal problems getting the show reordered for a second season.
Gary Newman (Chairman of 20th Century Fox) It was determined this was a show that couldn’t repeat on the network, and there would be no syndication value.
Berman I had to be tricky. I needed to be able to show that 24 could be done closed-ended.
Surnow She had [24 co-writer] Michael Loceff and me write a script for the second season in which the show would be a stand-alone. Each show took place in a 24-hour period, and it would just be one terrorist a week, the villain of the week.
Dana Walden (Chairman of 20th Century Fox Television) We challenged all of our executives to come up with ideas that would make the show more financially viable. And one of the ideas that came back was to release the first season on DVD a month or so before the second one premiered. It was a controversial decision because the network had to let go of their exclusivity rights on the series earlier than they had to. But then it became an industry-wide trend.
Cochran It was a great idea. If you did think about it, the show’s designed to be on DVD.
That wasn’t the only bold move 24 made in terms of creative scheduling.
Beckman After season 3, we did some research on what people liked and didn’t like about the show, and one of the complaints was about the interruptions. It was a show in real time, an action show, and viewers didn’t like the fact that it went off the air. So I called up the writers and pitched the idea of starting in January.
Cochran I thought, That’s an awful lot of 24. Are people going to sit still for that?
Beckman Ratings went up. It’s very rare for a show in its fourth season to see its ratings go up. I chuckle every time people talk about how Lost airs uninterrupted. I’m sure if you ask ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson, he’ll say he just copied 24.
24 hit its zenith in season 5, when the show won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series and Sutherland was rewarded as the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama. The next two years, however, were brutal. The season 6 story arc that involved Chinese baddies was panned by critics; Sutherland served a 48-day jail sentence on a second drunk-driving offense; and the 100-day writers’ strike forced the network to postpone season 7 for a full year, with a two-hour movie, Redemption, left to tide people over until January 2009.
Howard Gordon (Executive producer) Six was our hardest season and was one, by everyone’s assessment, that was not our strongest. It also got a bad rap, and I think part of that was the politics. Another part was that we had our creative high point in season 5 and won the Emmy, so it was that perfect storm of things that, even under the best of circumstances, would have made it a very challenging season.
Beckman I was the bad guy sent to tell Kiefer and the studio that we were going to hold the show for the year because of the strike. I was scared s—less. I could not distinguish between Kiefer and Jack. Kiefer was sitting there calmly in a chair while I went through the reasons, and I really felt there was a moment when he’d fly across the room, strangle me, and go ”YOU ARE PUTTING IT ON!”
Sutherland It was frustrating. I wish we could have avoided [the hiatus]. I thought we had a responsibility to an audience, and I think we should have been able to work it out. Poor decisions were made on both sides, but it happened, and everybody had to roll with it.
One of 24‘s strengths over the years was to create indelible politicians (including one female and two black presidents) who had a major impact on pop culture — even if one ended up on the wrong side of the law.
Surnow David Palmer came from the Rodney King riots in L.A. When race gets involved in an issue, it raises the stakes, so it was a matter of let’s try and put as much pressure on Jack Bauer as possible. We just looked at Dennis Haysbert and said, Bingo — he’s the guy.
Dennis Haysbert (President David Palmer) People would constantly ask me to run. They still come up to me and say, ”We wish you were really the president.” When Barack Obama came up, he kind of embodied that flavor of the David Palmer character.
Cochran Originally, Charles Logan’s character was conceived as a method to get David Palmer back on the show. We missed him. We had President Keeler [Geoff Pierson], but he wasn’t a major character in the story line, so we thought, Why don’t we [take out] the president in a plane crash and have the weaselly vice president who’s in over his head call in David Palmer to advise him? But then Greg Itzin did such a fantastic job of playing that character, so we realized we had gold.
Gregory Itzin (President Charles Logan) I never played him as a villain — though he was the president everybody loved to hate. I used to have people yell at me from their cars, ”A–hole!” I’ll never forget when I first went out in the world with Dennis. People would see him, come over, and say how much they missed him on the show. And then they’d look over at me. Some people were just slack-jawed with anger.
Cherry Jones (President Allison Taylor) How unbelievably cool to get to play the president! I know it’s a treacherous path to be a president on 24. I had never seen the show, but I knew that Charlie Rose liked it because I’m a Charlie Rose head. So I started watching it and, like everybody else, became immediately hooked.
SCARY (AND SILLY) TERRITORY
With success comes scrutiny, and there was no shortage of critics who lambasted 24 for its portrayals of villains and excessive use of torture.
Sutherland [In season 2] I cut a guy’s head off and put it in a bowling bag! Those are some of the most fun scenes I’ve played in my career.
Gordon Jack did not invent roughing up the bad guy to get what he wants. But for the first few seasons, it was something that was considered a virtue in the zeitgeist. It wasn’t until Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo that public events intruded on the show.
Surnow We had Middle Eastern terrorists in the second season and we didn’t really get any pushback on that. It wasn’t until season 4 when we did the terrorists-next-door story that we got a little ink from Middle Eastern groups who were objecting to it.
Carlos Bernard (Tony Almeida) Muslim extremists are behind a lot of terrorist activities. How can you do a show centered on terrorism and not deal with that part of society?
Mary Lynn Rajskub (Chloe O’Brian) Torture is one of my least favorite things that I got asked about a lot. It’s a no-win situation. Watching that kind of stuff triggers something in people that they keep coming back for more. I do think it’s sensationalistic. I don’t agree with it. But is it exciting to watch? Yes.
The drama also occasionally veered into the absurd, with soap-opera-worthy plotlines like Teri’s amnesia and Tony’s return from the dead. And then there was Kim’s infamous encounter with a cougar.
Bernard There were a lot of moments that, when you look back, you say ”Holy cow.” The cougar is one that everyone will go back to.
Gordon We needed certain things to happen, and desperation is sometimes a filter for rationalization. When it’s eight at night and the script prep is tomorrow, suddenly you can tell yourself the cougar’s a metaphor for danger. In that moment we believed deeply that this was a great idea.
Cuthbert I would get each script for each hour that season, and was so focused that I wasn’t even looking at the absurdity of it. I was thinking, ”How could I make this real?” It was a really difficult thing to do.
So long, for now. The writers started to believe as early as last fall that this season would be their last. Fortunately, 24 fans won’t have to say goodbye completely: A movie script from State of Play‘s Billy Ray is in the works at 20th Century Fox, guaranteeing that Jack Bauer will live to save another day.
Sutherland We agreed that if we did a ninth season it would be potentially damaging. We felt strongly that there has been a demand and interest in a 24 film, which would be a two-hour representation of a 24-hour day, and it felt like the time to move in that direction.
Surnow I was hoping it would go on longer. I don’t think there’s any reason it couldn’t have kept going. I think there are a lot of fans still really connected to the show.
Cochran We touched on something philosophical: How do you fight something that’s evil without becoming evil? That’s what the heart of this show was about.
Sutherland It’s been the greatest education I have ever had as an actor. All of my sadness is tempered by the fact that I believe it was an accomplishment, and something I will look back on as an unbelievably special and truly important experience.