By Ken Tucker
Updated May 12, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT
Greg Gayne/Fox

With the final seconds ticking down for 24, it’s time to place this almost-decade-old series in perspective. Conceived as a clever gimmick — 24 episodes equaling 24 hours of one day each season — the show rapidly became a mirror for real-world events. Scheduled to debut in September 2001, its premiere was edited slightly and pushed back two months because the pilot episode’s terrorism-ona- plane scene was deemed too close to reality during the emotionally raw post-9/11 days. Later, the show would become the pop culture focus for our national debate on the government-sanctioned use of torture. Few TV series have had to carry the weight of serious current events as 24 has.

Yet at its center, 24 has always been something familiar: an action-adventure series with a rebel hero bending the rules. Jack Bauer was, not to be too grandiose about it, a symbol of an America being constantly tested. As the seasons and the presidents of 24 rolled past (I’d say Dennis Haysbert’s David Palmer and Gregory Itzin’s Charles Logan were the most satisfying), 24‘s unofficial motto was ”WWJD.” And if What Would Jack Do implies a religious subtext, 24 gave us the hero-as-sacrificial-lamb.

This role was also (to complete my irreligious metaphor) the resurrection of Kiefer Sutherland’s career. As the series progressed, it tried teaming him with younger partners (Rick Schroder, Freddie Prinze Jr.), but the chemistry never yielded anything explosive. A TV show takes on a life of its own, and it’s clear that 24 wants Jack to remain central, no matter how hoarse Sutherland gets barking orders. Beyond his daughter, Kim (Elisha Cuthbert), and the various women who were drawn to him after a day of danger, the only regular character who has consistently meant something to Jack — and to the fans — is Mary Lynn Rajskub’s Chloe.

Weak seasons? I’d say one was the sixth, in which too much family life intruded, and Jack committed mild, yet wildly melodramatic, torture against his brother, Graem (Paul McCrane). And the current season has been all over the map, with Cherry Jones’ and Itzin’s presidents stuck in dull political maneuvering, while the final hours have Jack rampaging around with almost crazy abandon. 24 was always best when it stuck to a goal line (as in season 4, when terrorists captured the Secretary of Defense and his daughter, Kim Raver’s Audrey Raines) rather than an emotional through-line — that is, when Jack was after a chemical, biological, or nuclear weapon instead of repairing his relationship with his daughter or a love such as Audrey.

Bottom line: 24 introduced a narrative framework that will never be copied, and in Jack Bauer gave us a pulp-fiction hero who embodies D. H. Lawrence’s dictum that ”the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” If that doesn’t define Jack Bauer, nothing does. Averaged-out grade for all seasons: B+