The Enduring Legacy of '24'

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"The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones."
–Mark Anthony, Act III, Scene ii, Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare

24 is the most influential TV drama of all time. There isn't even a close second. No other series—not The Sopranos, The Wire, Hill Street Blues, or ER, has had a tenth of the cultural impact. There simply has never been another protagonist as loved and hated as Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer—lambasted by a Brigadier General and defended by a Supreme Court judge. There has never been another television show that so profoundly and directly influenced how this nation fights a war, and discussing the significance of 24 without mentioning the political debates that swirled around the show is practically impossible.

Let's try, though. With Jack's small-screen swan song airing on FOX tonight, the time has come to praise Bauer, not bury him. The political hullabaloo around the show too often obscured that 24 was absolutely terrific entertainment—relentlessly gripping and fresh, brilliantly conceived and executed.

Co-creators Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran not only developed outrageously complex plots—stories lesser shows got Lost trying to match. The pair created an entirely new way of telling a story on TV—the real-time format, represented by the now iconic digital clock bink-bink-binking away the seconds on screen. In the mimetic TV industry, where any success instantly spawns a dozens imitations, how telling is it that no other drama series has even tried to tell a story in real time? Also ignored in the political brouhaha are 24's luscious production values—particularly the saturated, comic book colors of the cinematography, and the remarkably subtle use of light on actors' faces.

It helps, of course, when those faces are so interesting to watch. From Day One—pun intended—24 has had impeccable casting, with a litany of hyper-talented guest stars including; Dennis Hopper, Powers Boothe, James Cromwell, Anil Kapoor, Jon Voight, and Kurtwood Smith. We can't forget Dennis Haysbert. Yet another example of the show's stunning cultural reach, Haysbert's charismatic, morally unimpeachable President David Palmer helped the American people get comfortable with an African-American as president of the United States. If there had never been a 24, it is entirely possible that Barack Obama might not have been elected—an irony surely not lost on the show's staunchly conservative creators.

Given a hyper-masculine drama, with a hero perpetually saving damsels in distress, 24 has also created surprisingly rich female characters—like Jean Smart's bathetic-cum-heroic Martha Logan and the majestic Cherry Jones as President Allison Taylor. The show's most crucial and innovative female character is, of course, the magnificently abrasive super-nerd, Chloe O'Brian, played by Mary Lynn Rajskub.

The closest thing Jack has to a sidekick, Chloe risked herself to help him countless times. What makes her unique, though, is Rajskub's note-perfect capture of a new American archetype—the tech nerd. A brilliant but socially inept computer whiz, Chloe O'Brian snaps for no good reason, pouts, whines, rolls her eyes and stomps. Her wardrobe is weirdly sexless. As is her walk—flat, short steps with hands to her sides like an eight-year-old boy. Yet, she is supremely talented, fiercely loyal, and a deeply sensitive soul. We love her. We root for her. Her surprise promotion to Acting Director of CTU three weeks back was not only a smart plot twist, it was very satisfying for an audience that knows she earned it.

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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