15 years ago today, 24 introduced viewers to Jack Bauer, a character whose legacy ultimately went far beyond the bounds of his own show. But it wasn’t an entirely smooth introduction. While the first episode of 24 was widely acknowledged to be one of Fox’s best pilots of 2001, the network delayed airing the show in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Perhaps Fox had good reasons to worry, since one of the signature moments of the pilot was an airplane exploding in the air after an act of terror. But instead of rejecting the show, fans embraced Jack Bauer as the first post-9/11 action hero.
When Kiefer Sutherland signed on to star in 24, no one knew that Jack Bauer was going to become his signature character. That turned out to be a case of the right actor, in the right role, at exactly the right time. Can you imagine anyone other than Sutherland shouting Jack’s signature lines or occasionally showing moments of physical and emotional vulnerability? It was clear from the first episode that he was perfect for the role.
After eight full seasons, a TV movie, and a miniseries, it’s easy to forget that the Jack Bauer in 24 season 1 wasn’t quite as indestructible as he later became. In that first season, Jack was a flawed character who had recently cheated on his wife with a coworker and strained his relationship with his family. Jack screwed up more than once and he had a tendency to trust the wrong the people. Remember all of the moles in CTU? There were two in season 1 alone! Additionally, Jack nearly passed out from exhaustion at one point in the season, which only made him seem more human. But the aspect that really grabbed the imagination of fans was the way that Jack did anything and everything to prevent an assassination and to save his family. Jack’s status as a “one-man army” may have been a fantasy, but it was a comforting fantasy. Just the idea of Jack Bauer made some people feel safer.
In the next few years, Jack’s legend grew to almost mythical levels as he defeated terrorists while practically having a heart attack in the season 2 finale, in addition to single-handedly taking out an enemy cell in the sixth season. Just to put an exclamation mark on Jack’s badassery between seasons 5 and 6, he apparently didn’t say a word after two years of torture and abuse while being held prisoner in China. Top that, Chuck Norris!
Jack Bauer essentially reinvented the TV action hero as someone who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. How many other protagonists could get away with decapitating a man just to reestablish his cover within a domestic terrorist organization? Jack even had a bit of mean streak when it came to the show’s villains, and especially when it came to torture. It’s important to note that Jack never seemed to enjoy torturing his enemies, but it came fairly easy to him. As presented by 24, Jack had the ability to break nearly anyone with his ability to inflict pain and suffering. Some would argue that Jack glamorized torture, and it may have had unintended consequences in the real world. As reported by the Washington Post and other outlets, American operatives at Guantánamo Bay were accused of “devising interrogation techniques [that] were inspired by the exploits of Jack Bauer in the…TV series 24.”
The producers of 24 even incorporated that theme into the seventh season, as Jack was forced to give congressional testimony about the torture he had committed over the course of the series. And while Jack outwardly defended his actions, he did show some remorse and it was something that he struggled with while facing his own possible demise. Even Jack didn’t know for sure whether his actions were truly justified, which managed to deepen his character.
It’s telling that the TV landscape hasn’t yet produced a new character that can challenge Jack Bauer’s status as one of the greatest television action heroes to date. But Fox is going to try again next year, when 24: Legacy introduces Corey Hawkins‘ Eric Carter, a war hero who ends up fighting alongside CTU to stop another terrorist threat as events play out in real time. We don’t envy anyone who would have to follow Sutherland’s iconic character. 24 may have been a show for its time, but Jack Bauer is one of a kind. No one else comes close.
How do you feel about Jack Bauer? Let’s discuss in the comment section below!