How 24 started our binge-watching world

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It all started with 24

Television would not be the same again. When Jack Bauer first burst onto the scene in 2001 – as a loving family man but ardent and ruthless federal agent – in that epoch-starting series 24, it heralded the beginning of the golden age of television.

The show was noteworthy for two reasons: it broadcast each episode sequentially over a 24-hour period, creating a fast-paced narrative and reaching a heart-stopping crescendo. It also used a big-name movie star, albeit a tad washed up, in Kiefer Sutherland. This unusual move (stars migrate from TV to Hollywood, not the other way around) was a roaring success. It prompted this current wave of movie giants appearing on the small screen.

But it did something else quite innovative too. Until then, weekly TV series followed a general theme for the season and moved generally forward. If you missed an episode, no problem – because they were generally self-contained.

But 24 changed all that. The episodes advanced the plot each week. This meant if you missed one, it left a hole in the overall narrative. 

Because of this, and its gripping content, 24 was the beginning of binge-watching. I started watching via DVDs played on my laptop in bed, and it has now migrated to today’s streaming services.

Now, such common-place behaviour even has a name. In 2015 Collins dictionary chose its word of the year as “binge-watch”. It is defined as “to watch a large number of television programmes (especially all the shows from one series) in succession”. 

Instead of watching traditional TV broadcasts during primetime in 2015 36.5% of all North American internet traffic was through a streaming service Netflix.

Two years later, not only is binging part of the dictionary but it’s part of our lives. That traditional way of watching television each week, as a new episode was broadcast, is as old school as the old convention of watching TV through broadcast technologies. The internet is now the conduit for everything.

From 24, we evolved to other great show which used sequential story-telling in their core: The Sopranos, The Wire, Dexter, The Shield, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, House of Cards, and the biggest bingeable show in the world, Game of Thrones.

It’s worth noting just what a good performance Sutherland delivered; and how he paved the way for big-name movie stars to return to the small screen. As much as Sutherland legitimised this reversal of traditional career trajectories, it was also the clever scriptwriting and compelling weekly storylines that captured the minds of viewers. 

His hard-core federal agent character Jack Bauer  – the only TV character to ever apologise and then excuse himself to take a cellphone call – was the epitome of goodness, good grace and moral anguish as he staved off repeated terror attacks against the US president. How ironic, and fitting, that Sutherland now plays a US President in another terror-related show. Sutherland is himself the Designated Survivor of the modern boom in television.

This article was originally published on The Plum List

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