Every Season Of 24 Ranked Worst To Best

Binging TV shows is the norm now, but it wasn't always that way. For decades, network TV sustained itself on mostly self-contained dramatic episodes. Take "Law and Order" for example: Every episode, a new case is introduced, and by the end it's solved. The main characters experience incremental growth, but not enough that you'd feel lost if you missed an episode. 

That all changed in November of 2001, when "24" debuted on Fox, starring then A-list movie star Kiefer Sutherland as federal agent Jack Bauer. Never before had a network show been so interconnected. Watching every single minute was mandatory if you wanted to understand the complex conspiracy at work. For the uninitiated, each season of "24" features an impending terrorist threat (usually in Los Angeles), and Jack Bauer and the Counter Terrorist Unit race against a literal clock to stop it. Every episode represents one hour in a very stressful 24-hour day, and plays out in real-time. To this day, the concept sounds almost impossible to pull off, yet "24" lasted for eight glorious seasons and received a TV movie, a 12-part revival, and a spin-off.

Every season of "24" has its ups and downs. Some of its infamous twists are incredible, like Teri Bauer's death in season one. Others are dumbfounding, twists like Jack's own family being behind a terrorist plot in season 6. The best seasons of "24," though, find an equal balance between the emotional stakes, heart-pumping action, shocking twists, and Jack Bauer doing wildly illegal things to save the day.

11. Honorable Mentions: 24: Redemption and 24: Legacy

Before the proper ranking starts, an honorable mention goes to the TV movie "24: Redemption," which took Jack Bauer to Africa. It serves as a solid prequel to Season 7, with Jack battling to stop Sangalan rebels from recruiting child soldiers, and giving us our first sign that Jonas Hodges (Jon Voight) and his private military company, Starkwood, are up to no good. It's a solid action movie, but it doesn't make this list because it's not an actual season of the show. However, "24" fans rejoiced when this came out. Because of the 2007-2008 writer's strike, there was a two-year wait between seasons 6 and 7; hungry fans were ready for any taste of Jack Bauer they could get.

"24: Legacy" also deserves a nod. Like the original series, it utilizes the show's real-time format, but follows a new hero. Eric Carter, played by Corey Hawkins, was part of an elite squad of Army Rangers that assassinated a high-ranking terrorist. After going into federal witness protection, several of his team are picked off, and Carter eventually learns about a plot to activate dormant sleeper cells on American soil. This show does an admirable job providing "24"-style action and twists, but some subplots, like the one with Eric's brother and a drug ring, drag down its shortened 12-episode season. "24: Legacy" proves that the real-time format is adaptable, but it isn't really "24" without Jack Bauer.

10. Season 6: Suitcase nukes and Jack's beard

Season 6 begins with Jack being released from a Chinese prison, then immediately racing to track down multiple suitcase nukes. Despite his best efforts, one detonates in Valencia, kicking off the season with one of the most extreme terrorist attacks in the series. Meanwhile, on the political side, President Wayne Palmer has to battle the other members of his administration, who are hell-bent on locking Muslims in internment camps. The nuclear threat is stopped earlier than expected, and the plot does a hard right, bringing back vengeful Chinese national Cheng Zhi (Tzi Ma), another attack on CTU, and the expected round of wild betrayals. 

Season 6 pushes the audience's suspension of disbelief to its breaking point while trotting out a series of familiar, worn-out tropes. The biggest offenders are Jack's dad and brother, Phillip and Graem Bauer, who we learn are behind both the current threat and also the deaths of David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), Michelle Dessler (Reiko Aylesworth), and (supposedly) Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard). It's one thing to tie multiple seasons' worth of tragedies together by revealing there's a primary architect behind them all; it's another to make the masterminds the hero's family members, ones who the audience has never heard of before. Why did Jack never mention his brother or his dad? How did a super-agent like Jack not know they were up to no good? The season is still fast-paced and fun, though. Jack has a brutal fight involving a chain, Martha Logan shanks disgraced ex-President Logan in the neck, and the early nuclear bomb detonation raises the stakes to another level.

9. Season 3: Bioweapons and Chloe's baby

Jack Bauer's third terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad day centers on a bio-weapon called the Cordilla Virus. Jack starts the day deep undercover with the Salazar family, who he believes is trying to acquire the bioweapon in an auction. An incredibly tense few episodes unfold when the virus gets released in a hotel, with CTU's Michelle Dessler trapped inside. At the same time, her husband, Tony Almeida, is helpless to do anything. The main plot is thrilling, but the subplots get messy, making the third time for "24" not the charm.

The most unnecessary subplot is Jack Bauer's heroin addiction, which he developed to make the drug kingpins believe he was legit. On paper, this might sound gripping, but on screen it comes off as excessive. There's also a ridiculous subplot with Chloe and a baby at CTU; it's not even worth explaining. All these elements seem like plots you'd expect to see after eight seasons, when the well of ideas is running dry. All that said, the good still outweighs the bad. Stephen Saunders (Paul Blackthorne) is a great villain, the Cordilla Virus is a genuinely scary threat, and Jack Bauer gets an ice-cold moment of revenge against Nina.

8. Season 2: A nuclear bomb and a ... cougar?

Season 2 of "24" doubles down on the terrorist threats and the emotional stakes. Jack Bauer must stop a nuclear attack on Los Angeles before the U.S. government declares World War III on multiple Middle Eastern countries. The baddies bankrolling the terrorists are European and American businessmen, who hope a war will cause oil prices (and, as a result, their profits) to skyrocket. Jack narrowly tracks down the bomb, but the only way to save Los Angeles to fly it into the desert. There's an emotional scene between Jack and his daughter, Kim (Elisha Cuthbert), as he says goodbye. Of course, Jack doesn't die; he's saved by a surprise stow-away, and lives to hunt down those responsible in epic Jack Bauer fashion.

This season is great. It begins with Jack Bauer shooting a villain in front of his bosses, and then asking for a hacksaw. Jack has performed many acts of hardcore violence to save the day, but putting a guy's head in a duffel bag to gain the trust of a local terrorist cell is tough to beat. In addition, George Mason (Xander Berkley) gets a touching farewell when he sacrifices himself to save Jack and Los Angeles. There's a potentially cringe-worthy subplot in which Kate Warner (Sarah Wynter) suspects that her sister's fiancé might be a terrorist, but the writers flip the script, and it turns out to be the bride-to-be who's radicalized. Unfortunately, season 2 also features Kim Bauer getting in trouble again, leading to one of the silliest moments in the entire series: Kim caught in a hunter's trap while a cougar looms nearby.

7. Season 4: Planes, trains, and nuclear meltdowns

Season 4 hits the ground running, with Jack working on the security detail for Secretary of Defense James Heller (William Devane) while he's romantically involved with Heller's daughter, Audrey Rains (Kim Raver). Jack is brought back to CTU when a commuter train is bombed, only to discover that it was a diversion so that terrorists could kidnap Heller and Audrey, which is itself a part of a larger plot to make a number of nuclear reactors melt down. If that wasn't enough, downtown Los Angeles gets hit with an EMP and Air Force One is shot out of the sky, all so that the bag guys can steal the nuclear "football." Once Jack saves the day, he has to fake his death and go into hiding. It's an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink season that, somehow, mostly works.

The above may seem like a lot to cram into one season, but season 4 moves at lightning speed, constantly changing the threat and ramping up the stakes with each nerve-shredding hour. Shohreh Aghdashloo plays a suburban housewife-terrorist combo with a ruthless mama bear energy. Against all logic, Tony Almeida is reinstated following his crimes in season 3, but who's going to complain? Tony and Jack's dynamic, along with Tony's fraught relationship with his now-ex Michelle, provides some of the best drama on the show. The season throws so much at Jack that it feels like a series finale. Thankfully, Jack would live to fight several more days.

6. Season 7: Washington, Candyman, and double-crosses

Season 7 takes Jack Bauer to Washington, D.C., where he's been subpoenaed for his crimes in season 6. There, he teams up with FBI agent Renee Walker (Annie Wersching), because Tony Almeida is back from the dead and working with Sangala Rebels to attack America's infrastructure. The rebels crash two planes, attack a pesticide plant in Ohio, kidnap First Gentleman Henry Taylor, and invade the White House with the Candyman himself, Tony Todd. The number of attacks, kidnappings, and double-crosses is mind-melting, but it all clicks.

The main reason why season 7 works so well is the emotional rollercoaster ride that Jack takes thanks to Tony Almeida's return. We're led to believe that Tony's gone bad, and then that he's just deep undercover. This flip-flopping works because Tony's motivations make sense. Tony lost everything the day that Michelle was killed, and we believe that he would go to extreme lengths to get revenge. Setting the season in D.C. instead of LA connects Jack directly to all the political subplots, the action is incredible, and the threat seems very plausible. In addition, the siege on the White House is notably intense, and Bill Buchanan (James Morrison), a fan favorite, gets to go out in a blaze of glory. The season also brings back many popular characters, including Chloe O'Brian, while introducing solid new ones, like Renee Walker.

4. 24: Live Another Day: Jack Bauer goes to the UK

"24: Live Another Day" is a near-perfect season of "24"; the only knock against it is that it's only 12 hours long, using some time jumps to keep the real-time gimmick going. This revival season brings the action to the UK, where both the United States and Britain are facing criticism for using drones. Jack allows himself to be captured by the CIA so that he can free Chloe O'Brian, and together they work to stop the assassination of President Heller by Margot Al-Harazi (Michelle Fairley), who wants revenge for a drone attack that killed her husband. Margot unleashes a flurry of drones of her own on London, and Cheng Zhi returns for a final showdown with Jack Bauer.

By cutting the episode count in half, the creators don't have to fill the time with cougars, amnesia, or silly subplots. It's all action and forward movement — as a villain, Margot Al-Harazi is both ruthless and sympathetic. She has suffered a tremendous loss, and not even her surviving family members will stand in the way of her vengeance. Chloe O'Brian and Jack once again prove themselves to be one of the best platonic on-screen duos of all time, and there's an incredible chase sequence on the streets of London. "Live Another Day" also has two of the most savage Jack Bauer kills ever. First, he kicks Margot out a window, saying, "The only death on my head is yours." Then, he chops off Cheng Zhi's head with a katana to avenge Audrey's death. This season ties up old subplots while introducing new threats in a masterful way.

3. Season 5: Kill Jack's friends, shame on you

Season 5 kicks off with the most shocking premiere episode in "24" history. Almost immediately, the show kills off President Palmer and Michelle Dessler, and leaves Tony Almeida critically injured. Soon afterwards, the Ontario Airport is held hostage by a group of Russian separatists as part of a plan to steal some nerve gas, and it's all being orchestrated by Christopher Henderson (Peter Weller), Jack's former mentor, and the president of the United States, Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin). It's a wild, emotional ride.

The first episode pulls a Red Wedding seven years before "Game of Thrones" shocked fans. At the time, killing off three major characters in the first few minutes of a season was unheard of. As Christopher Henderson, Weller brings great slimeball gravitas to the season's big bad, and the bold move to have the president directly involved in the terrorist plot was a next-level twist. CTU is attacked again in season 5, which is a cliche by this point, but witnessing Edgar choke to death on nerve gas in front of a helpless Chloe is still gut-wrenching. This season proves that when you start with the stakes cranked up to 11, the tension never lets up.

2. Season 8: That's Jack Bauer. He's coming for me!

Season 8 was initially intended to be the final season of "24," and the creators held nothing back. The setting moves again, this time to New York City. There's an assassination attempt during a U.N. peace conference, stolen nuclear fuel rods, and a burgeoning romance between Jack and Renee Walker. Tragedy inevitably strikes, old friends and villains rear their heads, and the season ends with an emotional goodbye between Jack and his steadfast ally, Chloe O'Brian.

This season is the perfect example of what made "24" great, and fires on all cylinders. Jack gets a fake-out happy ending with Renee Walker, only to have her die in his arms. It's arguably the most emotionally brutal moment on the show since Teri Bauer's death in season 1. Following that, "24" unleashes peak Bauer-powered vengeance and some of Jack's most brutal kills, including disemboweling a terrorist to get an SD card he swallowed and impaling another with a fireplace poker. Seeing Jack take on President Logan's motorcade — because of course Logan is involved — is the single most badass moment in the entire series. A panicked Logan screaming, "That's Jack Bauer! He's coming for me!" is the stuff of meme legends.

1. Season 1: Jack's first bad day

Compared to future seasons, season 1 of "24" may seem a little simple. That's also what makes it the best. Years earlier, Jack Bauer and current presidential candidate David Palmer were part of a secret operation to assassinate Victor Drazen (Dennis Hopper). In the present day, his sons launch a plot to get revenge by kidnapping Jack's daughter, Kim, and his wife, Teri. Their demand? Jack Bauer must kill Palmer, or they will murder Jack's family. 

It's hard for any TV show to legitimately claim to be the first of its kind, but "24" has a pretty good argument. Never before had a major TV show played out in real-time over the course of a full 24-episode season. How could the writers make every single minute of a day entertaining? The season stumbles in a few spots — Teri's amnesia is silly, and the reveal of the final mole comes awfully late in the game — but it introduced the world to Jack Bauer and gave viewers a simple, personal story to follow. The emotional through-line of this season is nothing more than a man who is desperately trying to save his family, fighting against an ever-present ticking clock to do so. The season also had the guts to end on a shocking cliffhanger; even after all Jack had been through, he still couldn't save his wife. Season 1 established Jack Bauer as a TV icon, and confirmed that "24" was one of the most innovative, exciting, and courageous series on the air.