When I first found out about the TV show 24, I was excited by getting to see Kiefer Sutherland in something on television, and also was intrigued by the show’s real-time concept. I was on-board from the get-go, and that feeling only increased by the end of the first episode. I remember being completely absorbed and engaged – totally along for the ride. I started looking forward to it each week, and being tense while watching the episode, mixed with trying to figure everything out during the long wait in between each hour. The sound of the clock ticking away the time (and OMG the silent clock), in addition to the sound of a CTU phone ringing, burrowed into my heart right along with the characters on my screen.
That first season was epic. I was involved. I was a part of it all. I was devastated by what happened in the final few episodes – the twist revelation, those final scenes – all of it shaped how I would watch the series from then on out. Which is fitting, really, since all of it shaped how Jack Bauer would live his life from then on out, too.
I know many fans were disappointed by various seasons, but while I’ll admit that none of them would ever capture me the way that first one did, I still loved all of them. The whole journey. Even as ridiculous as some of them got, and even though they seemed to – at least in part – ditch (or pay less attention to) the real-time concept, I never stopped looking forward to each and every episode. I found coworkers who were as obsessed as I was, and we would meet every Monday to talk about what we thought would happen in that night’s episode, then again every Tuesday to talk about what had happened, and predict what we thought was coming next. We’d log onto the official show forums and see what other viewers were saying, and what other wacky theories were out there. There was a sense of community, and I was a part of it.
Then came the Fan Phone. The way I understand it, a crew member’s actual cell number was shown on-screen during an episode. Apparently someone forgot to replace it with the usual ‘555’ fake number. Some keen-eyed viewers caught it, and called it. It was posted on the boards, too, so more people called. And more. Eventually, an automated response was left, telling callers that they had reached the 24 set, and that the mailbox was full. But then, something kind of spectacular happened. Members of the cast and crew started answering the calls – while they were shooting! It was amazing! Suddenly there was an entire thread devoted to the newly-named 24 Fan Phone, and people would post details of their calls – whether someone answered, who it was, what time they called, what was discussed, and so on. I spoke with Jon Cassar for a moment (he was happy to hear I was calling from Canada, and held the phone up so everyone else could yell hello to Canada, as they had about as many Canadians working on the show as anything else, so automatically he became my new favourite director in the world), and then he passed the phone to Script Supervisor Annie, who waited quietly with me while they shot part of a scene. I heard “Action”, and “Cut”…and nothing in between. Could have had a spoiler, but got nothing!
Well, nothing but amazing memories from one of my most favourite shows.
Fan Phone stories became as talked about as anything that happened on the show, and the cast and crew seemed to have as much fun with it as the fans were. They were getting immediate feedback for the episodes that had just aired, and every so often, the phone number would appear on screen again, sending the fans who caught it into another frenzy of theories and excitement. It was an accident that turned into the coolest little gimmick ever, really, and everyone just ran with it. It bonded the community in a way that nothing else could.
Things went awry after a season or two, though, because People magazine published a story about it, but included the number to call. So suddenly, it wasn’t just fans of the show getting through on the already busy phone. People who’d never watched an episode were calling just to call, trolls were calling to troll, and those who so desperately wanted to get through were getting busy signals, instead. So eventually it got shut down, because it just wasn’t fun for anyone anymore.
But that didn’t stop them from posting the number on-screen once in awhile again, as a kind of hello and thank you to the fans who were watching, and who knew the significance of that number. I even kept it in my phone after, just in case.
And every time there is a cell phone number on a display in any TV show now, I check. Even though I know nothing like that will ever happen again, I check. Just in case.
Before Facebook, before Twitter, there were message boards, and forums, and while built for fans to discuss things amongst themselves, for a brief shining moment, they served to connect us in an unprecedented way with the people making the show we were discussing. And because it was a show like 24, steeped in conspiracy and secrets and clues, it became this incredible extra thing we could all share. An added hidden level to the experiece. One that I loved, and dearly miss, but that I’m so grateful to have experienced at all.
Even if it kind of ruined every other TV show interaction for me for, like, ever, because nothing will ever be that secretly cool again. It was the secret that made it cool, really. The surprise of it, just like that first incomparable season. Nothing will ever be quite that pure again.
Least of all me. 😉