Air Date: 5/21/02
The strains of filling out a 24-episode season usually showed somewhere around the middle during each "day" of the hit FOX action series, but by the final hours 24 would always get its act together (at least for the first, mostly flawless five seasons) and deliver a satisfying conclusion. Each finale from Days 1-5 would be eligible for this list, like Day 3's underrated and understated closer, or the marvelous shootout at the L.A. Coliseum that caps off Day 2, but it would be irresponsible to overlook the first season finale, one of the series' most infamous episodes.
24 was itself an exercise in breaking typical TV-conventions, and the first finale didn't let up, eschewing an inevitable happy ending for a dark twist that solidified it as both a buzz-worthy show and a significant trailblazer for the medium. Counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) survives, but not with the family that he'd been fighting all day to save intact.
After saving presidential candidate Senator David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) and his own daughter (Elisha Cuthbert) from vengeful Victor Drazen (Denis Hopper, still cool despite a hilariously bad Serbian accent), and outing CTU mole Nina Myers (Sarah Clarke), Jack returns to the agency to discover Nina's final act of treachery was putting a bullet in his wife Teri (Leslie Hope), who had walked in on her attempting to flee. The hero saving the day only to end it cradling his dead wife while the clock ticked silently was a dark moment for TV, and one that has been emulated many times since.
We're also treated to the fracturing of the soon-to-be presidential Palmer family, as the long-simmering showdown between David and his scheming, Lady Macbethian wife Sherry (Penny Johnson Jerald) finally comes to a head.