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TV Review: Time slot big challenge for Fox's '24'

Tuesday, November 06, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

The clock is ticking for "24" in more ways than one. As a real-time drama, each episode takes place over the course of a single hour. After watching 24 episodes, viewers will have seen everything that happened in a single day.

But the clock ticks in another way, too. "24," the most innovative new series of the fall season, enters the prime-time landscape in the most competitive time slot. Even for someone with, say, three VCRs, 9 p.m. Tuesday is a planning and juggling challenge.

"24" goes up against high-rated newcomer "The Guardian" on CBS, the acclaimed comedies "Frasier" and "Scrubs" on NBC, the soaring "Smallville" on The WB and returning favorite "NYPD Blue" on ABC. There's also "Roswell" on UPN, which has a small but devoted cult following.

One of these networks will have to blink.

Despite the plethora of quality choices, "24," premiering tonight, is a series worth checking out. It's mysterious and exciting, a suspenseful and tense action-drama.


When: 9 tonight on Fox.

Starring: Kiefer Sutherland, Dennis Haysbert


Kiefer Sutherland stars as Jack Bauer, an agent with a government counter-terrorism unit in Los Angeles. The day begins for him at midnight. He's just moved back in with his estranged wife, Teri (Leslie Hope), and their teen-age daughter, Kim (Elisha Cuthbert), when Kim sneaks out to meet friends.

The phone rings, and Jack gets called into work. The government has evidence of a threat against David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), a U.S. senator and America's first viable African-American presidential candidate.

Frequently during "24," a clock appears on screen, ticking away the minutes. Viewers also see a screen that's sometimes split into multiple boxes with action happening in each one involving different people in different places at the same time.

As Jack rushes to the office, a commercial airliner speeds toward Los Angeles carrying a passenger whose connection to Palmer -- along with the stereotypes and preconceived notions of viewers -- makes him look mighty suspicious.

That's not the only mystery. Palmer gets a phone call from a network news producer who's threatening to air some sort of allegation that enrages the candidate. What's he hiding? And why does he shut out his wife (Penny Johnson Jerald)?

At Bauer's agency, more questions pile up. Did Jack have an affair with his somewhat adoring co-worker, Nina (Sarah Clarke)? Are rogue elements inside the organization involved in the plot to kill Palmer?

When Bauer's not dealing with work, he's on the phone to his wife, who's trying to track down their bad girl daughter, who's getting herself in over her head with a couple of older guys.

It's a busy show, but not difficult to follow.

Earlier this season, the "Alias" pilot was compared to a more confusing episode of "La Femme Nikita." "24" was created by "Nikita" executive producers Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran, who know how to do an espionage show right. "24" isn't convoluted, but it is dense, with layers yet to be uncovered.

Some viewers who are particularly sensitive to explosions post-Sept. 11 may cringe at plot developments, though scenes have been trimmed slightly since the terrorist attacks.

Sutherland makes an appealing flawed hero, a guy who's had stumbles in his marriage but is uncompromisingly upstanding when it comes to his job.

However the true star of "24" is its unique format. That could also be its downfall. If viewers feel they have to watch every episode to understand what's going on -- let's call it "Murder One" syndrome -- they might give up. After all, there are plenty of alternatives on TV at the same time.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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