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Tuned In: There's still time to get caught up in '24'

Tuesday, February 05, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- Time is running out -- literally -- to catch the best series on television, Fox's nail-biting action thriller "24" (9 tonight).

The show's not in immediate danger of cancellation, but "24" is eight hours into its 24-hour run. The clock will continue to tick as "24" airs uninterrupted for the next 12 weeks.

TV Preview

WHEN: 9 tonight on Fox.

STARRING: Kiefer Sutherland, Dennis Haysbert.

Quick primer on '24' roster


Because of the show's real-time structure -- each episode is one hour in a single day in the life of counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) -- many viewers feel it's too late to start watching.

Not so. Every week, "24" begins with a succinct recap.

Although there are additional plot strands (see our "24" primer on Page C-3), here's all you really need to know: Bauer is trying to stop the assassination of presidential candidate Sen. David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) while at the same time attempting to rescue his wife, Terri (Leslie Hope), and daughter, Kim (Elisha Cuthbert), who were kidnapped by the people trying to kill Palmer.

The tense atmosphere that permeates "24" continues in tonight's episode. Bauer is on the run from FBI agents, who think he tried to take a shot at Palmer during a morning campaign appearance. (Bauer actually saved Palmer from the real shooter.) Terri and Kim, who came into possession of a cell phone in the last episode, call the Counter Terrorism Unit headquarters to try to give them a lead on where they're being held captive.

Several cat-and-mouse games play out with edge-of-your-seat intensity, and the plot thickens as new characters are introduced, including an ice-cold replacement for Bauer at CTU headquarters.

For "24" co-creator and executive producer Robert Cochran, keeping track of who's where when is a primary concern.

"It's a puzzle, and you've got to keep five balls juggling in the air at the same time," he said at a Fox party last month. "Everything has to make sense."

The biggest cheat so far: Bauer has been able to get from place to place in Los Angeles in as short as 10 minutes, which is unrealistic for anyone who knows the city and its terrible traffic congestion.

"We actually had a traffic jam in one episode, but for various reasons we had to alter it," Cochran said. "We missed rush hour in the morning, but we're coming up on another rush hour, so we'll see."

He said he and co-creator Joel Surnow had no specifics in mind for individual episodes of "24" when they created the show, but they knew the general direction and major plot turns, including the season finale.

"Nothing in the intermediate episodes has tempted us seriously to change that final image," Cochran said. "We're working towards that, and I think it's an image the audience will find satisfying and they'll be glad to see."

He and Surnow previously collaborated on the USA Network cult hit "La Femme Nikita," about a woman working for a secret (and corrupt) anti-terrorist organization.

"It was natural for us to move into another venue that's similar to that," Cochran said. "We used to have arcs on 'Nikita' that would go over four or five episodes. We didn't realize it, but we were warming up for this 24-hour miniseries. It kind of gave us a running start."

Then they got tripped up by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, which delayed the show's already late fall premiere and necessitated editing the pilot to remove images of a jetliner being blown up by terrorists. However, real-life tragedy didn't alter the fundamental story they set out to tell.

"We never intended the bad guys to be Middle Eastern because we felt that had been done a lot," Cochran said. And as on "Nikita," the emotional component of the story is as important on "24" as the terrorism plot. "Jack's got this suspenseful thing he's got to deal with every week, but the center of it is his emotional stake. How's he handling it? How's it affecting him as a human being, as a husband, as a father? The terrorist part could have been anything without affecting that."

But the twists and turns in the show certainly color the performances of the actors. Some characters who seem like good guys turn out to be bad, and vice versa.

"If you're trying to make a bad guy seem like a good guy and you want to surprise everybody, the best way to do it is to let the actor think he's a good guy," Cochran said.

"You have to go back to Acting 101 and play moment to moment, scene to scene," said Penny Johnson Jerald, who plays the duplicitous wife of Sen. Palmer. "It's made it more interesting and more exciting to go to work because you're always thinking."

Dennis Haysbert, who plays Palmer, compared it to playing baseball.

"You never get a fast ball five pitches in a row," he said. "You're going to get some curves, you're going to get some knuckle balls, and then you'll get a fast ball and some change-ups. That's what's beautiful about the show, because you never know."

"24" has found a loyal audience through re-telecasts on Fox (recently discontinued) and FX (11 p.m. Sundays, 10 p.m. Mondays), but the show's ratings remain a disappointment.

Blame an extremely competitive time slot -- "24" is up against "NYPD Blue," "The Guardian," "Frasier," "Scrubs" and "Smallville" -- on the show's failure to draw viewers. Season-to-date, "24" ranks No. 72 out of 172 shows. Last week, "24" drew its best numbers yet, ranking No. 65, due in part to a building buzz and Sutherland's Golden Globe win for best actor in a TV drama.

Demographically, "24" is more successful, ranking as the No. 1 new show in concentration of upper-income homes, according to Fox executives.

But that's not enough to get "24" an early renewal for a second season. And there's some concern Fox may renew the show only to change it, eliminating the real-time element that makes the series unique.

Last week, USA Today reported Fox executives are concerned the serialized element has limited the show's appeal. Various options are in consideration for the second season, including making each episode a 24-hour period instead of the entire season. Or they could break the season into shorter eight-episode arcs.

Leslie Hope, who plays Bauer's wife on "24," said she heard another scenario for the second season: Keep the actors, but have them play different characters.

"We'd be like a repertory company," she said.

Cochran spoke of the possibility of applying the "24" real-time concept to a totally different scenario, such as a wedding, where the bride learns something secret about the groom and gets cold feet. He acknowledged, though, that such a departure is unlikely. The current characters are likely to return if "24" gets renewed, but creating a new story to top this year's thrills will be a challenge.

"How do you come up with something that doesn't just repeat what we did this year?" he said. "This daughter can't run away and get kidnapped every time he has a tough day at work. And yet we'd have to keep the personal stories linked with the action story -- that's the key to this season, but how do we do that again without repeating ourselves?"

It's the different storytelling format that makes "24" such a standout, and it's not too late to get caught up in it. Tonight's episode begins at 9 a.m. -- the whole day lies ahead.

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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