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Countdown to '24': The real-time Fox series hurtles toward the start of its second season

Sunday, October 27, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

WOODLAND HILLS, Calif. -- As the second season of Fox's "24" begins, Counter Terrorism Unit operative Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is a beaten man. It's been 18 months since the death of his wife at the hands of his former colleague/ lover, Nina "the mole" Myers (Sarah Clarke).

Kiefer Sutherland stars as Jack Bauer, who defends the citizens of Los Angeles from a terrorist threat in "24."

In a scene filmed on the third day of production in the new season, Sutherland trudges up the stairs of Bauer's townhouse, packed boxes surrounding him. Two cameras capture the action as Sutherland pours water into a glass while listening to messages from an answering machine.

He sits, then gets up, walks to a small desk and opens a drawer. Inside there's a revolver and framed photo of Bauer's wife, Teri, and his daughter, Kim (Elisha Cuthbert). He picks up the picture, returns to the couch and gazes at the photo, remembering happier times.

Sutherland's Bauer smiles at the memories, then is overcome with emotion, choking up and lying down on the sofa, hugging the picture to his chest.

The phone rings.

He doesn't answer at first, but when Bauer hears the voice on the answering machine, he leaps up, grabs the phone and soon has orders from President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), whom he saved from assassination last season.

"Jack, I know this is a bad time," Palmer says, "but I need your help."

Countdown to 24:
Meet the players

9 p.m. Tuesdays on Fox

Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer

Penny Johnson Jerald as Sherry Palmer

Xander Berkeley as George Mason

Carlos Bernard as Tony Almeida

Sarah Wynter as Kate Warner

Sarah Clarke as Nina Myers

Elisha Cuthbert as Kim Bauer

Dennis Haysbert as President David Palmer


Soon after, Bauer is on the run again, beginning what's likely to become the second longest day in his life.

It's just after 8 a.m.

The scene ends and director Jon Cassar, also a "24" producer, is pleased with the results.

"Cut!" he says. "Yeah, not bad."

"Not bad" also describes the performance of "24" in its first season. It wasn't the breakout hit Fox hoped it would be, but its ratings slowly built and critical acclaim was nearly universal. "24" returns Tuesday with a Ford-sponsored, commercial-free season premiere (9 p.m. on WPGH).

After a successful Labor Day marathon of the entire first season on FX and its release last month on DVD, Fox executives hope to win new viewers this season in addition to the show's already loyal core fans.

"I think the word of mouth over the summer spread and people saw how hooked on the show others were," Sutherland said at a Fox party in July. "Hopefully, other people who weren't very comfortable jumping in in midseason to watch us will start this year with us."

Despite ample recaps at the beginning of each episode, joining "24" midstream could be daunting to viewers who didn't watch from the start of its serialized story. Every one-hour episode takes place in one hour of real time. Each episode is part of the same day, and by the end of a 24-episode season, viewers see a full day in the life of the heroic Bauer.

Last season, the show ran from midnight to midnight. This year, it begins at 8 a.m., which should be easier logistically.

"We thought it would be cool to start at midnight, but then the first six episodes were mainly at night and we were shooting in the summer, which has a lot of daylight," said executive producer Bob Cochran, who created the series with Joel Surnow. "We didn't think about that. Then as the show moved out of night into early morning, we needed a lot of daylight, but in real life, by the time we got to shoot that, the days were getting shorter. We were at cross-purposes with actual sunlight."

Creating a visual style

Sunlight was in abundance the July morning Sutherland filmed Bauer's call to duty in a rented townhouse that's a five-minute drive from the "24" soundstage.

"It's a big scene," director Cassar said. "It doesn't have much dialogue, but it relates completely to last year and to his wife and his child. It's a scene where you want to find the right emotional level."

Cassar credited Stephen Hopkins, who directed the "24" pilot, with setting the show's visual tone, which regularly features split-screen boxes showing the actions of different characters simultaneously.

"You'll see very few crane shots [looking down from up high] in our show. You rarely see the camera on the floor looking up," Cassar said. "We show you the world from eye height because that's where you'd see the world from if you were following Jack Bauer."

Objects and people sometimes obscure shots or are blurry in the foreground as the hand-held camera moves ever so slightly, making viewers feel like voyeurs.

"You'll also notice a lot of shots behind people. We do that more than anybody else on television because you become that person behind Jack Bauer," Cassar said. "It's all about what we do with the audience to visually bring them into our story."

Continuity conundrums

Tucked behind a medical building, in the shadow of office towers, a warehouse-like building houses the "24" soundstage and offices for the show's writers, producers and crew.

Formerly the home of "The Pretender" and "Freakylinks," this secluded location north of Hollywood holds a Camp David-style presidential retreat set for the new season. Last season, a hotel set used by Palmer's campaign occupied the same space.

Nearby is the set of CTU, which appears more expansive in person than it does on TV, due to its industrial chic design and lack of a false ceiling.

"24" differs from most television programs in myriad ways, but almost all relate to the show's strict continuity. With each episode comprising an hour in a single day, it requires everyone involved to plan and prepare differently.

For costumer Deborah Slate, it means multiple copies of the same wardrobe, generally six to eight per character, not including identical costumes for stunt performers.

"There are so many costumes in different stages of dirty, and the stunt people have to have the same stages of dirty and clean," Slate said.

Attention is paid to the condition of the clothes and how they're worn. Last season, Sutherland wore a shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He put his jacket on and wore the jacket for four or five episodes, Slate said, noting that the elapsed time in the production cycle could be as much as several months from when Sutherland put the jacket on to when he took it off on screen. "When he took his jacket off, he still had to have his sleeves rolled up. We have to keep track of stuff like that."

For the "24" hair and makeup departments, there are similar concerns.

"You don't come and create different styles, you have to keep the same look throughout the entire season," said hair department head Susan Kelber.

For makeup department head Ania Harasimiak, it means keeping track of the growth of Sutherland's beard.

"Kiefer is so conscious about makeup -- for example, he does grow his stubble. We just trim it so it continues to look the same," Harasimiak said. "When, for reasons outside the show, he has to shave, it's my job to apply [fake stubble] and match it."

Elisabeth Cosin, a mystery novelist who joined the "24" writing staff this season, said scripts are constantly rewritten. "If you make a change to script No. 1 before shooting, then it affects all the rest of the scripts," she said. "TV is all about rewriting, but this show more than others."

Series creators Cochran and Surnow said that's because the series can be plotted only six episodes at a time. When the pair wrote the pilot, they left many plot turns to chance.

"In the pilot, Palmer got a phone call and he was so upset by it he wouldn't talk to his wife about it," Cochran said. "We had no idea what that phone call was."

Surnow pointed to a throwaway line of dialogue in the pilot that was said by a photographer, who would later be impersonated by an assassin. The photographer said he planned to meet Sen. Palmer for breakfast.

"That was just a nothing line, but we realized the assassination attempt [on Palmer] would have to happen at breakfast, not at 10 at night, which is what we originally thought," Surnow said. "We kind of ate up all our story in the first seven episodes."

Another long day

So far, the plot for the new season involves another national crisis. Bauer searches for a nuclear bomb planted by terrorists somewhere in Los Angeles, while elsewhere in L.A., a wealthy young woman fears her sister's fiance may have terrorist ties.

"We'll look at the issues involved in being a Middle Eastern American family right now in this country and the vagaries of that," Surnow said.

"24" returns in its original, nail-biting format, but that wasn't assured. Serialized series with soap opera elements (last year it was kidnapping, amnesia, false identities, etc.) don't syndicate as well as shows with stand-alone episodes. That prompted Fox to request a sample script of an episode without the real-time element. Neither the producers nor the network was happy with the results.

"It would have felt like ordinary television, not the show we just spent a year creating," Cochran said. "We didn't want to do something so conventional."

The challenge, of course, is to come up with a new 24-hour story as compelling as the first year without repeating what had been done.

"The one we came up with seemed real and will provide a lot of tension," Cochran said. Elements of that crisis are likely to mutate, but that suits the "24" producers.

"The best ideas are the ones that surprise us," Cochran said. "If you try to plan those things 15 episodes in advance, it will be stale and contrived. But if we're sitting in a room thinking what absolutely can't happen, then that's what has to happen. And then we have to find a way out of it. That's the way we do stories."

Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to http://www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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