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Tuned In: '24' keeps surprises coming despite revealing previews

Tuesday, February 04, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

HOLLYWOOD -- After spending its first season as a cult hit, Fox's "24" (9 tonight) has seen its ratings rise as it develops a more broad-based following. Yet Fox seems intent on souring the show's original fans by giving away too much in promos and previews.

It's not so much that the spots say exactly what will happen, but by showing snippets of scenes from the last five or 10 minutes of an episode, the promotions build up expectations. Viewers find themselves waiting to see why Kim (Elisha Cuthbert) is reacting in horror to an open trunk or who's pulling a gun on Reza (Phillip Rhys).

"In all fairness, I don't understand why they give away as much as they do, especially when the whole nature of the show is based on that thriller aspect of the surprise," said series star Kiefer Sutherland at a Fox party last month. "I do think they give too much away."

So how about a 20-minute rule? The people who create promos for prime-time series -- Fox isn't the only network to ruin plot twists this season -- would agree to use scenes only from the first 20 minutes of an episode.

"I think that's a great idea," said "24" executive producer Howard Gordon. "I don't think we've been hurt by it, not lethally, but it's damaged some peoples' enjoyment of the next week's episode."

Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman said the network will look more carefully at "24" previews. "It may just be that we have so much inside information, we know where all this stuff is going that it isn't surprising to us."

"24" -- each episode is one hour; a 24-episode season constitutes a single day -- returns tonight with a new installment after a two-week hiatus that followed a shocking revelation: Middle Easterner Reza wasn't in league with terrorists; his lily-white fiancee, Marie (Laura Harris), is the bad guy. She even shot Reza.

At the same time, last year's snake in the grass, Sherry Palmer (Penny Johnson Jerald), appeared to be in league with government officials plotting against her ex-husband, President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert).

Gordon said at one point early in the planning of this season, producers intended to make Marie and Kate's father the one in league with terrorists. But the story of American Taliban John Walker Lindh persuaded them to go with Marie.

Gordon said having one season of "24" behind them both helps and haunts the writers. In season one, Jack was involved more directly because his wife, Teri (Leslie Hope), and daughter, Kim (Elisha Cuthbert), were kidnapped. Killing off Teri gave producers a "new emotional groundwork" for Jack at the start of the second season.

"If he had saved Teri, it would have been resetting the dial and there would be no place to go," Gordon said. "Every year has its own new challenge. We did learn a thing or two about last year, and we're testing the limits and viability of this format."

Plans for a third season are under discussion, with the seeds to be sown in May's second season finale. Judging by online discussion of "24," many fans would be relieved if the third season does not include Kim Bauer.

"I'd chain her to a desk. She has to learn to listen," Sutherland joked about what he would do if his daughter behaved like Kim. "I think it's the one [story] we've had the most negative reaction to."

Gordon agreed: "We know it's a fine line with her, and we are very aware of it, and we're challenged by it."

How to keep some of the show's more beloved characters may also become an issue. It's difficult enough to believe Palmer would allow his manipulative ex-wife into his inner sanctum this year; how could he do it again in year three?

"Either they reconcile or they don't," Gordon said. "That will really determine what their involvement is next year. I will say, we tend to go to the place of 'What can't happen?' and write to it. So they could [get back together]. Who knows. As long as we keep ourselves surprised, then it's fun to write, and presumably, it's fun to watch."

Fun trumps realism, especially in year two.

"I think we talk fast enough and it looks cool enough that audiences are able to forgive the heightened situation that my character finds himself in," Sutherland said. "As implausible as this sometimes may seem, we do make a real effort to try and bring as much reality to it as we can."

Michelle Forbes ("Homicide: Life on the Street") was added in the fall as presidential aide Lynne Kresge.Even though actors often worry about the motivation of their characters, Forbes said the lack of knowledge about where the story on "24" heads is liberating. Though her character has been blindly devoted to President Palmer thus far, she's not concerned about whether that flip-flops further into the season.

"It works on this show," she said. "Look at Nina last year. A good liar is going to act as if they're telling the truth."

As part of the Palmer inner sanctum, Kresge has come head to head with Sherry, who's weaseled her way back into the president's life.

"I think Lynne wants to slap her silly. We have a scene coming up in an elevator that I think is just hysterical. And I think in episode 18, it's topless mud wrestling."

Maybe not mud wrestling, but Gordon confirmed a fight between the two is in the show's future, welcome news to Jerald, who is trained in stage combat.

"You get more emotional pain when a husband and wife go at it," she said, "but when you have two women butting heads, it's much more exciting. You get that delicious catfight side of things."

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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