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Fall '01: "24"

By all rights, we should hate 24, each and every one of us. No one could blame us for openly rooting against the show, at the very least, or, at the very most, offering crude and possibly heretical incantations to Baal for 24's quick and immediate demise. Because long before the first minute of the first scene had even aired, the first-year series about a day in the life of a government agent trying to thwart the assassination of a presidential candidate already had three strikes against it. Fox gave us every reason in the world to hate 24 sight unseen.

First, there was the network's relentless promotion of the show, a steady drumbeat of 24-related propaganda that infused and eventually overwhelmed Fox's coverage of the World Series. Break in the action? Time to pimp 24. The backstop behind home plate is unencumbered by signage? Let's just superimpose the grim visage of Kiefer Sutherland to further flog the audience into watching. Tino Martinez wears number 24? Say, Tim McCarver, that reminds me of this new show debuting on Fox this fall...

Then, there is the not-at-all insignificant fact that TV critics anointed 24 as the surefire-smash-hit of the 2001 fall season. Critics are, of course, fine people on the whole and upstanding members of society and those rumors about their unwillingness to pick up a check are more or less overblown. But, by and large, they should not be confused with men and women of flawless judgments. Sex in the City, Once and Again, Tracey Takes On -- all shows heralded by the knights of the keyboard for no apparent reason other than as a drunken dare or possibly a prank gone awry. And when critics rush en masse to their thesauri to dig up increasingly flattering superlatives -- well, the last time we had such uniformity of opinion, David E. Kelley was a master of wit and sophistication. And now the airwaves are choked with crummy shows produced by that tousle-haired little creep.

Finally -- and perhaps most damningly -- 24 stars Kiefer Sutherland. I don't think I need to explain the chilling implications of this development to anyone who's spent any appreciable amount of time in the nation's cineplexes between 1987 and 1996. But just in case you've been lucky enough to avoid "Flatliners," "1969," "Chicago Joe and the Showgirl" and anything else starring America's second-favorite acting Sutherland, suffice it to say that most of Kiefer's silver screen work won't be landing on any American Film Institute Top 100 lists any time soon, unless AFI is planning a Suckiest Films of the First Bush Administration special. And if you happen to be mentally drafting an angry e-mail to me right now chronicling the delicious differences between El Kiefo's portrayals of a slow-witted, poetry-spewing cowboy in the "Young Guns" movies and his turn as a slow-witted cowboy who keeps his poetic aspirations to himself in "The Cowboy Way," let's just say we agree to disagree, OK? Oh, and you have my deepest sympathies for your brain injury.

Despite lugging along more baggage than you can legally stow in the overhead bins, 24 winds up being a surprisingly good show. Really good. The storytelling is fast-paced and engaging, the show never seems to drag, and you don't walk away from 24 feeling stupider than you were when the hour began. Even Kiefer doesn't harm the proceedings, providing some of his finest work since his turn as the slow-witted yet sadistic cracker lieutenant in "A Few Good Men."

Does 24 deserve the universal hosannas being sung by the nation's TV critics, who've declared this to be the best new show of the year? Nah. I can think of three, maybe four freshman shows that are ahead of 24 in the line, starting with Fox's Undeclared. (And how weird is it for me to find half-a-dozen new shows that I actually like this fall? Well, that trend ends tomorrow -- Emeril is next on my to-do list.) No matter what you think of this year's crop of new shows, however, 24 certainly is worthy of your attention.

24 centers on a day in the life of one of those shadowy government spy agencies which are so popular on TV this year. This time around, the focus is on Jack Bauer (our one and only Kiefer), a maverick agent who must contend with a) an assassination plot against presidential candidate David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert, last seen in the brilliant Now and Again a few falls back); b) the kidnapping of his daughter; and c) the fact that some as of yet unknown person within his own shadowy spy agency probably has played a hand in both a) and b). Oh, and Bauer has to deal with all of this in one 24-hour period -- hence the show's numerically inspired title.

Because every show needs a gimmick these days, 24's hook is that the events unfold in real time. In other words, each hour-long episode represents an hour in Jack Bauer's day. The season premiere takes place between midnight and 1 a.m., the second episode runs from 1 to 2, and so on. The structure gives 24 a narrative punch, keeping the action moving and allowing the producers to experiment with some cool transitional effects to keep the real-time illusion in place. Of course, given that this is a 24-episode series, we can safely presume that Bauer won't have this assassination thing wrapped up sometime just before supper.

24's narrative structure may be its most distinguishing feature, but it may also be the biggest hurdle standing in the way of the show's success. Picture this: you've caught the first four episodes of 24, you've assiduously followed every twist and turn in the plot, you've even produced elaborate flowcharts to track each character and their respective machinations. And then, one week, you've got a social obligation or there's a Red Wing game on or the dog wants to go for a walk right now. And the very next week, it's 6 a.m., and Kiefer's wearing a completely different shirt and half-a-dozen characters you didn't even know about have been systematically waxed. It's like you miss a week, and the next time you tune in, all the characters are speaking Spanish.

Fox, to its credit, is taking steps to ensure that you won't have to cut off all contact with humanity between 9 and 10 on Tuesday evenings, lest you miss a moment of 24. The network has yanked the awful Pasadena from its Friday night lineup and, instead of filling the hole with Best of Cops or World's Funniest Groin Pulls, is rebroadcasting that week's 24 episode. 24 reruns also air incessantly on the FX cable channel, proving that there's more to corporate synergy than annoying Time-Warner popup ads on AOL. And, even if you wind up missing all 73 rebroadcasts of a particular 24 episode, Fox has seen to it that the "Previously on 24" segment of the show recaps the entire series to date. At the rate things are going, by week 13, the new episode will run about two minutes, preceded by a 58-minute recap segment.

If there is a drawback to 24's narrative contrivance, it's that sometimes the structure telegraphs the plot twists. At the 50-minute mark of each episode, for example, you can count on a shocking and dramatic development to transpire which probably won't resolve itself until next week's installment. Sometimes that cliffhanger approach works, sometimes it feels cheap and forced. And on more than one occasion, some of 24's tertiary characters have bought the farm, and their impending demise couldn't have been more transparent if they appeared on camera wearing red Starfleet shirts.

Still, 24 hits more often than it misses. And I'll take a show that tries something different and suffers than the occasional misstep over a program that aims for something safe, predictable and bland and hits its target every time. 24 has a good story to tell, and it tells it well -- and that's enough to keep me watching through the last minute of the season finale.

Which is why, when Fox interrupts its Super Bowl coverage with shots of a giant inflatable Kiefer Sutherland head floating high atop the Superdome, I won't really mind. Much.


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