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'24' stands its ground
© St. Petersburg Times
When you're an executive producer on network TV's most-anticipated terrorism-related drama, there's one question likely to keep you up nights.
What happens when real-life events come uncomfortably close to your manufactured reality?
For Robert Cochran, executive producer of 24, that question surfaces while considering the second season of his critically acclaimed hit, which debuts Tuesday with a commercial-free, hourlong episode featuring Islamic extremists organizing a devastating act of domestic terrorism.
In a post-Sept. 11 America seemingly on the verge of war with Iraq, there couldn't be a dicier topic for an action-oriented TV series. But Cochran shrugs off the notion that viewers might object to a story line that echoes many Americans' fears about covert cells of Islamic terrorists doing their dirty work on U.S. soil.
"If you do a show about terrorism and you avoid what's happening in the real world, I don't know what your show's about," said Cochran, who won an Emmy award with producing partner Joel Surnow for writing 24's pilot episode, which centered on efforts by anti-terrorism government agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) to stop an attempt to kill the first black man with a realistic chance of winning the presidency.
"It's like doing a cop show and saying you're not going to deal with serious crimes," Cochran said, noting that the bad guys in 24's first season were Bosnians. "It's not as though we're saying the religion of Islam is made up (entirely) of terrorists. But there are people who are believers of Islam who are terrorists . . . and you have to do something that makes sense . . . that is grounded in the real world."
Still, the new plotline concerned Hodan Hassan, a spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations. She particularly reacted to one character, a young Muslim shown preparing to marry into a prominent Caucasian family and who may be part of the plot.
"I think it's important they disassociate the practice of Islam from terrorism," Hassan said. (One note: Tuesday's episode does show terrorists of other ethnicities, and Cochran promises that at least one character of Islamic faith will not be a terrorist.)
"We just object to stereotypical portrayals of Islam as a violent faith," Hassan said.
Some members of the 24 family already have made adjustments for current crises. Sutherland's movie about an out-of-control sniper, Phone Booth, filmed during his Christmas hiatus from the series, has been delayed from a Nov. 15 release date because of the sniper in the Washington, D.C., area.
An online pop-up ad for 24 on Yahoo.com featuring a sniper's crosshairs was shelved by Fox over similar concerns. And post-Sept. 11 sensitivities convinced producers to eliminate a shot of an exploding plane from 24's pilot episode last season.
But Cochran can't imagine a scenario in which Fox might pre-empt or delay episodes of 24 this season, even if war breaks out in the Persian Gulf.
"We exist, like most TV shows, in a parallel universe; and we're not (directly) referencing current events because it takes so long to make an episode," he said, noting that it can take two months for a completed script to air. "God forbid it should get to the point where there are things you just can't bring yourself to watch because the real world is so awful."
The 24 premiere is one of the most-anticipated events of the TV season, following a season in which the show's viewership never quite matched the deluge of critical raves over the show's dizzying pace and real-time format.
Just like last season, this 24 presents the events of a single, action-packed day over 24 episodes, in which a minute onscreen equals a minute for the viewer. And just like last season, the show's creators constantly bend that premise to the breaking point, struggling to reconcile the demand for exciting episodic television with the show's central, constricting conceit.
"In a lot of ways, we make an incredible effort of creating a sense of realism in an incredibly implausible situation," said Sutherland, speaking to reporters in July. "Yes, there are huge soap operatic qualities to the show. But it's counterbalanced with a real effort on everybody's part to make it as realistic in that vein as possible."
WARNING: The next seven paragraphs will reveal information about the season's first two episodes, provided to critics last week for review. If you don't want to know what's coming, you might want to skip ahead.
Sutherland's Jack Bauer seems a different man this season, shattered by the murder of his wife, Teri, in the show's season finale last May. Bearded and belligerent, he's walked away from the Counter Terrorist Unit he once guided and is struggling to repair his relationship with his daughter, Kimberly (Elisha Cuthbert).
Of course, we all know Bauer won't stay out of the CTU fold for long. And true to form, he's eventually approached by now-President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) to help unravel a terrorist plot threatening Los Angeles.
Fans will enjoy the subtle ways that producers reveal how the character's lives have changed -- the slow unfolding of Kimberly's new circumstances are particularly well done -- though new viewers drawn in by the hype might find it a little confusing (or worse: boring).
And some scenes, particularly with Bauer and Palmer's kids, are so emotionally overwrought, they play like a daytime soap opera (let's see . . . your dad's the president, he's called away on a national crisis, and you're mad because he can't have dinner with you? Riight.)
Some differences include a new start time for the initial episode (events onscreen begin at 8 a.m. instead of midnight, as they did last season) and new characters (including Roseanne alum Sarah Gilbert as an overeager CTU computer technician).
Still, much of Tuesday's show recalls the old 24 magic. Flashes of extreme violence spice the story while testing viewer credulity. And Kimberly finds herself running through alleyways fleeing an evil pursuer, something she did perpetually last season.
(Because the review tapes included a message from Sutherland asking critics to "safeguard the secrets and surprises" of the first two episodes, I can't say much more. Otherwise, I might find myself treated the way Bauer handles a government witness in Tuesday's show. Ooops.)
The show's success proved an education for the actors, veterans of TV and movies who found themselves surprised by the demands of the show's unique format and breakneck pace.
For Haysbert, adjusting to the story's continual twists meant placing a lot of faith in producers, who turned his character's wife into a manipulative, ruthless woman who would order a staffer to initiate an affair with her husband just to control him.
"I told the producers, 'You guys got to give me back my b--s somewhere,' " Haysbert said, laughing. "I'm sucking up a lot of stuff here, and I don't know how much more of it I can take. . . . I might have to start writing my own lines in. I went through the whole first season with a lot of trust."
Of course, Penny Johnson (The Larry Sanders Show), who plays Palmer's now-estranged wife, Sherry, disagreed. "I don't think (Palmer) ever lost his b--s, excuse my words," she said. "He's a big, powerful man, and at some point he will set his wife straight. Besides, I never saw her as a villain . . . (but) as somebody doing what she thought was right."
The biggest adjustment Johnson faced? Realizing that whatever clothes her character wore in the pilot episode, she'd be stuck wearing for the entire season. "You have to look the same over eight months," she said, still sounding a little incredulous. "You don't gain weight, you don't change your hair -- and Penny's used to changing her hair left and right. In nine months you can make a baby, but not on this series."
Sutherland can't help feeling a little juiced by the attention, especially after starring in movie clunkers such as Ring of Fire and Dark City.
"This has probably been the most important year of my career, and my career (covers) 15 years," he said. "I've made 11 No. 1 films, (and) if you ever tabulated what $100-million films like Lost Boys and Stand By Me (drew) viewership-wise . . . it wouldn't come close to what we pull in on a Tuesday night. It's clear for every actor that if you're in the right TV show, and it's treated properly, your (ability) to reach potential fans is bigger than any medium on the planet."
And though the nature of this season's crisis may concern some, producers remain confident that 24 can win new fans, please old ones and reflect the turbulence of today's post-Sept. 11 world without cutting too close to home.
"We're concentrating so much on doing the best show we can, we really don't have time to worry about whether we're going to meet audience expectations," Cochran said. "Our main objective: you want new fans, but if you don't keep your old ones, you're in trouble. We want to make sure the people who put us in the position to have a year two in the first place appreciate what they're seeing."
-- To reach Eric Deggans call (727) 893-8521, e-mail email@example.com.
AT A GLANCE: 24 returns for a second season at 9 p.m. Tuesday on WTVT-Ch. 13. Grade: A. Rating: TV-14.
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