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LOS ANGELES - Standing in the middle of a glitzy Fox network party, 24 star Dennis Haysbert seemed positively ebullient, at least for the guy who inhabits TV's most stoically intense character, President David Palmer.
"I wasn't invited here, and then they invited me," said Haysbert, smiling and looking around a room filled with actors from Fox shows publicizing the fall season. "Maybe I'm the party's red herring. . . . Who knows?"
In a show packed with red herrings, last season's biggest, the possibility that Palmer may have been assassinated, was revealed that night as Haysbert worked the crowd. It was a revelation that has been reinforced by the new season's recent avalanche of publicity featuring Haysbert and co-star Kiefer Sutherland. (Could Fox pack more commercials for its fall lineup into its baseball coverage?)
Still, rumors abound that neither Palmer nor Bauer is quite himself in the third edition of Fox's real-time adventure/drama, which spends another tumultuous day with Sutherland's stalwart government agent, Jack Bauer, and Haysbert's Palmer, racing against the clock to stop a stupendous calamity.
At the summer party, grilling Haysbert on the season's plotlines was useless. "I don't even know if I'm going to be around for the full season or not," he said, laughing.
Executive producer/creator Joel Surnow was more willing to dish.
Palmer is "going to go the bathroom a lot this year. . . . The first scene, he's in the W.C.," said Surnow, laughing off constant questions from critics about why characters never seem to shower or sleep during a season.
"The first 10 episodes of the first season were as tightly knit as any story we've told. . . . We put Jack square in the middle between his family in peril and the world in peril," said Surnow, who created the show with partner Robert Cochran.
"What we've tried to do this season is stitch the best of (the past two) seasons together. We've got a lot of Jack and his family, Jack and his daughter. . . . We're going to try to weave a lot of personal dynamics into the big story."
Fans may grouse about the show's dizzying leaps of logic. My favorite was seeing Agent Bauer in a fistfight not long after he'd been shocked back to life during a torture session. But Sutherland said such bounds are necessary for maintaining the show's appeal.
"This is not a jazz piece, it's a rock piece, so you burn from the first bar," he said. "The show does best when it is moving, and when it is moving fast."
Certainly, that much is obvious after watching the season's first two episodes, provided in advance to TV critics. As with any 24 review, there's a moment when the spoilers start flowing, and you've reached that point.
SO DON'T READ THE NEXT THREE PARAGRAPHS if you hate to see PLOT SURPRISES REVEALED.
The season starts three years after May's season finale. President Palmer is in Los Angeles gearing up for a re-election debate, aided by a brother who we never saw in the first two seasons but now runs his staff like a bald, black Karl Rove.
Bauer, meanwhile, soon finds that a year's work getting close to a Hispanic drug lord and arresting him is threatened by the kingpin's sudden decision to refuse a plea deal. Exhausted and increasingly stressed out, Bauer's rebuilt Counter Terrorism Unit must find the kingpin's cronies, who are threatening to bring a serious health threat to the Los Angeles area if their boss isn't freed.
Without revealing much more, it's worth noting that Jack will reveal a terrible secret sure to shock longtime fans at the end of the first episode (which airs uninterrupted, its commercials pushed to each end of the show, thanks to Ford Motor Co.). Kim Bauer also has a new gig, which places her closer to Dad and, of course, peril.
SPOILER ALERT OVER
Sutherland admitted that 24 has erred in its treatment of Elisha Cuthbert's Kim Bauer, who regularly faces an absurd laundry list of tragedies. Last season, the tally included babysitting for an abusive dad, facing accusations of murdering the mom, running from a car crash that hurt a cop, being taken hostage by an armed man in a convenience store and getting attacked by a cougar.
In one day.
"One of the things I felt was important was the family aspect . . . (and) unfortunately, Elisha took the brunt of us trying to figure out how to accomplish that," Sutherland said. "The joke about Elisha getting bitten by the cougar last season was that the story line was so bad, it bit her."
Surnow agreed, saying that the producers like Cuthbert's character for her appeal to younger viewers but they had a hard time pulling her into last season's stories. It's a general problem that usually strikes about a dozen episodes into the season as producers juggle to keep major characters in motion during each installment. (Remember that out-of-nowhere amnesia that struck Jack's wife in Season 1?)
"Because of the real-time format, characters are stuck in a certain time and place, but there's really nothing for them to do," Surnow said. "They can't travel 25 minutes to get to another story line. When you do 24 episodes, they're not all going to be stellar."
For Sutherland, "it's like being in a train, and you know it's going to hit something, and you just have to be ready to disembark quickly and get on another one," he said. "It's inherent in understanding the time format . . . (but) every year it gets better."
A veteran of 40 movies, the actor joked about the volumes of "expository dialogue" he sometimes spouts that must explain the action to viewers and fit in a dramatic scene.
"You learn how to get through it . . . especially when your career takes a bit of a dip and you're doing some films that are not as good," Sutherland said, laughing. "I speak incredibly quickly . . . like Evelyn Wood speed reading. You don't catch every word, but you get a general sense of what (Bauer) meant. And it generally helps to do it while you're running."
Last season's 24 was nothing if not topical. As President Bush was trying to convince the world he had evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, 24's President Palmer was unseated by a vice president and a shadowy cabal of conspirators trying to start a war in the Middle East based on fabricated evidence.
"At the end of the day . . . I thought it hurt the show a little bit," said Surnow, who thought the relatively contained war in Iraq worked against the high-stakes tension trying to be evoked on 24, where the fictional conflict was expected to blossom into World War III. "There was a real-life war on, and it kind of . . . didn't feel that terrifying. It kind of took people out of the show a bit."
Haysbert mentioned how real-life protesters also questioned the validity of evidence used to justify the war, just as 24's heroes did. "As far as I know, we haven't found any weapons of mass destruction (in Iraq) yet," he said. "I'll let you draw your own conclusions from that."
These days, 24 sits in a unique spot in the TV industry. Though not a monster hit, it blossomed from critical favorite to solid hit in its second season, fueled by interest in a first-season DVD and a tremendous lead-in from American Idol.
It's even more popular in England, the rest of Europe and New Zealand. ("The French were all wishing I really was the president," cracked Haysbert, recalling a recent trip to Monte Carlo.) But that doesn't keep Sutherland, who also is an executive producer, from sweating the small stuff.
"I've been doing this for 22 years; I'm worried all the time about all of it," said Sutherland, who mostly provides input on dialogue and the course of his character. "I couldn't explain to you why the show does what it does . . . why people like it the way they do. (But) when you're on the receiving end of the benefit of an audience liking your show, you would like that to last for a while."
Based on the first two episodes this season, Sutherland can rest easy. The typical balance of intrigue, action, dramatic tension and ambitious storytelling remains intact, preserving 24's status as one of the best series on television.
"We got quite action-oriented in Season 2 . . . and I'm excited about getting back to the feeling of a real espionage show," Sutherland said. "The nature of our show is speed. So we're going to burn from the first bar."
At a glance
24 begins its third season at 9 p.m. Tuesday on WTVT-Ch. 13. Critic's grade: A. Rating: TV-14.
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