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Dawn of a New Day

Day 5 of the hit Fox television show "24" promises another season of tension and unexpected twists and turns.
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
"24", Jan/Feb 2006

Kiefer Sutherland is back to save America from terrorists…again. I find Sutherland, who plays Jack Bauer, the complicated hero of the hit Fox television show "24," relaxing in his trailer on the large set in Los Angeles's West Valley. But wait, didn't he "die" last year? Bauer ended last season in disgrace, after killing the Chinese ambassador. To evade a U.S. government hit man sent to kill him, Bauer had to fake his death with the help of those close to him. The last time viewers saw him, he was walking off into a cowboy sunset, silhouetted against the golden sky. Every implication suggested that he wasn't coming back. He had defeated the terrorists. Again. But he'd alienated most of those close to him, and left a trail of dead bodies and suspicion in his wake. Day 5—each season is titled according to the "24" hours the show covers—begins January 15. This season's plot is shrouded in secrecy. The only hint we have of what to expect is stated in a brief Fox Network press release, which says the first four hours, broadcast over two consecutive nihts, has Bauer trying to cope with a "brutal breach of national security." That's it. The show's producers recently promised an "explosive opener that will have you jumping out of your seat." No one would say anything more, aside from the predictable "if we told you, we'd have to kill you" jokes. One thing you can be sure of: Bauer will once again be assigned the task of saving the United States from terrorists.

"The creators of this show have an amazing facility to come up with a primary scenario that the year is going to take," Sutherland, 39, says while on location in October (see "A Hero Returns," page 96). "It is amazing how creative and inventive they have been. I love doing this show. I'm so fortunate that when I came back to doing film, this is the first thing I chose to do."

Sutherland has been the hook for the show since the beginning. His trials and tribulations, from losing loved ones to using violent and illegal methods to get information out of terror suspects, have made him seem a very real combatant in the fight against global terror. Fans plan their weeks around the Monday night, 9 p.m. airing, or program their TiVos to make sure not one second is missed. Other people refuse to watch the weekly broadcast, waiting until a season is released on DVD, and then immersing themselves in a marathon viewing session. However they choose to watch, many "24" lovers say it's the only TV drama they tune in to. That includes people from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) to conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh.

"I got into it last year flying to Afghanistan. We put the DVD of season one in and watched for 18 straight hours. We didn't sleep," Limbaugh says during a recent telephone interview. "Frankly, during our week in Afghanistan, I was looking forward to getting back to the plane to watch the last episodes.

"I was stunned. It was totally unpredictable, from one minute to the next," he says. "One reason it is so captivating is that you cannot watch it passively."

The public and Hollywood have responded. The show has won four Golden Globes, including Sutherland's Best Actor nod in a Television Series-Drama in 2001, and has been nominated for more than 40 Emmy awards, garnering 12, including multiple wins in the writing and directing and camera categories. In all, the show has received more than 80 nominations for various awards. That success makes co-creator Joel Surnow pinch himself. "I'm 50 years old and I'm lucky enough to have a critical and commercial success," says Surnow, while puffing on an H. Upmann No. 2 in the show's private cigar room (See "The Calcutta Cigar Club," page 88). "It is hitting the public consciousness while the U.S. is in a war on terrorism. It is the only show dealing with terrorism in a meaningful way."

Defeating terrorists is the key premise of "24." But nothing in the show is ever what it seems. There are more plot twists and unexpected developments than you'll find in the latest video game. Each season has been an avalanche of violent action and tension-building incidents that often make it hard to fall asleep after an episode ends. The intricate plots and multiple characters frequently make the show difficult to follow for uninitiated fans. But those notes of unpredictability and anxiety are what keep viewers of the show addicted to it. "It's an investment and it's not necessarily a show that makes you feel good and relaxed at the end of the day," Surnow says. "It leaves you on edge."

Each season revolves around a terrorist plot on the United States, usually with several subplots that entangle each character in a horrible race to save himself, his loved ones and/or the country. The show also deviates from normal television practices. Instead of telling a stand-alone story in an hour-long episode, the same plot line runs through all 24 episodes, or one for each hour of the day. The show is told in real time, which provides the opportunity for character and story development unlike anything being filmed today.

Day 1 was broadcast in 2001, premiering a few months after the 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. In it, Jack Bauer, an agent at the fictional Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU) and his colleagues discover a plot to kill the leading presidential candidate, David Palmer, played by Dennis Haysbert. Bauer's daughter, Kim (Elisa Cuthbert), disappears in the first hours after the plot is discovered, and as the story unfolds over the next 24 hours, her kidnapping becomes part of the terrorist plot to apparently disable Bauer's effort to save Palmer. And, no, this article isn't going to tell you anything more, because if it did, we'd have to kill you.

Day 2, the 2002—03 season, opens 18 months after Day 1 with Bauer coping with a personal tragedy, and the discovery that terrorists are planning to detonate a nuclear device in Los Angeles. At the same time, he uncovers a plot to overthrow the new president. Day 3, the 2003—04 season, revolves around a terrorist plot to release a bio-warfare attack on an American city. In that season, which takes place three years after Day 2, Bauer is the head of CTU and has to deal with terrorist demands to release a Mexican drug lord in return for not setting off the virus-laden explosive.

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