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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

(continued from page 1)

Day 4, which premiered in January 2005, was based on events 18 months after the end of the previous season. Bauer is no longer at CTU but working for Secretary of Defense James Heller, played by television veteran William Devane. When a passenger train blows up and the secretary is kidnapped, Bauer returns to CTU and tries to prevent a stolen nuclear missile from reaching its intended target. In addition, Air Force One is shot down, and the vice president takes control of the country. In the end, Bauer's extralegal tactics to get information on the terrorists and the nuclear-tipped missile end up getting a Chinese ambassador killed. He finds himself under threat of arrest by FBI agents, so his death is staged to protect him from retribution from the Chinese authorities. His friends allow everyone to think that he has died in an explosion and he sneaks off quietly into the unknown.

But Sutherland is back and so is one of his original co-stars, Carlos Bernard, who plays CTU operative Tony Almeida. Bauer and Almeida are the only two major characters remaining from the first season's cast. That alone should tip off viewers that nothing is ever certain when it comes to a "24" plot line. In fact, the producers and writers convincingly argue that at the beginning of each season, they don't know where it's going to end.

Bernard, who is an avid cigar smoker (see "Staying Alive," page 92), recalls his astonishment at the plot twists in Day 1. "I didn't think it would be a revolving door of cast members, but one thing tipped me off," Bernard says during an interview on location in October. "There was a character named Walsh; he was Jack Bauer's boss in the first season. Great character played by a great actor named Michael O'Neill. I'm thinking, This guy is going to be around for a while," Bernard says. "In the second episode, he gets killed. I knew all bets were off. I thought, 'If they can kill that guy, anybody can get killed off.'"

That the show is so unpredictable is part of its mass appeal. "24" has become a rare television property, a hit series with staying power. The fourth episode this season will be the show's 100th. According to Surnow, the joint creator and executive producer of the show along with Robert Cochran, the first four seasons have been syndicated for rebroadcast on the A&E network, DVD sales for the first three seasons are strong (the fourth season was released last fall), and in some foreign markets, the show is a runaway hit (it's the No. 1 show in Japan and Great Britain, where it has a commanding presence on Sky TV).

"Fox is looking at this as a global brand," Surnow says. "And it's done all the selling it needs to do...we have changed the notion of a successful business model in television."

In the United States, "24" averaged almost a 12-share last season, or between 9 million and 10 million households that tuned in each Monday night, according to Surnow. That's far short of shows such as CBS's hit "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," the top-ranked show this season with an average 18 rating, or a 20-plus share. But for the smaller Fox Network, everyone agrees that "24" produces a solid weekly viewing audience. And you won't find more loyal, or addicted, fans. Sometimes those fans even become members of the cast.

This season, Peter Weller, the well-traveled star of Robocop, joins the cast of "24" for the first time. Weller is a fan and says that one of the appeals about coming to the show was its uncertainty, as well as its penchant for twisting and turning actors in unexpected ways. "One of the gifts of '24' is actors don't know where they are going," Weller says. A director himself, Weller explains that it's dangerous to give actors the big picture in a series like this, because unless they are true thespian geniuses, any foreknowledge of the plot or their character's ultimate actions can't help but alter their performance. "By not knowing what's going to happen in the next episode, you have to play each scene as it is; you play it for the moment, and nothing else," Weller says. Other actors joining the cast this season include Jean Smart, Julian Sands and Jobeth Williams.

Jon Cassar, who will direct about half the episodes this year and has been a director on the show since Day 1, proudly recalls an actor who played a normal suburban resident for about 12 episodes, but was in fact a terrorist sleeper agent. "We set her up like her husband was the terrorist, and she never knew," Cassar says. "We argued about telling her or not, but by not telling her, she had no preconceived convention, because she wouldn't be saying, 'Oh, I can't be that innocent because I'm a terrorist.' It was part of our learning process that you have to play the play your reaction to that scene and not think past it. It helps the show. It gives it a sense of reality."

Reality, packed into the conceit of a single 24-hour day, complicates nearly every aspect of "24." Think about it. In most television series, the actors play out different story lines in each episode; they can dress differently, they can drive different cars, they can even get their hair cut or get pregnant, and it can be worked into the series during the eight or nine months it is being filmed. But in "24," the action on-screen takes place in a single day, even though it takes about 10 months to film. The actors must appear reasonably the same, and the tiniest details must be consistent. In season two, Bernard sprained his ankle mid-season, forcing the show's writers to find creative ways to incorporate his injury, and his subsequent walking around on crutches, into the plot.

"Every department has to attend to the details of the show," Surnow says. "There are things I can't catch, Howard [executive producer Gordon] can't catch, Bob [co-executive producer Cochran] can't catch, or any of the writers either. Like, Jack was driving this car in last week's shooting, and now we have him in a different car. Every department comes up to us and says there are inconsistencies here. There is a quality control across the board."

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