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.
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 moment...to 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."
It's more than quality control. Surnow believes that everyone is deeply vested in the success of "24." If there was a common thread through more than a dozen interviews, from actors and producers down to the costume-department head, it was the sense of pride that if anyone has an idea, it will be listened to, and even incorporated if it's the right idea. To some extent, that ethos flows from the cigar room, arguably the creative heart and soul of the production offices, created by Surnow and Gordon at the show's inception.
"There's a very free flow of comments there. Everyone who is invited into the cigar room knows ideas are exchanged there," says Gordon. "Whether he's a prop master, a costume guy or an actor, the door is always open, and no one is too impressed with themselves to not hear a good idea. The whole idea is to make the show better."
Surnow recalls a scene from Day 4 in which a CTU analyst, Chloe O'Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub), is shot at by a terrorist as she sits in a bulletproof car, a position she has been forced into by circumstance. "Originally, the script had Kiefer in the car, but then it was Kiefer, or maybe even a prop guy, who said, 'Why don't we put Chloe in there, a person who can't handle something like that happening, and Jack has to talk her through it,'" says Surnow. For anyone who watched last season, that scene, where Chloe has to drive to a safe-house location because no one else is available, is an incredibly powerful, character-altering moment.
"It's an example of how everyone thinks their ideas can get through," Surnow says. "No, we don't sit around and poll everybody. That wouldn't work. But in the context of when we put out a script and everyone starts to work on it, they know they put their ideas out...it's not that we're such great guys. But we all appreciate that this is too big for one or two or three guys to do by themselves."
Even the show's actors feel as if they can throw in their two cents' worth and not get laughed off the set. James Morrison, who joined the cast last year as CTU official Bill Buchanan, says that the openness and the free flow of ideas is one of the most unusual aspects of the show. Morrison, who is also a cigar lover, says that he feels totally free to bring ideas to the table. "It is incredibly collaborative and synergistic," Morrison says as he relaxes and smokes a cigar in his trailer. "They are very open to ideas with dialogue and scenes...more so than any other place I've ever worked."
Roger Cross, who plays Curtis Manning, CTU's primary field operative, concurs. "They allow within the framework of the story to have some room to move. They expect you to do that," he says. "And they are not afraid to adjust and take your ideas. It's great."
Kim Raver, who plays Audrey Raines, the daughter of the secretary of defense and Jack Bauer's love interest in Day 4, also agrees. "It's very unusual, and it is genuine. And not to sound all corny, but there is something special. A lot of people set the tone. Joel, Howard and, of course, Kiefer," Raver says. "When the bar is set really high, everyone wants to come up to that level. And there's a level of trust, too. And people who are hired get to do their job, and do it as well as they can.
"It's also amazing. This isn't the first year of the show. It's been going on for a couple of years, and to still have that enthusiasm is amazing," says Raver. "But the format almost forces people to... keep it going because they believe so strongly in [the show]."
Cassar is quick to attribute the reasons for that collaborative atmosphere. "It's very easy to kill it. But it takes someone to keep that door open, and Joel always has. It keeps everyone involved as opposed to the 'I'm God and do it exactly the way I say' mode. Then it's not collaborative anymore," says Cassar. "I've directed over 120 episodes of TV and eight feature films, and I've never seen anything like this."
That such an open atmosphere exists on a show as complex as "24" almost defies reason. At any given time, between 200 and 250 people work on "24." Some days, an additional 100 extras come on set. Each has to look and dress the same for the entire 10-month production schedule.
The production schedule is part of the fascination that Hollywood has with the show; when George Lucas started development of a television production unit, the executives asked to visit the set of "24." According to Cassar, two episodes are shot together in a 30-day span. He says preparation for the episodes takes 15 days, which means scouting locations, finalizing the cast, applying for any necessary location permits and, of course, getting the script close to a final version. Then the two episodes are shot, from top to bottom of each script in 15 days. "They may not be edited, but they are in the can," Cassar says. "It's a little like doing 12 mini-movies every season," which is why the production process interests the rest of Hollywood. Brad Turner, the other main director on the show, was involved in shooting his two episodes during the two days of on-set interviews, and wore the look of a man overwhelmed with the enormity of the task; he didn't have time for a sit-down chat.
Raver recalls being asked last fall if she would mind shooting her day's scene straight through, back-to-back. "I said, 'Oh my God, that's like a play,'" Raver says over the phone. "You have to be on your game to do something like that. But it keeps you focused."
Cassar also suggests that the system allows for acting and directing decisions like the one with Raver. "It means you have one director for two episodes, which is very important from a tone point of view," says Cassar. "We have one big story arc, and you have to be constantly aware of everything else that's being shot. From a director's point of view, you have to be very careful because you are dealing with a single '24-hour' period. So how many times can a woman cry in a single day? How many times can a guy get angry? As a director, you have to pay attention to that kind of stuff all the time. And you have to watch the other director's work, too."
Surnow adds that the single-plot concept places an inordinate amount of pressure on the scriptwriters and the actors. "There's a mandate from the studio that you can't have a bad show. You can have a B-minus, but you can't have a D-plus or a C-minus. If you put two of those bad shows together, you lose everybody for the whole season because the audience will say you've lost the story line," Surnow says. "What that means very often is that we have to go back after a shoot and edit it, and say, 'That's not good enough,' and we have to do two more days of shooting. The studio supports that, and most studios won't do that."
Of course, "24's" commercial success helps. No one was willing to go on the record with the show's financials, but according to industry sources, with an approximate $850,000-a-minute rate, the math on the direct ad revenue side is pretty simple. With about eight to eight and a half minutes of network advertising per episode, that translates into $6.8 million to $7.2 million per show, or more than $150 million in revenue from on-air advertising in a season alone. Add in DVD sales, syndication rights and foreign sales, and it's easily conceivable that the Fox Network would give the show's producers some flexibility in creating the best possible shows they can.
Now the challenge revolves around keeping the show fresh. "This will never get to the level of a 'CSI' because it's just not a comfortable show that you come home [to] at the end of the day, and it makes you feel good," says Surnow. "It's an investment...that runs counter to what people have always thought TV should be. I would have loved to know what 'The Sopranos' would have done on a major network. I think they would have bumped up against the same ceiling we did. It's just not for everyone.
"I would be thrilled if we maintained a double-digit rating this year," adds Surnow. "But I also believe it is a format that can sustain itself, like a 'Law & Order' format. We all feel this is a great format. It's new. It cranks up the intensity for an action show, and gives the audience something different. But every year, we ask ourselves those questions: how much more can you do? We don't want to start repeating ourselves."
But for now, Surnow and the other creative minds behind the show are just happy to revel in the success of a hit TV show.
"It's a journeyman's career working in television," says Surnow, still drawing on his cigar. "If this hadn't happened, I would have been happy because I had worked for 20 years. The name of the game is working year in and year out. I'm still of that mind-set. I'm happy to have a job."
Surnow ran down the statistics on how many television shows make it from the concept stage to actually being aired. He estimates that at the beginning of every development season, thousands of ideas are presented to the five major networks, and of those, maybe 200 are green-lighted for development, and about 40 are made into pilots. "At that point, in this business, you've won the game," says Surnow. "You've got $3 or $4 million to make a pilot. Before this, I had written 11 pilots and not one of them went to film." But out of the 40-odd pilots, Surnow says, only about 10 make it to air, and of the 10 or so that debuted five years ago with "24," the only one still being broadcast is "Alias," which is in its final season. "So, it's like winning the lottery," he says.
The same can probably be said for the actors and actresses on the show. The exposure of being on a critically acclaimed television series, which is also a commercial success, brings attention to the actors.
Sutherland is unequivocal that the success of "24" has gotten his career back on a track that he is excited about. "I've been very lucky in an industry that is giving actors less and less room to move," he says. "I've been given a lot of latitude, and with '24' as successful as it is, opportunities that I didn't have access to, I have now. That's good." Later this year, Sutherland will co-star with Michael Douglas in a spy-thriller film called The Sentinel.
Mary Lynn Rajskub, the actress who plays Chloe, is now in her third season on "24," as a wonky computer analyst that works in the CTU offices. From her background as a stand-up comedian, she couldn't fathom why she was being asked to join the show. But she loves it, regardless. "People recognize me more, and in the industry, now people realize I can do drama," she says. "I didn't realize that I was tied into sitcoms. But this has broadened my horizons. And it's so much fun being here."
Gregory Itzen, who plays Charles Logan, the vice president who stepped into the Oval office in Day 4, says, "This is the happiest I've ever been on a set, because they give you the freedom to do what you want to do." The 25-year Hollywood veteran adds, "Since I'm just beginning to swim in this pool, and I don't know what else is out there...I want to be this character for a while. I don't really want to be anywhere else right now."
The "let's see where this goes" mentality pervades the entire show. Surnow thinks there is still a lot of upside, and he has a group of actors, writers, producers and directors who admit that the last thing they want to do is leave the show.
"We are the only show that is dealing constantly with terrorism in a heroic way. But it has a touch of reality in it, too. Here, though, the good guys are getting the terrorists."