Television: The Time Of Their Lives

24, an old-fashioned thriller with up-to-the-minute innovations, is this season's most exciting debut

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The show takes to the next level the trend of serial story "arcs," which began with '80s dramas like Hill Street Blues and Wiseguy and which continues on The West Wing and The Sopranos. The last network drama that was so strictly serialized, ABC's courtroom saga Murder One, also had great buzz and reviews, but when ABC scheduled it against the hit ER, viewers lost the thread. Fox and the executive producers say each episode of 24 will stand alone, but judging from the second episode's script, it plays more like one story in 24 chapters. So Fox is using another recent TV innovation, "multiplexing" reruns on sister network FX within a week, to "make sure nobody gets off the train," in the words of Fox president Sandy Grushow. Rival networks will throw strong November-sweeps programming against its debut, hoping to keep passengers from boarding.

It helps that there's a strong cast driving the train. Haysbert (Now and Again) is commanding, if a tad underutilized in the pilot, as an idealist with a dangerous secret. And Sutherland plays the gravel-voiced Bauer with an assurance that belies his teen-movie-star past; his overstressed agent is stalwart but weary, a haunted spook. Lighting up a Camel between takes, Sutherland says he was attracted to playing a character who's "not just a carbon-copy hero": he's a stand-up guy who busted dirty agents but is salvaging his marriage after having an affair with a co-worker. Also, he says, Bauer's crises capture the more universal struggle to balance work and family: "He often has to put one over the other, which is what we all do to some degree."

A show about a counterterrorist unit now hits home in unplanned ways. In one sense, Sept. 11 barely affected 24. In the only change to the pilot, the producers edited an explosion scene in which the assassin blows up a passenger jet and parachutes to safety, but we still see flames streak across the sky. Surnow and Cochran say the season will emphasize Bauer's personal stake in the conspiracy rather than the bad guys' ideology. Still, the news could limit 24's future options. Cochran and Surnow note that Americans flocked to World War II movies in the '40s. Even so, somehow one doubts that the second season might involve, as the producers speculated last summer, a nuclear bomb in New York City.

But the real impact of Sept. 11 on the show may be less obvious. The terrorist attacks and the war have juiced ratings for established hits like Friends and CSI, either because the news has drowned out hype for new shows or because viewers crave yesterday's pleasures as tomorrow looms ever scarier. That could mean rough going for a show that has bet so much on its novelty. And that would be too bad; as nervous, budget-constrained executives wonder if it's worth investing in risky TV in a risk-averse age, they might see the show's failure as an excuse not to innovate. Are viewers in the mood to face the future? The clock is still ticking on that question.

--With reporting by Jeanne McDowell/Los Angeles

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