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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Robert Cochran knows a great idea when he hears one. So when his production partner Joel Surnow called him with a brainstorm--"a show, 24 episodes, the whole season takes place in one day, each episode is an hour of real time"--Cochran responded as many a seasoned producer might have. "I said, 'That's brilliant. But it's impossible,'" he recalls. "'I don't want to think about it. Don't ever say that to me again.'"

Surnow did bring it up again, and finally the two (who teamed up for USA's La Femme Nikita) worked backward to write a story that would justify the gimmick. Starting at midnight, counterterrorist agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) has 24 hours to foil an attempt to assassinate Senator David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), who is about to become the first major African-American nominee for President. People in Bauer's agency may be in on the hit, so he can't trust anyone. Oh, and his teenage daughter (Elisha Cuthbert) is AWOL in a van with two skeevy-seeming young men. At the end of the pilot, it's 1 a.m., and he doesn't know where his daughter or the killer is. "If you lay all this on one guy," says Cochran, "he won't be getting any sleep, and hopefully the audience won't either."

Forget sleeping through this one--you won't even want to blink. 24 (Fox, Tuesdays, 9 p.m. E.T.) is the most distinctive, addictive new TV series this season. As an old-fashioned thriller, it's relentless, tense and deliciously paranoiac, with more twists than a Twizzler. But it's also boldly different. Most notably, there's its clever visual signature: picture-in-picture screens that show two, three and even four different scenes simultaneously. Director and executive producer Stephen Hopkins first used the device to handle the show's many phone calls, but it proved the perfect way to emphasize the concurrent story lines. "There is something going on at every moment," Hopkins says. "We wanted to show the connection between people and each one in their own environment." Like Web pages or the headline "crawls" on cable-news screens, the device is a visual metaphor for busyness, implying that the program is too bursting with action for one screen to contain. It's drama for the age of information overload.

24, in other words, is 21st century TV. Therein lie its pleasures and its risks. The real-time concept is a dramatic answer to reality TV's aesthetic of immediacy and edge. (Next year NBC will air a real-time Julia Louis-Dreyfus sitcom, tentatively titled 23:12 for the average length of a sitcom minus ads.) But the format is a pain to pull off. The tight time frame means the first few episodes cement choices that will be hard to reverse if the creators have second thoughts. "We had to lay out a map, literally, of where people were at what hour," says Fox entertainment president Gail Berman. "If somebody's 45 minutes from somebody, you can't just cut to the next scene and they're there." On the plus side, the costume designer's job is a breeze.

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