You have been hearing for months that 24 is the best new series of the television season, but what exactly does that mean? It's been a strange and mostly lousy new fall season.
Put it this way: The pilot for 24 is so daringly different, perfectly paced, well-acted and socially relevant that it makes up for all the other awful new series - almost. Nothing ever is going to make up for Bob Patterson, Emeril or Danny.
24, which stars Kiefer Sutherland as an agent in the government's Counter Terrorism Unit, tells its story in real time with the entire season of 24 episodes taking place in just one day. Tonight's pilot covers midnight to 1 a.m. on the day of the California presidential primary. No network ever has dared to put itself in that kind of narrative straitjacket, and the dare itself brings energy to the hour.
Sutherland plays Agent Jack Bauer, a flawed but fundamentally decent husband, father and hard-working American who makes his living trying to keep the country safe from terrorism. The pilot was made last spring, but after Sept. 11 it would be hard to choose an occupation for the hero more likely to get audience members rooting for him. And, in Sutherland's hands, this is a hero worth rooting for.
After an opening sequence that features an American agent in a foreign land messaging secret information about an assassination attempt planned in California on primary day, we cut to a living room where Jack Bauer is playing chess with his 15-year-old daughter, Kimberly (Elisha Cuthbert). He sends her to bed shortly after midnight.
A few minutes later, Bauer and his wife (Leslie Hope), with whom he's recently reconciled, discover that their daughter has snuck out of her bedroom window for a night on the town with older boys. This discovery is followed by an urgent phone call summoning Bauer and members of his unit into an immediate meeting with the agency's district director. It seems that terrorists may try to murder Sen. David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), the first African-American candidate with a real shot at the White House.
The rest of the hour is as dramatic a tightrope as any prime-time television series ever has strung, with Bauer methodically trying to get as much information as he can on the assassination attempt while also helping his wife via telephone and computer to find their daughter. Credit executive producers Ron Cochran (La Femme Nikita) and Joel Surnow (Wiseguy) with bringing together direction, script and split-screen editing to make the hour speed by in such a deliciously dramatic blur that it's hard to believe the show is over when the final credits roll.
But it's Sutherland's performance that so elevates the hour. This is a feature film star at work, and his performance demonstrates why the folks who fill the big screen make much more money than most television stars.
On paper, the character of Jack Bauer could be a stretch. One minute, he's a suburban dad, lounging in his living room in tennis shoes and jeans playing chess with his kid. Less than 25 minutes later, he's at the office, shooting one of his agency bosses with a drugged dart, and then blackmailing the man for information.
But Sutherland makes viewers believe in the reality of this guy almost from the moment he comes on screen. Sutherland is so comfortable and sure of his talent that the audience doesn't see the acting and forgets about the actor. We just see Bauer.
I'm not saying Sutherland does that trick as well as someone like, say, Paul Newman did when he was at the top of his game. But for a Tuesday night on the tube, Sutherland's performance is almost art. Hell, given the caliber of most of the rest of the new fall series, Sutherland's performance and 24 are almost heaven.
24 airs tonight at 9 on Fox.