Miss an hour, and you've cut into '24'

It's humiliating being a low-tech oaf in a high-tech world. Even medium-tech is many vidicons and vertical blanking intervals beyond my skill level.

Each time I publicly lament missing a show because of a conflict, e-mails pour in telling me to tape it and watch it later, dummy, while fast-forwarding through the commercials as a bonus.

Hello! As if I could program my VCR. Ever!

When I try, I inevitably end up with the wrong show or a screen full of that grainy stuff that comes on when aliens take over your TV set. Not that sitting in front of buzzing snow isn't soothing when you're on overload. But that's another story.

TV watching is my business, so I should be better at decoding my VCR. I conform to a certain male stereotype, however. Changing a lightbulb is a major challenge. I tried the other day and earned 100 watts of frustration for my trouble, when half the socket came out with the bulb. Not that darkness isn't a welcome sanctuary at times. But that's another story.

Wires and buttons are problematic, too. My computer? Don't ask. I watch TV and write this column at home in an office where my computer mouse and phone and headset wires somehow get knotted together, making answering calls an adventure. Not that being unreachable by phone isn't isolation I treasure. But that's another story.

Just my luck, also, that my hand-held phone and remote control are about the same size and have buttons that look alike. That means I sometimes punch my remote buttons when intending to punch my phone buttons, and vice versa.

I'm convinced I'm not a minority of one here. You, too, are all fat thumbs. Admit it. Yes you are, or else you wouldn't be nodding while reading this. Unless you're nodding off because what you're reading is tedious and irrelevant. But that's another story.

No, I am absolutely certain that millions of Americans are as technologically challenged as I am and are just as mystified when trying to program their VCRs, even though these little slave boxes have been in wide use for a couple of decades. Which brings me—finally—to my point.

The weekly Fox drama "24." Love it, love it, love it. Yet there's a reason why its ratings do not soar, as they should. It's surely not because "24" isn't enormously seductive and thrilling. Is it ever!

Take Tuesday's episode, which I have seen only because Fox did the smart thing for once and sent out a cassette in advance. It's another ticking time bomb of suspense, again taking Jack Bauer, the counterterrorist fed played by Kiefer Sutherland, right to the edge in his quest to block the planned murder of presidential candidate David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), recover his abducted daughter, Kimberly (Elisha Cuthbert), and repair his troubled marriage to Teri (Leslie Hope). Meanwhile there's a mole inside "the agency," where Jack's close ally is Sarah Clarke (Nina Myers). Although Jack and I both made her as the mole early on, he checked her out, and she appears loyal. But the season is young.

Following a gruesome bombshell, Tuesday's tingly episode concludes with Teri learning something that shoves the story down another sinister alley, as Jack's professional and private lives keep converging ominously.

Some of this is happening on a split screen, and all of it so far in the dead of night. That's because the entire series takes place during a 24-hour span that began at midnight in the lives of its characters. The next midnight you see will mark the end of the first season.

That concept is the genius of "24" and its potential downfall.

Miss just one hour, and you miss a critical link in this chain of pulsating, elevating angst. Recaps at the beginning of each episode help but don't fill the information gap. Nor does Fox's policy of rerunning some episodes on Friday nights.

So you see the intrinsic conundrum here, as would be so for any complexly plotted, byzantine serial whose episodes are dominoes, each pushing down the next in line. A similar format surely also blunted ratings for ABC's "Murder One," a first-class legal series in the mid-1990s that devoted its entire first season to a single murder case. Along with others I know, I bailed after missing key episodes.

So it is for VCR dopes who very much want to watch "24" but are unlikely to invest time in a series that may be incomprehensible to them should they miss an episode.

In my case, I have a conflict on alternate Tuesday nights that has me arriving home about half an hour into "24." Real bummer. If these characters can remain sleepless through the night, though, the least I can do is commit to follow them as best I can.

So despite my VCR blues, I'm hanging in there, while overlooking occasional plot lapses (instead of launching a Machiavellian scheme to undermine Jack's efforts, why don't the homicidal bad guys merely kill him when they have the chance?) that baffle me probably because I'm not up on every nuance.

Minus this format, "24" wouldn't be "24," and if it's renewed for a second season, perhaps they'll rename it "48."

But that's another story.

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