It's been said a couple of times already, but in this particular era where ADD seems to be more of a national condition than just the learning abberation that afflicts a certain group, "24" was allegedly doomed from Episode One. When part of the thrill is seeing how the creative team behind this concept can successfully juggle all the story "balls" they're keeping in the air each week, how can this show possibly survive, when it's competing against such Top Ten 'gems' as TEMPTATION ISLAND 2, SURVIVOR and FEAR FACTOR?
The split screen work has been compared to that of De Palma's in his heyday, but I think it actually hearkens back to what Richard Fleischer did with THE BOSTON STRANGLER. The splintered pictures are even more effective than the digital readout in conveying that everywhere, at any time, the clock is running out for somebody, and the suspense of seeing how things will turn out is the greatest pleasure of each episode. But because you have to THINK about the story lines and keep each one in mind along with its relation to the others, may be why I fear it will not last into the end of the next television season. Spoiler Alert The core story is this: Federal agent Jack Bauer (a very excellent Kiefer Sutherland, used well for a change) has 24 hours to thwart an assassination attempt that will be made on the life of Senator David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert, a refugee from the cancelled NOW AND AGAIN, another show too smart and creative for its own good). Palmer is the first Black man who stands a chance of getting THISCLOSE to the White House, and a lot of people don't want to see that happen. The Tom Clancy-ish kicker is that the terrorist group responsible for staging the hit, has a mole inside the agency that Jack works for. To prevent the assassination attempt from being successful, Bauer has to find out who it is.
Not easy when you realize this is "government intelligence" that Jack is dealing with. Even more difficult for him, since he blew the whistle on some corrupt fellow agents, and now at least half of the people he works with consider him lower than dog poop on the bottom of their shoes. From this main story, all the other plot threads are spun, and they range from gripping to bathetically soap-operatic:
*In the midst of all of this, Jack has been struggling to rebuild his relationship with his estranged family, wife Terri (Leslie Hope) and daughter Kim (Elisha Cuthbert). Just as it looks like they might be making some progress, Kim sneaks out and goes partying with a friend, not realizing that the "party dudes" they're with are actually part of the Palmer conspiracy, and the plans they have for the girls, (Terri in particular) are dark indeed. This story splits off into yet TWO other plot threads, as the girls, realizing their situation, try to escape their captors, while Terri Bauer scours the city looking for Kim, aided by the father of Kim's friend (Richard Burgi from UPN's THE SENTINEL.)
*Jack's search for the agency mole is further complicated by his strained relationship with co-worker and ex-lover Nina Myers (Sarah Clarke) and his OTHER co-worker and Nina's current lover, Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard). Everybody has an agenda that may have nothing to do with the Palmer crisis, making it even more difficult for Jack to find out who the terrorist cell has on the inside. Add to the escalating and shifting evidence and alliances the possibility that one of Jack's high-ranking bosses, George Mason (Xander Berkeley) might be dirty as well.
*Meanwhile, David Palmer's got some considerable issues of his own to sort out, with staying alive both physically and politically at the top of the list. A late night call sends him and his crisis team into overdrive, as he attempts to ride herd on a rumor that may destroy his chance at the Presidency more effectively than a bullet to the heart. A reporter is threatening to print a story about Palmer's son, (Vicellous Shannon), who may have murdered the man responsible for raping his sister a few years ago. Mounting evidence may even prove that the story is true, and if it is, how can Palmer reconcile his ethics and the urge to protect his family with the need to win?
*Meanwhile, Ira Gaines (Michael Massee), the mastermind behind the terrorist cell is not finding all going as smoothly as planned. Skilled expert Mandy (Mia Kirshner) finds herself in more hot water than she's ever had to deal with, when her lesbian lover and partner decides to renege on a crucial piece of information needed by Gaines to advance their plans in exchange for more money. (This situation is swiftly resolved, and it's not pretty.) Then the two slackers hired by Gaines nearly botch Kim's kidnapping, and Gaines also has to resolve this issue in classically drastic fashion. The way things are going, the 'no-honor-among-thieves' rule could very possibly implode the cell before their hired gun ever gets Palmer in his sights...
And so it goes. Somehow writers/creators Robert Cochran and Joel Surnow have managed to take the best and the pulpiest conventions of tales of espionage and intrigue, and integrate them into a show that alternates between maddeningly slow and unbearably gripping. But whatever flaws it may have, it does have the advantage of making you THINK and PAY ATTENTION at all times, even when nothing seems to be happening.
And when you're comparing that to a show where the most pressing issue is whether Muffy will go to bed with Steve and betray her fiancée Josh, I fear that soon enough, 24 may become yet another classic case of great TV that becomes cult TV; a sad reflection of our times, and what now passes for entertainment.