By Lauren Smart
By Jane R. LeBlanc
By Lauren Smart
By Elaine Liner
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
There cannot be man, woman, child or beast alive who does not know that on November 6, Fox will debut its new series 24. Long before the fall season was to begin, it had already been appointed the most anticipated and beloved show of the year--by critics who had seen only one episode, no less. Much was made of its gimmick: The series will be told, more or less, in real time, meaning each episode covers one hour of one day. And much was made of its plot: The head of the government's Counter Terrorist Unit, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), has a single day to stop an assassin's plot to execute David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), an African-American senator and the first black man with a viable shot at the presidency. And in case one missed the extensive press coverage, Fox has beaten the faithful about the head and torso with a bludgeoning ad campaign; it's impossible to watch the network for 10 minutes without stumbling across a 24 promo, accompanied by Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst growling that it's "just one of those days." It's as subtle as electrodes attached to the nipples.
Then there has been the kind of publicity no new network series wants: In the days and weeks since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 24 has been chief among the series mentioned whenever talking heads gather on TV to discuss the need for the entertainment industry's restraint in the wake of televised real-life horror. The show's pilot episode had long been available to TV critics, and its climactic scene--in which a female terrorist leaps from a 747 seconds before we see the airplane blown to bits--overshadowed whatever else the show is about. As far as audiences were concerned, that's all the show dealt with: terrorists, airplanes, explosions, corpses.
"It's not the way we want them to be talking about the show," says the series' co-creator Joel Surnow, "but I guess..." Long pause. "It's fine."
If Surnow, who conceived 24 a year ago with partner Robert Cochran, is to be believed, terrorism is not a central plot. (At press time, only the pilot had been made available to critics.) Rather, he insists, it's a show about two men--Jack Bauer and David Palmer--trying to keep their tenuous family ties from being torn asunder in the midst of crisis; Jack's 15-year-old daughter Kimberly (Elisha Cuthbert) has gone missing, while David's trying to keep a scandal from becoming public on election day. It's also a show about office politics: Jack cannot rely on his colleagues--one likely is in on the hit--nor do they trust him, after he slept with one co-worker (played by Sarah Clarke) and busted three others for taking bribes. Surnow constantly reminds that despite the media's bounding them together in a neat little package, 24 is not The Agency, CBS' new set-in-the-CIA series that had to scrap its pilot, with references to Osama bin Laden, and reschedule another episode that dealt with anthrax.
"We're really not a terrorist-of-the-week show," he says, as much to deflect criticism as explain what the show's really about. "It's a much smaller, more contained story we're telling than that. It's funny, because we did have the explosion of the plane in the pilot, but we really aren't doing stuff like that in the series. In the first 12 episodes, that's really the only terrorist act as such that we even have in the story line. It just happened to be in the first one, so we get a little more for it. I think the subtext of our show is all emotional...and that subtext drives the whole show. That's why it's not a terrorist show. That's why it's not like The Agency."
Last week, Fox sent out a revised version of 24's pilot that no longer contains the graphic image of the airplane's destruction; instead, all we see are small pieces of flaming debris in the nighttime sky--different visual, though the impact and intention are no less visceral. It also trims a second or two of a scene in which the terrorist is seen injecting a stewardess' neck with some kind of knockout juice. But the plane crash could not be deleted in its entirety: The explicitness could be muted, but the act itself is central to at least the first six episodes. To eliminate it would have meant pushing the show back and spending millions of dollars Fox doesn't have in these tenuous economic times. (Indeed, the revised pilot also loses a lot of expensive music by the likes of Madonna and Radiohead, a result of a tightened budget post-September 11.)
"The first week, everything was swirling around," Surnow says of the days after the attacks. "But after that, our first instinct was, 'Should they try and push us back even further? Is it going to take more time?' Nobody knew what the hell was going on in the world, but once we got pushed back a week and things started to settle down after a couple of weeks, we went to Fox and said, 'We'd like to lose that,' and they were happy to do it as well."
The irony is, even as some TV shows self-edit content and feature filmmakers digitally erase the World Trade Center from New York's skyline, it took only moments, in pop-culture time, for television to make fiction out of terrifying fact. NBC's Third Watch has already aired three episodes directly addressing the events of September 11; the first, in which real-life firefighters and police officers addressed the terrorist attacks on Manhattan, walked that fine line between heartbreak and exploitation.