Real time is good time on new Sutherland drama

by Rebecca Leffler | 11/6/01 6:00am

Terrorism. Drama. Suspense. No, you're not watching national news coverage. I'm referring to that new drama "24," which premieres tonight on Fox.

Appropriately titled, "24" follows counterterrorist agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) as he tries to stop an assassination attempt on an African-American presidential candidate (Dennis Haysbert). All the while, Bauer searches desperately for his daughter and tries to maintain his sanity as the suspense builds and the clock ticks away.

It's an original concept: The entire season covers one 24-hour day over the course of the season, with each one-hour episode filmed in real time. The show follows its lead characters as they live through a day they will never forget. From the fancy split-screen editing techniques to the incessant ticking away of the digital clocks, the viewer feels part of the action and a sense of verisimilitude -- quite uncommon to most suspense thrillers -- is established.

Before the story unfolds, we see the following words appear on the screen, as a voice in the background tells us: "The following takes place between midnight and 1:00 a.m. on the day of the California presidential primary. The events occur in real time."

We see a quick shot of life in Kuala Lumpur and then the camera zooms in on Bauer at home with his daughter, Kimberly (Elisha Cuthbert) playing a game of chess. Shortly after their conversation, Bauer and his wife Teri (Leslie Hope) realize that Kimberly has snuck out of the house, and they frantically try to find out where she is. Security issues come up, as Bauer later hacks into the network to find his daughter's password and Teri breaks into her e-mail account and reads her messages.

Soon after he discovers his daughter's absence, the phone rings and Bauer must report to work -- the government's Counter Terrorist Unit -- immediately. At the office, he learns that a well-funded assassin from overseas has been hired to kill presidential candidate Senator David Palmer. As Bauer's colleague Walsh (Michael O'Neill) tells him, "If Bill Palmer gets hit -- the first African-American with a shot at the White House -- they'll tear this country apart."

It's up to Bauer to save both Palmer and the United States of America in under 24 hours. He and Nina (Sarah Clarke), his chief of staff (and, as we learn later, former lover), must also find a "mole" in the agency who's in on the plot. And we get to watch every minute of it.

Walsh warns Bauer, "Don't trust anybody, not even your own people," as the race against the clock begins.

Meanwhile, Kimberly goes to meet two boys with a friend and ends up getting more than she bargained for as Teri and the father of the friend drive around the Valley in search of their children.

While the intricate plot might seem a bit confusing, the show is actually quite easy to follow and very entertaining. While I am not usually a fan of the action-adventure suspense thriller genre, I really enjoyed every real-time minute of "24." Fox has taken a great concept and delivered an intense, exciting adventure that successfully juxtaposes Bauer's personal crises with an extremely dangerous national crisis.

Sutherland gives a solid performance as Jack Bauer, a man who must save both his family and his country within a high-pressured time frame.

The series is both emotional and action-oriented, yet, at the same time, surprisingly realistic. While some scenes may be a bit too hard to fathom -- such as when Bauer shoots a government employee with a stun gun to get information from him -- the acting is genuine and the real-time effect allows a depth of characterization not found in most thrillers.

We spend every second with these characters (if you watch every episode this season, that's 24 hours of Sutherland) so we are able to see who they really are as they cope with a national crisis.

Most of the hour is characterized by split-screen images, showing what's going on in various subplots simultaneously. We see Kimberly getting whisked away by some boys in a van at the same time we see Teri nervously pass by in a car looking for her, which gives us an omniscient narrative perspective and keeps us involved in the action, at the edge of our seats. While I wonder if every hour can be equally suspenseful without being unrealistic -- Bauer will have to go to the bathroom at some point in the next 24 hours, won't he? -- the season is certainly off to a good start.

If the rest of the season is as suspenseful and emotional as the pilot, then set your clocks for 9 p.m. tonight and catch the season premiere of "24."