It's time again for '24' to shock around the clock

October 28, 2003

BY PHIL ROSENTHAL TELEVISION CRITIC

Having been through these 24-hour cycles of carnage, casualties and contrivances twice before, President David Palmer all but sighs as he declares, "It's just going to be another one of those days."

Fox's real-time, adrenaline-fueled *** drama "24" opens its third season at 8 tonight on WFLD-Channel 32, and within minutes we're watching yet another game of "Beat the Clock," undercut this time only by the fact that we've already been down this path enough times to anticipate the hairpin twists, turns and abrupt dead ends.

Once again Palmer's life is at risk, he might be undermined by members of his family and staff, iron-man agent Jack Bauer (series star Kiefer Sutherland) and the vaunted Counter Terrorist Unit will try to save Los Angeles from countless deaths and, oh yeah, there might well be a mole in CTU working against them.

Because, on Fox's "24," that's what "another one of those days" always entails. Always. It wouldn't be "24," otherwise.

But this does mean the show is at serious risk of becoming as predictable as clockwork. There's one particular murder in the opening minutes tonight in which the only people who don't see it coming are the ones on screen.

"The great challenge for us this season is ... coming up with a scenario that would warrant another 24 hours," Sutherland said by phone Monday. "[The writers have] incorporated what I think worked in the first year, the deep level of suspense [and] what I think worked in the second year, which was really concentrated on action. I think they've melded the two together."

This "24" clock starts ticking tonight three years after the failed assassination attempt on Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) in last season's finale. It's 1 p.m. Los Angeles time on the day of a big debate in Los Angeles for Palmer, who says he's just fine, thank you. A drug lord with terrorist ties (Joaquim de Almeida) is going away, thanks to a year of undercover work by Bauer, and the bad guy's brother is going to try to gain his release with the threat of releasing a fast-acting killer virus.

Without giving away anything significant, the big surprise through two previewed episodes is that Bauer's dingbat daughter (Elisha Cuthbert) isn't in peril yet and she isn't in a flimsy outfit, either. She's working at CTU as a conservatively clothed computer analyst, a job her dad set up for her so he could keep an eye on her and given the moronic choices she has made in the past it's downright shocking that she seems to be competent.

This is not to say she is above bad choices beyond her new hairstyle. She seems drawn to a man just like the man who married her dear old -- and dead from season one -- mom.

This is just one of couplings aplenty as the new season begins. Everyone important seems to have paired off. But Sutherland says that's less a sign of imminent romance on what mostly has been a careening, sometimes implausible thriller than a device to help viewers invest in the characters. "That provides a home port for a character to get back to at the end of the day," he explained.

Sutherland concedes he chafed at some of the more ridiculous plot twists last season in which -- as a subplot to a White House coup, potential nuclear war and Bauer's erstwhile death -- Bauer's daughter was chased by a killer, accused of murder, taken hostage and attacked by a wild animal.

"You mean, the cougar? The storyline that was so bad it bit her?" said Sutherland, who claims he argued the cougar story was "a really stupid idea" but was overruled. "It's kind of part of the show. ... We got really hit hard [by critics for overuse of] amnesia in the first year and the cougar in the second year.

"Will we try to steer our way around that? Yes. We're desperately trying to steer our way around episodes 12 and 13 to get us in the home stretch without that kind of a problem. But it's a heightened scenario and they're gonna always push it. For the 10 things that go right, there's gonna be a few things that go wrong."

The great lure of "24" is that anything can happen, and sometimes does. Sutherland told an interviewer recently that even his superhero character could be killed off, which would a shrewd and stunningly gutty way for "24" to avoid predictability this season and in seasons to come. But he now says he wasn't volunteering to be offed just to keep the wobbling plates spinning.

"One of the things that I think makes the show incredibly successful is that unlike most television shows where the lead characters are safe, ours are not," he said. "That's something really important for an audience to remember, certainly going into a season."

The show's producers have dropped hints that there is at least one shocking development coming this season to rival any surprise they've delivered so far. Sutherland, who has completed 10 episodes so far, says he doesn't know which surprise they mean.

"There's a couple," he said. "Certainly by halftime through the year, there will have been two that certainly rock any surprise that we've had."

It's going to be that kind of day.
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