TELEVISION: Those freaky ladies are what make '24' tick

BY MATTHEW GILBERT
Boston Globe

We thought she was just another cranky Bridezilla, as her wedding day collapsed into a confusion of flower orders, sisterly emotionalism, grand gifts and terrorist suspicions. But it turned out that Marie Warner, so nubile and so blond, was not just another "24" bimbo waiting to be chased down the box-strewn alleys of L.A. Marie Warner (Laura Harris) was, in fact, a Bombzilla, and by early evening she was wearing a brunette wig out of a Brian De Palma movie and transporting a nuclear trigger device to the airport. No ordinary Fox fox, she.

The women of "24": They're a twisted bunch, a camped-up culture of ladies who are either whimpering victims (blond Marie) or fang-toothed predators (brunette Marie). They're either Krystles or Alexises, to use Spellingese, and those who fall in between the extremes disappear quickly (as with the untimely demise of Sara Gilbert's Paula). Fox's action-suspense series does bear all the trappings of its male-identified genre, with torture chambers, bloody explosions and dry CIA lingo. When Kiefer Sutherland's Jack growls out terse lines such as "Where is Syed Ali?" you wonder if his Christian name is Iron John.

But this series is really all about its vapid and villainous women, who bring the small screen to life with their absurd "Perils of Pauline" adventures and their Shakespearean duplicitousness. The "24" writers aren't much when it comes to plot continuity or character logic or subtlety of dialogue, but their strange compulsion to portray women as weaker-sex damsels and she-devils is fascinating. Some men struggle with the madonna-whore complex; for "24" writers, it's the Teri-Nina split. Teri (Leslie Hope) is Jack Bauer's sainted late wife and the mother of his daughter, and she was duped, kidnapped and raped on her final day; Nina (Sarah Clarke) is Teri's murderess, the sinning CIA mole who slept with Jack for the sake of her evil mission.

There are male villains on "24," for sure, from Dennis Hopper, who did his best Boris Badenov as Victor Drazen last season, to Syed Ali, who's meant to stir up Osama bin Laden associations. But the bad guys are generic and short-lived. The show's untamed shrews are the ones with the legs, so to speak, and no one seems able to stop them from their evil ways.

Nina, released from prison this season to help locate a bomb in L.A., has even managed to orchestrate a pardon from President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) that would enable her to kill Jack. With her sidelong glances and her murderous facility with the sharp end of a debit card, Nina a.k.a. Yelena is one laconic, demonic, toxic dame. She's unusually low-key, without lipstick or even facial expression, but she may be the most potent character on the show.

Sherry Palmer (Penny Johnson Jerald) rivals Nina as the most persistent bad girl on "24," manipulating her husband with the obsessiveness of Glenn Close's nutcake in "Fatal Attraction." She will not be ignored. OK, David's the president, the man with his finger on the button, the most important figure in the free world, but when Sherry calls, he shakes in his booties.

"You need me, David," she coos to him, and soon she's ensconced in his inner circle and pulling rank on his staff members. When she donned her trench coat and hat to intercept the president's assistant a few episodes back, Sherry was at the height of her scheming-broad powers.

The Sherry spy scene was a kick, but the show's most frequent lapses into unintentional humor involve its helpless women, most notably Kim Bauer (Elisha Cuthbert), Jack's daughter. The season began with a veritable modeling agency's worth of blond damsels in distress, as Kim found herself au pairing for an abused wife and her abused daughter (who looked suspiciously like murdered woman-child JonBenet Ramsey). It was as if the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock were perching on the "24" time clock. The domestic abuse plot, which developed amid the potential destruction of L.A., was a cheesy symphony of flaxen hysteria, as the female trio angled to escape father Gary Matheson's violence.

Kim got away, but not safely, for soon she was stuck in a bear trap, under scrutiny by a hungry bobcat, then getting saved by a loony stranger named Lonnie, who lured her into his bomb shelter. Clueless, loose-lipped, dressed in a come-hither tank top, she docilely followed him into his lair, just as she has followed any skanky dude with a tattoo since the show's debut. She's the omega female of "24," an icon of female victimhood who is forever "freaked out."

This season's blonde fever has also led to the addition of Kate Warner (Sarah Wynter), Bomb-zilla's sister, who may become Jack's romantic interest if she can learn to string a few sentences together by the end of the day. The series is woefully short on costume highlights, since each season spans only one day, but Kate provided a wonderfully outrageous couture moment when she donned a chador to do some spy work for Jack. Blending in with the worshippers at a mosque as smoothly as Sister Bertrille in a synagogue, Kate shakily performed her duties before rushing back to the shelter of Jack and his crew of boy detectives.

This season, while the number of car ads during "24" has increased as steadily as the show's ratings, Kiefer Sutherland is in fewer scenes. The "24" writing crew, which includes women and men, seems to recognize that Jack is a monochromatic dude who has about two vocal attitudes, the soft grunt and the loud grunt. Noble, willing to go down with a plane to save L.A. (and 20th Century Fox studios), he's nonetheless a bit bland. So are President Palmer and CTU's new head, Tony Almeida, particularly since he lost his oh-so-hip soul patch.

It's the women who make "24" something more fantastic than similarly themed TV series such as "The Agency." At the end of the day, they provide the freaky, Freudian fun.