Time is on its side as '24' wraps up season

Tue May 20, 6:13 AM ET
Donna Freydkin USA TODAY

As the clock ticks away on real-time espionage drama 24, which caps its second season on Fox tonight (9 ET/PT), things are looking grim. Having survived torture and repeatedly cheated death, super-agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) has one hour to stop a world war and reinstate a president.

But in the real world, 24 is on the upswing. Ratings are up, and Bauer and company will return for a third 24-episode day in November.

In its freshman season, 24 was critically acclaimed but modestly rated. This year, thanks in part to its spot following megahit American Idol, 24's audience has built steadily. So far, an average of 11.6 million viewers are watching, up 35% over last season.

On a show known for outlandish twists, producers have a challenge to keep it fresh to maintain its momentum next season, when its lead-in will be not American Idol, but kiddie version American Juniors. (Idol returns in January.)

''Day Three'' will maintain the real-time, one-story structure: An hour of TV corresponds to an hour in a day.

Sources close to the show say there is a story idea in the works, but details won't be hammered out until production starts and the writers report for duty in early June.

Sutherland is returning as Bauer, and he'll no doubt risk all again to save the world. And the actor has hinted that a romance with a terrorist's sister, played by Sarah Wynter, is in the cards for his character. Since that hasn't happened so far this season, it's a good bet that he finds love next season.

But even Wynter doesn't know for sure: ''I just keep hoping that she will simply stay alive,'' she says. ''That's enough for me.''

The show was renewed in February, earlier than is typical, and there has been speculation that the extra time may have been used to develop plot twists for tonight's finale that would carry over into next season.

But executive producer and series co-creator Robert Cochran says there's no connection: ''The season finale does have a twist, but it had nothing to do with the early pickup (of the show). We just liked it.''

For now, fans are abuzz about Bauer's quest to beat the bad guys and their nuclear weapons and are even dreaming up their own scenarios for the next installment.

Gary Sosniecki of Lebanon, Mo., imagines a lighter story line for the beleaguered Bauer: Jack moves to New York, where he hangs around with three misfits named Elaine, Kramer and George.

The plot? For 24 hours, nothing happens.