"24" hour party people

Fox's innovative hit "24" has recently veered from gripping realism into addictive high camp. What's more, its creators are flying blind.

Published March 11, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

"We ask ourselves, 'What can't we possibly do?' Then we do it."

Howard Gordon, executive producer of Fox's hit show "24" (Tuesdays at 9 p.m.), described the rigorous standards he and the other writers use in crafting the show's heart-stopping plots each week to a crowd of loyal fans gathered at the William S. Paley Television Festival in Los Angeles on Monday night.

His comments might help explain why this season, "24" seems to be swerving out of control like a Chevy Suburban with its brakes disabled. Last week alone, President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) banished his (possibly evil) former first lady (Penny Johnson Jerald) from the premises, ignored the advice of his (possibly evil) press secretary (Michelle Forbes) in boarding a plane to Los Angeles, agreed, en route, to allow a (possibly evil) general to make preparations for World War III, and, presumably while waiting for his little bag of honey-roasted peanuts to arrive, marveled at the eerie glow of a nuclear bomb exploding in the distance. Wait, was that the faint hint of a smile on his face? Could the president himself possibly be evil?

We wouldn't put it past the show's creators, particularly after hearing from its cast, most of whom were present for the panel, which was organized by the Museum of Television and Radio.

Sarah Clarke, who plays the definitely evil Nina, claimed that she didn't find out her character was sinister until five episodes from the end of last season. "It happened around [Episode] 13 or 14," Joel Surnow, the show's co-creator, countered, as if deciding more than halfway through the season to transform one of the main characters into a seething she-devil was the most natural thing in the world.

And when an audience member said to Jerald, "I don't know if you're good or bad," she didn't seem to know either: "Sherry is so good at what she does, she's fooling Penny right now."

So ... do the writers even know where any of these stories will end up?

Apparently not. This season, Kim Bauer's (Elisha Cuthbert) story lines, in particular, have been the "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" of television. Despite the fact that Kim hasn't been close to the center of the nuclear bomb crisis, she seems to bounce from the frying pan to the fire to the pits of hell without so much as a cigarette break in between. Not only does she stumble on a violent and/or unstable man about once every two hours, but she inevitably seems to handle the stress by ... taking a shower.

"She's the cleanest character on television," Surnow chirped.

The producers admitted that Kim's story has presented a major challenge this season, since she's not involved in the main story. "We find ourselves probably stretching more than we should to keep her in conflict," one said.

Is he talking about the car crash, the mountain lion, the psychotic loner in the woods with the bomb shelter in his basement, or the creepy guy who stops to give Kim a ride, won't take no for an answer, and forces her to pull a gun out and blow out the back window of his El Camino?

Maybe all of the above. Gordon says that, on the wipeboard where the writers chart out the show's stories for each episode, "The Kim thread is always blank until the last minute."

Surnow jokes that they usually fill it in eventually with "Kim takes a shower."

Hearing these guys talk, you'd think they were comedy writers, not the creators of one of the most suspenseful and innovative dramas on television. But their attitudes might explain why "24" has moved quickly from being widely adored by the media to becoming what Los Angeles Times critic Howard Rosenberg calls "a comedy."

Maybe critics like Rosenberg feel embarrassed to have raved about a show that now features such ludicrous zigzags, but "24's" campy turn shouldn't come as any surprise. Innovative or not, the show was always more "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" than "Masterpiece Theater." In fact, what makes "24" so impressive is its ability to squeeze all of the conventions of the Hollywood blockbuster into an hour of TV. Milking every bit of suspense possible from a day's worth of action has always required a supernatural ability to suspend your disbelief and more than a few flying leaps of faith. But without such insane turns, the show wouldn't transcend the blockbuster plot structure, which only managed not to feel predictable and leaden for about seven years after "Star Wars."

Like that popcorn dusted in white cheddar that only seems to come, appropriately enough, in 5-gallon tins, "24" is undeniably addictive. The show's tension is so consistent that the makeup assistant with the spray bottle of faux brow-sweat must be developing carpal tunnel and an achy trigger finger. And even the most preposterous plot lines bring a strange satisfaction. There's something hilariously twisted about Jack Bauer bluffing Sayed Ali (Francesco Quinn) into thinking he's about to blow away Ali's entire family, one by one, before his eyes, or about the pretty bride who pops a cap in her fiancé's ass the day of her wedding, then speeds off to help the terrorists blow her hometown to smithereens.

Sure, it can be a little bit unnerving to watch "24's" nuclear bomb tick down right before clips of Osama bin Laden's latest videotape are aired on the evening news. But maybe those goofy plot twists save the show from feeling too real. When reality itself is so nightmarish and nonsensical, it follows that our entertainment should plunge into a campy abyss.

Until witnessing this panel discussion, though, I thought the reckless feeling of the show was intentional, used to offset the fact that the writers plotted out the entire season already, and are left to just connect the dots. Instead, based on their comments, not only don't the writers know where they're going, it's as if they're high out of their minds and can't find the map, let alone remember how to steer the car.

I guess I should feel disappointed, but instead, I'm more excited than ever. It's fascinating that they somehow manage to pull it all off, week after week. Seeing how the writers will get themselves out of one bind after another only gives me another reason to tune in.

Apparently, those involved with the show feel the same way. When Kiefer Sutherland mentioned that the show just got picked up for a third season, writer Michael Loceff quipped, "Have you been fitted for your astronaut costume yet?"

Sutherland responded, "He's not kidding, is he?"

Whether the show's creators are kidding or not, "24" may be trading in its critical acclaim for the thrills and spills of a cult hit. And why not? This is television, after all. As they filed off the stage smiling and chuckling, you could almost hear the writers and cast humming to themselves, "I know, it's only rock 'n' roll, but I like it, like it, yes I do."

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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