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'24' Prepares Its Next Day in the Life

Television* Producers of the Fox network series reveal a few secrets about the show's second season.

August 31, 2002|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Critics loved the fresh approach of the Fox series "24," in which each episode represents an hour in the frenzied life of counter-terrorist Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland). But it was a handful to pull off creatively--so much so, in fact, that the show's creators considered abandoning that format for the coming second season.

When inspiration failed to strike last spring, executive producers Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran wrote the first of what they expected to be a string of "stand-alone" episodes. It would rid them of the need to mesh plot lines, they told themselves. They'd be free of mind-bending continuity problems. Best of all, from the actors' point of view, it would permit costume changes.

Then Surnow and Cochran had an epiphany and decided to continue the one-hour-per-episode format for the second season. But details about their vision have been few.

The "24" creators finally unveiled some of their behind-the-scenes strategizing at a sold-out panel discussion at the Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills this week. Appearing with them were cast members Sutherland, Dennis Haysbert (Sen. David Palmer), Penny Johnson Jerald (Palmer's wife, Sherry), Sarah Clarke (Nina Myers) and Elisha Cuthbert (Kim Bauer).

The show will be larger in scope, the producers said. While it will take into account the post-Sept. 11 climate, there will be no specific references to the event. And all of the actors who were on the panel will return this season, beginning Oct. 29. Four episodes already have been shot. (All 24 episodes of the first season will be aired on FX in a Labor Day marathon, starting midnight on Sunday and ending at midnight Monday.)

The day in question for the second season takes place 16 or 17 months after the first season ended. Sutherland's Jack Bauer no longer works for the Counter-Terrorism Unit. "Oh, yes," Surnow added with a smile, "Sen. Palmer is the president of the United States."

Haysbert stood up, mimicking a politician, soaking up the cheers of the crowd.

Another secret unraveled: They showed an alternate ending shot for the first-season finale. (Not even the cast was privy to which one would be used.) In the final episode that aired last season, Bauer's wife, Terry, didn't survive. But in the alternate, she does--Bauer removes the tape placed over her mouth by a CIA mole, embracing her and his daughter. The scene, conventional by "24" standards, is included in a special- edition DVD set for release on Sept. 17.

The creative team ultimately opted for the more brutal denouement not because of "shock value," Cochran insisted, but because it was less "heroic" and contrived. Throughout the season, the protagonist had been flawed--with failures as well as successes, the producers reasoned. Why copy the feature-film path at this late date, having everyone ride off into the sunset?

Convincing Fox Broadcasting higher-ups, however, proved a considerable challenge. The character of Terry was popular--and pregnant. Entertainment President Gail Berman "almost hung up" during the conference call in which they pitched the idea, Surnow said. Still, a few days later, she called Sandy Grushow, chairman of the Fox Television Entertainment Group, to help them make their case.

Looking back on the season, the producers said, there was no game plan--nor guarantees. An audience member, obviously unfamiliar with how the TV business works, asked whether they had demanded that Fox commit to 24 episodes because of the name of the show.

"If it worked that way, I would have called the show '110,' " an amused Cochran shot back.

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