Television

KIEFER’S BACK ON TOP WITH 24

The innovative show, Shanda Deziel writes, leaves cop dramas behind

October 28 2002
Television

KIEFER’S BACK ON TOP WITH 24

The innovative show, Shanda Deziel writes, leaves cop dramas behind

October 28 2002

KIEFER’S BACK ON TOP WITH 24

Television

The innovative show, Shanda Deziel writes, leaves cop dramas behind

FOR KIEFER SUTHERLAND fans, it seemed almost too good to be true. After spending the ’90s languishing in bad movies, not to mention that surreal foray into professional rodeo riding, last year the talented Canadian took the lead role in 24, a Fox TV series. And even though it was saddled with a seemingly unworkable gimmick—the show would play in real time with each episode representing one hour in a 24-hour day—it turned out to be one of the best programs of 2001/02. Sutherland won a Golden Globe, the series captured an Emmy for writing, and it was picked up for a second season, which begins on Oct. 29.

Sutherland, who plays Jack Bauer, an agent with the U.S. counter-terrorism unit, had no qualms about moving from film to TV. “I was seeing television that was certainly better than some of the films that I was making and was better than a lot of films that I was watching, period,” he told Maclean’s last week. But the Toronto-raised actor, now 35, was still antsy about whether the show would catch on. “I’ve done 40-odd films, and the first time I watched Stand By Me [the hit 1986 coming-of-age movie in which he had a supporting role], I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, my career is over.’ So I’m the last person to judge why something works or why it doesn’t.”

And Sutherland admits he was as surprised as anyone that the time factorincluding the ticking clock at the bottom of the screen—turned out to be just as much a star of 24 as he is. “I loved the way the characters interacted, and that’s why I took the role,” he says. “But with regard to the time format, it was one sentence at the beginning of the script, ‘All events take place in real time.’ I thought, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, now where’s my dialogue?’ So it wasn’t till we started shooting that I realized how effective it was and started to get very excited about the potential of the idea.”

Last season, Jack Bauer had one day to stop the assassination of the favoured

presidential candidate. Meanwhile, the same terrorist organization planning that attack had just kidnapped Bauer’s wife and daughter—with whom he’d recently reunited after a marital separation. “I think the writers came up with a real fantastic idea, something people can relate to—a parent who’s dealing with their family versus their career responsibilities. Even though these are heightened extremes, I think everybody can relate to the idea because there are so many families where both parents are working.”

While Sutherland credits the series’ writing for its success, a lot can be said for his performance. As a twice-divorced father of a 15-year-old, the actor says he relates to Jack’s situation. “You justify taking a lot of jobs, for this, for that, for private schools. But I missed a lot of my daughter growing up. That effort to try and balance family life and professional life and not succeeding at it very well was something that I think I understand really well. But I’ve gotten much better at it as I’m older.” Sutherland says he’s worked out a regimen with his daughter, Sarah, so they spend time together (they’re both based in Los Angeles, though Sutherland keeps

a home in Toronto, where his mother, actress Shirley Douglas, and his two siblings live). But he’s still very busy professionally. In addition to shooting 24, he has to promote his new movie, Phone Booth, which also happens to unfold in real time, and in which he plays a sniper in New York City (the film’s release has been delayed due to the shootings in the suburbs around Washington). “It’s just so weird,” he says. “You can sit down and read a script and think there’s no way that this could happen, and all of a sudden, boom, there it is.”

ALTHOUGH THE premiere episode of 24 last fall eerily featured a terrorist blowing up a plane, the show quickly moved from realism to escapism and gave prime-time TV watchers what they needed most—an alternative to cop shows. Both 24 and its action-thriller TV peer Alias, about a female, college-aged CIA spy, and also in its second season, embrace fresh and unconventional formulas at a time when realistic police and detective shows have lost their edge.

It used to be fun for viewers to try to piece together a homicide puzzle in Any City, U.S.A. But now, more often than not, we know it’s the husband and his lover who killed the wife. And it’s the private-school teen who’s mixed up in drugs who beat the homeless man to death. We’ve been paraded through endless interrogation rooms, and subjected to way too much squad-room banter. We know that beat cops are bitter, that leather-coated detectives are sarcastic, and that blue-suited district attorneys are condescending. What we don’t know is how to tell apart the cookie-cutter actors who play the male-female teams on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, CSI and CSI: Miami. (Thank you, Boomtown, the one new cop show this season that goes for a different sort of moniker, and even dares to shake up the formula by replaying the crime through the eyes of different witnesses and key players.)

What 24 and Alias offer is a chance to see crimes that are much larger in scope investigated by more interesting, threedimensional characters. Things aren’t wrapped up at the end of every episode. A season of 24 has multiple, mind-boggling

cliff-hangers—enhanced by a unique, splitscreen technique. Episodes of Alias often conclude with the main character, Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner), in a just-thisside-of-campy death-trap situation à la the ’60s Batman series—enhanced by frenetic editing and a pulsing techno soundtrack. So, yes, the creators of these shows expect viewers to be diligent in their TV habits, to come back next week to find out what happens.

Besides the edge-of-your-seat action, 24 and Alias benefit from the intertwining of professional and personal storylines. Cop shows have always had trouble striking a proper balance between the two. Law & Order never gave its characters enough of a personal life, and NYPD Blue was way, way, too indulgent. But in 24, Jack’s role as a husband and father last season could not be separated from his role as a terrorist specialist, since his wife and daughter were kidnapped on the same day he was expected to avert a national crisis. In the end, his wife was killed by a corrupt colleague

What 24 and Alias offer is a chance to see crimes that are much larger in scope investigated by more interesting characters

who also happened to be his ex-lover.

Similarly, Sydney’s family issues in Alias are part of her job. She and her emotionally distant, secretive father are both double agents with the CIA and a corrupt CIA offshoot. At the end of last season, mom, a former KGB operative, long believed dead, turned up as the head of an international terrorist organization. At their first meeting this fall, mother shot daughter in the shoulder, making it difficult for Sydney to rescue her CIA handler, a forbidden love interest. While it may sound like I Spy meets All My Children, the deftly scripted, well-acted show doesn’t require a huge suspension of disbelief.

This season, Alias’s mother-daughter conflict gets ratcheted up. Mom has turned herself in and is being held in a Hannibal-esque cell. And Sydney, tough and vulnerable, makes all Clarice-like as she tries to pick the older woman’s brain. Jack Bauer’s new day, meanwhile, begins a year and a half after we left him. Sutherland’s character is still reeling from his wife’s death and is estranged, for now, from his daughter. “He’s really angry,” says Sutherland, “and very different from last year, when each individual life mattered so much. He doesn’t care the same way, and that, ultimately, is what I want to be his arc for this year—it’s something he has to come back to or die.” On a lighter note, Jack has a new love interest—and a beard. For fans of Kiefer Sutherland, a return to the Young Guns look seems almost too good to be true.