This month's real-life threat to Times Square could easily have been lifted from an episode of "24." Or maybe not. Disengaging a makeshift car bomb would have been as ho-hum as changing one's underwear for an agent like Jack Bauer.
For eight years, he has thwarted assassinations, nuclear explosions, nerve-gas attacks and congressional hearings. But his most unlikely victory is the one over pundits who predicted that viewers wouldn't have the stomach to see ominous headlines employed as high-speed adventures.
Nonetheless, "24" has accomplished just that from the very beginning, premiering on Oct. 30, 2001, less than two months after the real-life horrors of Sept. 11, 2001.
For a moment, Americans shuddered at anything more dramatic than Ross and Rachel's breakup. The TBS cable network replaced airings of "Lethal Weapon" with "Look Who's Talking," while USA yanked "The Siege," a movie about martial law being imposed in New York following a series of attacks. Light-as-air sitcoms were all the rage, filling half of the top 20 slots for the 2001-02 season.
But it didn't take long for television to unshackle the restraints.
By the end of September 2001, CBS had debuted "The Agency," a CIA-based drama, and ABC had "Alias," the sexy spy series that made Jennifer Garner a star. "The West Wing" kicked off the 2001-02 season with a special episode set in the weeks following a domestic attack, and "Law & Order" ended its season with a plot about a Desert Storm veteran who killed a suspected terrorist. Even "Spin City" got into the act when the sitcom's mayor of New York got infected with anthrax.
But nothing reflected America's fears more than "24," a series that has less to do with its novel approach -- Bauer has 24 hours each season to nail the bad guys -- and more to do with a relentless intensity that doesn't give its hero a chance to use the lavatory, let alone crack a smile.
"There's a part of me that's kind of surprised that people watch '24' for entertainment, because it's so heart-stopping," said Mary Lynn Rajskub, who plays Bauer's go-to gal Chloe.
Kiefer Sutherland, who won an Emmy in 2006 for his gritty portrayal of Bauer, pointed out that the "24" pilot was shot months before 9/11.
"The fact that it actually aligned with things that were happening in the news and made it relevant was really something that caught us completely off guard," he said.
It took a while for audiences to catch on, as well. Season One averaged about 8 million viewers, but then bumped up significantly when it was paired with Fox's mega-hit "American Idol." It peaked in 2006 with nearly 14 million viewers and won an Emmy for best dramatic series. Ratings have dipped since then, but with 9 million fans, it continues to be a force to be reckoned with.
"24" proved that audiences could not only tolerate "terror TV," but could crave it.
Since its debut, we've seen "Sleeper Cell," the Showtime series that once carried the subtitle "American Terror," and "The Unit," in which highly trained soldiers take on "Dirty Dozen"-type missions against foreign enemies. "Lost," "Battlestar Galactica" and "V" may be categorized as sci-fi series, but the enemies in those series -- the Others, the Cylons and the Visitors -- have a lot in common with Al-Qaeda: movements willing to kill to advance their ways of life.
Other countries facing their own terrorist threats have also embraced the genre. India's "Time Bomb" is more or less a remake of "24" and in 2002, England had "Spooks," an insider's look at the U.K.'s intelligence operations.
Walter G. Sharp, a Defense Department lawyer and retired Marine who taught a course at Georgetown University about the relevance of "24," said the show resonates with Americans because it offers a resolution to conflicts. Bauer may lose some loved ones -- and a lot of sleep -- but in the end, he always saves the country.
"It gave us a sense that the United States can, and is, doing something to fight terrorism," said Sharp. "It gave us a hero."
The lighter side
Wish fulfillment is also a big component of Fox's recently renewed action series "Human Target," but with comic overtones. Christopher Chance, played by the unflappable Mark Valley, confronts terrorists with a gun in one pocket and a smirk in the other. In James Bond terms, he's Roger Moore to Sutherland's Daniel Craig.
"I think it would be pretty crazy to say, 'Wooo, terrorism! Let's make a TV show!'" said Chi Chi McBride, who plays Chance's beleaguered handler. "We don't try to juxtapose what we're doing on film with what's happening in the world. That stuff's for real. This is just entertainment, escapist entertainment."
JJ Abrams, who co-created "Lost" and "Alias," is also planning to take a lighter approach with his next series. "Undercovers," being planned for NBC's fall season, will look at a husband-and-wife spy team balancing international espionage with household chores. Abrams described it as "more escapist than heavy, intricate drama.
"The idea of grappling with anything that feels like real terrorism is not something I want to watch at the moment," he said.
The 9 million who still watch "24" may disagree. But producers are providing some hope for another Jack Bauer adventure. A feature film is in the works, and it could be even more dramatic and dire than the TV series.
"We were certainly concerned about the conventional wisdom in that first season -- that after 9/11, people wanted to laugh or have blue-sky dramas," said the series' executive producer, Howard Gordon. "The audience wound up being the arbiter on that. I guess they will continue to be."
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