Timecode stasis

Real time. What is it?

When every second is captured on film, from the footsteps between the front door and the SUV to the moments of brushing teeth and face washing, we see the pauses, additional breaths, lapses and hesitations that make us human.

The programming challenge is evident. But a network bold enough to adapt the monotonous, the potentially boring, is pitted against two gigantic obstacles: Low ratings and even lower ratings. Dubbing a series “24” commits such a network to 24 episodes, spanning an excursively long 24 hours, aired over 24 weeks. Plus, filming with reality in focus presents another provocative hazard: the up-to-the-second editing process. Trimming even a few frames is generally an easy task. Snip, snip, a simple splice and the editor’s job is complete (or easier yet, a click-and-drag motion). But glued to the concept of “24,” every second, every sniffle, every glare, every single stutter and bodily drift must be carefully monitored.

In a stroke of luck, though (along with hardcode editing and a very talented, close-knit crew of writers and directors), Fox, the network behind other genre-bending shows such as “The X-Files,” “That 70s Show” and “The Tick,” has intercepted a miracle. By all indicators — drama, action, suspense — “24” is wrapped in a blanket of success, a blanket so comfortable it’s an ugly thought, especially for network executives, that the show can’t reasonably fuel a second season.

The following takes place between midnight and 1 a.m. on the day of the California Presidential Primary. Events occur in real time.

12:03:04— Introducing Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), a good-hearted CIA agent with an unbelievably tiresome day awaiting him. We close in on him at a few minutes after 12. His eyes are wide and focused, contemplating his next chess move (the pawn, the bishop, move in with the queen for a checkmate). His daughter, the manipulative Kimberly, is concentrating on a different game.

“So is she still giving you the cold shoulder?” she quizzes her father, referring to a recent disruption at the Bauer home. There are hints of adultery, but the only confirmation of disturbance is Jack’s intense retort: “It’s a school night for you, so time for bed.”

Mere minutes pass before he and Teri, his wife, wander back to Kimberly’s bedroom to chat with her about a recent attitude glitch. But her window is wide-open, wind gushing in, her music is blaring and her makeup case is missing.

12:09:43 — Jack walks up to the Counter Terrorist Unit in Los Angeles, his high-tech place of work and play. He breathes the life. Yet, it’s an odd hour for a cattle call.

“We have reason to believe that by the end of the day an attempt will be made on David Palmer’s life,” informs the bureau’s director. The professional staff jumps right to the chase: “How good’s the security?”

“A shooter — well-funded — from overseas,” the director continues. “Most likely a domestic hate group hired someone from out of the country. It’s harder to trace. Check the background of everyone around Palmer. Cross it with terrorist databases.”

David Palmer is the first black candidate with a popular chance of being the commander in chief — an important person — and if he’s sniped, it promises to tear the United States apart. Hope in the government would shatter; chaotic events, some surely inciting riots, would ensue.

So the director pulls Jack aside, closes the door and briefs him on the seriousness of the matter: “There may be an element inside the agency involved with the hit on Palmer. For the next 24 hours, I want you all over this. You’re going to be interfacing with every division in the region.”

Jack is stunned. “I am the last person on the face of this planet you want to bring something like this to. I built a case against three of our own agents and busted them for taking bribes. If there’s a conspiracy in the agency to kill David Palmer, I’ll never get anywhere near it.”

12:22:51 — Tension mounts. Jack accepts the case, unwillingly, to defend Palmer against a terrorist hit. Coupled with his current life situation — his daughter moonlighting on the town, his marriage still disjointed, his co-worker/girlfriend still radiant — the next 24 hours are guaranteed to spin out of control.

There is no evidence of bags under his eyes, no strain in his voice. But if the first episode is any clue, Jack’s demeanor will completely transform. Attitude will spark. His slyness, already keen, will upgrade 10 levels.

Adding to the process, a unique, stylish, split-screen effect is used to great advantage. Not even a second is wasted. Often, scenes overlap, supplying maximum intrigue, fusing action in one scene with dialogue in another. Telephone conversations benefit from the multi-image effect; and even infinitely simple snippets of walking are given an extra dose of beauty by shooting each scene from several different angles, assembling a collage on screen.

And when the fuse is lit on the 24th hour of the 24th episode, TV may be changed forever. But we’ll have to wait until “tomorrow” to see.

Beginning Nov. 6, “24” will air Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on WJBK-TV, Fox 2 in Detroit.

Jon M. Gibson lives every day in real time. Sometimes he wonders why "24" isn’t based upon his daily antics. E-mail [email protected]
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