Mike Flaherty
November 23, 2001 AT 05:00 AM EST

Trying to foil the attempted assassination of a presidential candidate? Hoping to rescue two teenage girls from a drug-fueled wee-hours joyride? You call that pressure? Try making your prime-time debut following months of critical and network hype promising viewers ”the best new show” of the 2001-02 season. ”We were kind of hoping it would never air, ’cause it could never get as good as it was then,” admits 24 cocreator Joel Surnow (La Femme Nikita). ”The media has a way of building things up to a fever pitch, and there’s only one place to go from there—you flame out.”

Unless, of course, you don’t. And thus far, Fox’s 24 (airing Tuesdays at 9 p.m.) has delivered the goods to heart-pounding effect. It’s managed to resurrect the classic serial format, becoming a Perils of Pauline for a Run Lola Run world, while upping the dramatic ante via a serpentine narrative delivered in two dozen real-time chapters (complete with ticking clock). And its snazzy split-screen storytelling makes it all the easier to keep track of multiple subplots and the many, many phone conversations that propel them.

Kiefer Sutherland is Jack Bauer, head of the CIA’s L.A. counterterrorist bureau, and 24 chronicles, well, the worst day in his life (at least this season), as he learns of the plot against presidential contender David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) and discovers that his 15-year-old daughter (Elisha Cuthbert) has run off with a bad-seed buddy to party with some older guys who turn out to be kidnappers. The second episode (entitled ”1:00 A.M.-2:00 A.M.”) tantalizingly suggested the two crises are linked—designed to destroy Palmer and Bauer. ”It’s like a living nightmare,” says Surnow, ”but hopefully it’s escapist in that you just can’t wait to find out what happens next.” He’s got that right.

”My character so deeply does not know what’s happening,” says Sutherland, 34. ”He doesn’t know where his daughter is, he doesn’t know who the shooter is, and he’s isolated within his own company because he’s been told not to trust anybody.” Having once blown the whistle on a dirty colleague, Bauer’s made himself a prime target for the agency’s black hats: ”By the end of episode 3,” Sutherland adds, ”they’re after him as bad as anyone else.”

At the midpoint of 24‘s 24-episode production schedule, Surnow and cocreator Robert Cochran are busy cranking out scripts. While shooting the drama’s early hours, Sutherland recalls, ”I remember thinking, These guys better slow down or there’ll be nowhere left to go. [But] it’s amazing how they’ve been able to turn this story in on itself, back out, and back in on itself again.”

That may be because Surnow is plotting out the series on the fly, from crisis to crisis, signaling only that ”we know roughly what the last act of the last hour should be.” But before you think you can see where the series is heading, Surnow cautions against being taken in by 24‘s skulduggery, paranoia, and mythological plotting. ”This is not The X-Files, The Manchurian Candidate, or Oliver Stone,” he says. ”Our show really isn’t about terrorists as such; it’s more of a revenge story about one guy.” Um, could you clarify that a tad? ”I can, but I’m not going to.” Damn!

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