Appearances can be deceiving dangerously so on Fox's 24. Especially with the current fourth season, in which the family next door might be foreign extremists plotting nuclear holocaust. Coming off a limp year that saw hero Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) battle clichéd Mexican drug lords, 24 has upped its ratings 36 percent from this point last season and spiked its crackerjack quotient by re-embracing the war on terror. The Jan. 24 episode, in which Bauer rescued the secretary of defense (William Devane) from execution, reestablished the series as TV's foremost roller-coaster ride and political provocateur.
Yet some believe 24's renewed vitality comes with dangerous stereotypes. Like those neighbors from hell, the Araz family a Muslim clan whose breakfast chatter can toggle between ''Pass the jelly'' and ''How's the jihad going?'' with unsettling ease. That and its penchant for wicked women have made the series the subject of hot-button questions:
Is 24 pandering to anti-Arab-American sentiment? Playing the Middle Eastern terrorist card is actually unusual for the series. When the stereotype has been indulged, as in season 2, the extremists were ultimately revealed to be pawns in a military-industrial- complex conspiracy. But with newspapers filled with reports of bombings and beheadings in Iraq, the producers decided to speculatively rip from the headlines. ''I don't think this world deserves political correctness right now,'' says executive producer Joel Surnow. ''Muslims are the terrorists right now.'' Still, there've been no news flashes on terror cells masquerading as law-abiding families in the U.S. which is why the Council on American-Islamic Relations is so upset. Says spokesperson Rabiah Ahmed: ''They are creating a new stereotype. We have enough already.'' After hearing CAIR's concerns, Fox is planning to air a tolerance-touting PSA. CAIR also says it was assured that the evolving story line would eventually offer a balanced view of Arab Americans. The group's still waiting: In a recent episode, the Araz matriarch (House of Sand and Fog's Shohreh Aghdashloo) poisoned her son's Anglo girlfriend. ''The story line keeps getting worse,'' says Ahmed.
Does 24 have a problem with women? That's something former 24 femme fatale Penny Johnson Jerald has wondered about. ''When you think about it, all of the prominent women on 24 are packaged so that they're up to no good,'' says the actress, who played Sherry Palmer, the ex-president's scheming wife. ''I used to joke [to the writers] a lot, 'Are your wives reading this stuff? Come on!''' She has a point. The ladies of 24 are generally victims (Jack's wife, daughter, and frequent-hostage love interests), bitches (Jack's ballbusting new boss, played by Alberta Watson), or witches (Jack's ex-colleague/lover, Nina Myers, a traitor-cum-homicidal psycho). ''But I didn't have any real complaints,'' notes Jerald. ''The other choice would have been to go saccharine. That doesn't make for exciting TV.''