The best thing 24 has going for it is its concept: Its entire season will present the events of one day in the life of government agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), one hour per episode. This ''real-time'' gimmick, combined with a lot of snazzy split-screen editing showing us what's happening in a number of subplots simultaneously, distracts us from the fact that what we're watching is a fairly standard thriller story about double agents, assassination attempts, and the difficulties of raising rude teenagers.
Sutherland, who's gained some physical bulk and emotional gravitas since his young-gun star days, is commandingly solid as an L.A.-based head of a ''counterterrorist unit'' who gets wind of a plot to kill a presidential candidate, Sen. David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert, from Now & Again). A colleague of Jack's named Walsh (Michael O'Neill) tells him pointedly, ''If Palmer gets hit -- the first African American with a real shot at the White House -- they'll tear this country apart.''
The series begins at midnight, with Jack being called into the office to address this sudden threat. This pulls him away from what are clearly ongoing attempts to patch things up with his wife, Teri (Leslie Hope). We gather they were recently separated and are now, warily, attempting to reconcile. Our Jack's a naughty boy -- he had a fling with a coworker, Nina (Sarah Clarke), in one of those puzzlements of cupidity, since the two actresses playing these roles are visually similar to the point of confusion at times. Jack, who seems like a puffy-eyed glutton for punishment and guilt, must have been turned on by Nina's grumpy office demeanor. Chastened, he is doing his best to be a good hubby and dad to his teenage daughter, Kimberly (Elisha Cuthbert), a wily youth who -- adding to Jack's woes -- disappears this same night. (She's off with some boys on a joyride that looks like it might turn dangerous.)
The series may sound like a confusing jumble, but it's just the opposite: sleek, efficient, witty around the edges. Cocreator Joel Surnow, who along with Robert Cochran gave us the La Femme Nikita TV show, has said, ''Kiefer's trying to stop the [candidate] from being shot; he's trying to find his daughter....If you get that, you get the show.''
He's right. The idea of combining Jack's professional and personal crises and placing them within a pressure-cooker time frame (a digital clock showing elapsed time punctuates the start and finish of each commercial break) gives the series a momentum that's both emotional and action oriented. A sequence in which a terrorist blows up a 747 airplane has been trimmed, for good reasons of taste, since the pilot was first sent out to critics. But the scene remains edited with such skill for suspense that no drama has been sacrificed in the process.
Although its style is novel, 24 hews to traditional crime-story conventions; you could plop this plot into a two-hour TV movie and be done with it. The advantage of the real-time hour becomes apparent, however, in the depth of characterization achieved by stretching things out: not just the office politics (Jack is mistrusted by some of his colleagues because he ratted out a few corrupt agents a short while ago, for example), but also the sexual politics of both the Counter Terrorist Unit and the candidate's campaign. Having seen the pilot and read the script for the second episode, I'm intrigued by the hints that Palmer -- in a well-sketched portrait of a politician with a thousand make-or-break career details on his mind -- may be having some trouble with his long-suffering wife, played by The Larry Sanders Show's Penny Johnson Jerald.
What 24 needs is for its conceptual wit to manifest a little out-and-out humor once in a while. Even in the most tense work and family hubbubs, there are moments of tension-releasing lightness. Sutherland's character, in particular, seems like a man who's always on the verge of being wryly amusing without quite delivering the goods.
At the very least, the producers should play around with the framing device they've invented. For one thing, they'll be missing a good joke if they don't include at least one long, stationary shot of a bathroom stall as Jack takes a necessary break while the digital clock's seconds tick on and on and on....