Minus 10

So how‘s 24 doing? We’re about a quarter of the way into this year‘s series, presuming it goes the distance, and we’ve known for six episodes already that a nuclear bomb is set to explode in Los Angeles unless crack government agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) can get to the terrorists first. (It‘s what Tom Ridge would call a “Code Crimson” day.) Are we scared yet? Hooked for the duration? Well, yes, for the most part we are.

But in case we’re not quite on the edge of our sofas -- or perhaps to ease us back onto them -- the screenwriters have thrown in a couple of subplots as well. One concerns Kim (Elisha Cuthbert), Jack‘s wayward teenage daughter, who has taken a job as a nanny, only to discover that the girl she’s looking after is being serially abused. The other is about a Westernized young Middle Easterner named Reza (Phillip Rhys), who is marrying into a wealthy, golden-hued Southern California family. Unfortunately, some government agents have chosen his wedding day to question him about some possible terrorist connections. And given that lurking nuclear bomb, they‘re not being too nice about it.

Having no time to be nice -- e.g., shooting an informant in cold blood and then putting his head in a duffel bag, as Bauer did in the first episode -- is one of the messages of the show, which may well be receiving some covert CIA input. “America,” the creators of 24 are telling us, “things are getting serious. If our enemies are willing to smuggle nuclear bombs into our cities, then torture, murder and blatant profiling are unavoidable.”

Exactly who the enemy might be, though, is a notion the filmmakers like to play around with. We know, to the extent we can know anything on 24, that the nuclear threat is coming from a terror group, presumably Islamic, called Second Wave, but the scriptwriters will no doubt enjoy dangling suspicious-looking Arabs in front of us, only to prove them blameless later on, or, conversely, culpable if they initially appear virtuous. You can consider this either a genuine dramatization of our national puzzlement about which Muslims hate us and which don’t, or a kind of PC game that absolves the writers of any charge of bigotry while also providing them with some enticing storytelling possibilities.

And then there‘s always the “issue” button waiting to be pushed -- positively quivering in anticipation, in fact. When Reza’s father finds out that his son is being questioned, he immediately launches into a tirade directed at the bride‘s conspicuously blond, pale and guilty-looking sister: “You see, your country, you talk about freedom, you talk about tolerance, but you treat every Middle Easterner like he was terrorist!” he rages.

Personally, I doubt we’re quite that bad. A few days after 911, it suddenly occurred to me that Sami, the very Arabic-looking Persian Jew who used to run the grocery store near my apartment, might be coming in for a bit of trouble from some local hotheads. Feeling guilty that I hadn‘t thought about him earlier, I hurried over to make sure he was all right. Fortunately, everything was hunky-dory chez Sami -- no smashed windows or overturned shelves, and the man himself happily ensconced at the register, smiling and chatting with his customers. I picked up a copy of the L.A. Times, which had a picture of George Bush on the front page, and placed it on the counter, along with 50 cents. Sami took the coins, glanced down at the paper and pointed a stubby brown finger at the photo of our commander in chief. “This guy,” he announced loudly to the five or six customers in the store, “is a fucking idiot!” It seemed that Sami felt pretty comfortable with life in the United States and would not be needing my assistance in the foreseeable future.

24 is at its pulse-pounding best when it concentrates on the nuclear threat and the people trying to stop it. I don’t know what life in the White House is really like, but the program does a credible job of suggesting all the forces and counterforces lining up behind every micro-shift in policy. As President David Palmer -- the nation‘s first black chief executive, party affiliation unknown -- Denzel-ish actor Dennis Haysbert is excellent at portraying a man struggling to maintain control of the press, the Pentagon, the warring factions within his own office, and even his ex-wife. He does seem a little too good to be true, but no doubt we’ll be in for some surprises.

As a symbol of our newly urgent anti-terrorist ethos, Kiefer Sutherland also impresses. Compared to his dad, Donald, though, I must say he‘s a rather conventional actor, with little to distinguish him except what appears to be a permanently sore throat. (He doesn’t speak, he croaks.) Much more fun are the bad eggs at the Counter Terrorism Unit, like George (Xander Berkeley), who fled the office because of the nuclear alert but has returned to stoically live out his last hours after being exposed to plutonium, and Nina (Sarah Clarke), the in-house villainess who killed Jack‘s wife at the end of the last season and now seems to be channeling the combined spirits of Patty Hearst, the Baader-Meinhof gang, and the youthful members of the PLO every time she glances at her nemesis with glittering, malevolent eyes. Needless to say, she looks sexy as hell doing it.

24 asks a lot of us, or at least of our time, which is one reason why its ratings have never matched its reviews. Here’s what I suggest. Watch it on tape, skip the commercials, and thus shrink the running time to about 18 hours. Then fast-forward through the absurd child-abuse plot (where most of the information can be followed visually anyway, even at triple speed) and you‘re now down to about 14 hours. 14 is a damn good television show.

Another series demanding that we stay rooted to our couches for about as long as it takes the Earth to rotate on its axis is Taken, or Steven Spielberg Presents Taken, as they keep referring to it on the Sci-Fi Channel, though they don’t add “Unfortunately, Steven couldn‘t be bothered to direct it.”

Taken is a kind of anecdotal history of visitations from outer space over a half-century period in the U.S., starting in 1945, and covering several generations and clans. Eschewing the decadent coasts, the aliens -- small green creatures with big eyes, formidable intellects and probing, insectlike limbs -- prefer to hunt for prey in states like New Mexico and Texas, where the wooden houses stand in big, empty fields, the families sit down to formal dinners, and the hobo-laden freight trains go rolling by.

At the time of this writing, I’ve watched the first two two-hour episodes of this soapy, oddly enjoyable, 10-episode extravaganza, but have yet to make the decision to “commit” to the rest of it, which will be almost over by the time this column comes out anyway. With so many stories pleading for our attention, it‘s hard to find the time to deal with even the most basic nonfiction -- like filling out an expense form, for instance, or getting one’s teeth fixed, or just showering. Sometimes I‘m amazed the country isn’t populated solely by unwashed, bug-eyed story addicts muttering wildly about the season finale of The Sopranos, the latest developments on ER, and a nuclear bomb set to explode in Los Angeles some time during the next 24 (!) hours.

The highlight of my television week came during the European Champions League soccer match between footballing colossi AC Milan (owned by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi) and Real Madrid, home to Zinedine Zidane, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo and other absurdly talented players. It was an important match played before a crowd of 80,000 wildly partisan Italians, and the home crowd got what it wanted -- a winning goal, and a beauty at that.

Milan‘s Rui Costa, a Portuguese midfielder who has the eyes and mannerisms of the young Al Pacino, split the Real Madrid defense with a 50-yard pass that was as good as any I can remember seeing. The ball eluded four defenders before arriving neatly on the foot of the onrushing Andrei Shevchenko, pride of the Ukraine, who swiftly dispatched it past the goalkeeper and, in the words of commentator Tommy Smith, whom some of you may remember from the World Cup, “put a bulge in the old onion bag” (i.e., the net) that had the crowd roaring and igniting so many smoke bombs the field was soon swathed in what looked like a thick London fog. It was a great moment, and thanks go to ESPN2 for showing it, and the rest of the match, live.

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