Captivating from its first minute forward, “24” is the rare example of a television pilot that hits every mark with an aura of excitement and precision, a stellar cast that exudes personality and personal history, and direction that is as taut as it gets. Show works off a great gimmick — a 24-hour insider’s view of an assassination plot and investigation — and the execution, as handled by director Stephen Hopkins and lenser Peter Levy, should hook viewers instantly.
Pilot was shot on the expensive side (reports have put the tally at $4 million), but it’s all there on the screen. In the premiere, there’s a consistency to the characterizations, with each individual’s capabilities seemingly spelled out — we’ll know if anything is out of whack down the road — and the storylines unfold simultaneously and with intense clarity. The cinematic approach to the project as a whole gives “24” a unique position in the fall lineup — look takes the boldness of last year’s “The West Wing” debut, the rare pilot that made audiences feel like they were watching a movie, and expands on it; show works as well as any espionage film (“Air Force One,” “True Lies”) does on the small screen.
While it might take a little while to develop strong Nielsen numbers — “24” is up against CBS’ strong rookie “The Guardian” and an “NYPD Blue” full of new cast members — creators Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran deserve Fox’s support toward maintaining the quality of the pilot. Fears that audiences who join in, say, the 18th hour, should be assuaged by the power of the actors and the action: Every character here felt familiar, as if this show had already aired.
Hopkins has gotten communicative performances out of his actors; we’re aware of their past through facial expressions, the way they address each other and the comfort with which they enter curious situations. Unlike so many other pilots, the dialogue doesn’t hit the viewer over the head with personal histories — scribes Surnow and Cochran let the personal stuff flow out in the hushed moments, and it’s marvelously effective.
Show opens at midnight, only seven hours until the polls open for the 2004 California presidential primary election. CIA agent Jack Bauer (superbly limned by Kiefer Sutherland) is at home playing chess with 15-year-old daughter Kimberly (Elisha Cuthbert), who is elated that Dad has returned home following a separation from mom Teri (Leslie Hope). Kimberly pits Mom against Dad — and after a kiss goodnight, escapes for a rendezvous with two college boys and a friend. Her unsupervised night, which her parents are desperate to curtail (Dad subversively and Mom behind the wheel) becomes one of the extended subplots.
In an L.A. hotel room, presidential candidate Sen. David Palmer, portrayed by Dennis Haysbert as a distinguished mix of former basketball coach John Thompson and Secretary of State Colin Powell, is working on an Election Day speech, fending off a request for relaxation from wife Sherry (Penny Johnson Jerald in a nice stretch from her “Larry Sanders” role). They are on are pins and needles as they approach the most stressful day of their political lives, and they will bring tremendous life to whatever plot twists Surnow and Cochran have planned. In the opener, the audience is left hanging after Palmer receives a disturbing phone call — it’s not clear if he is aware there is a plot to take his life.
Meanwhile, on a plane headed for LAX, a man and a woman flirt before they move to the restroom to join the mile-high club. The man says he’s on his way to photograph Palmer, and we’re led to believe at least one of them is the assassin — but only one gets out before the plane explodes above the Mojave Desert. (The explosion has been edited out). Spooky thing is, nowadays, this is highly plausible.
Bauer maneuvers between crises with a commitment to solution, yet the script keeps him from ascending into a level of omnipotence, the sort of uber-agent we’ve come to expect from Hollywood. He’s not only fallible, he’s aware that those around him approach him with wariness: Teri teeters in her embracing his return into her home, sensing that his presence gives their daughter an alibi for irresponsibility and it might not be for the best; some of his co-workers distrust him for turning in corrupt agents. Bauer’s chief of staff, Nina Myers (Sarah Clarke), is his one constant ally; she proffers an unconditional commitment to him, even if their love affair has faded.
Casting is top-notch, from the stars down to the losers who take Kimberly and her friend on a date to a closed furniture store. Well-scouted locations bring a realistic edge to the show, particularly the streets of the San Fernando Valley. Beyond Sean Callery’s buoyant score, pilot benefits from superb use of pop music.