24: Season One (2001-02), Collector's Edition
1.78:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 2.0
20th Century Fox, $59.98

Created by Robert Cochran and Joel Surnow for Fox TV, the tense series 24 boasts an attention-grabbing concept that has a fresh energy and an ocean’s worth of red herrings. The show presents the most thrilling day in counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer’s life, which unfolds in real time as a digital clock counts down to a surprise ending.

Trying to explain the first season’s complex, twist-filled plot is an exercise in futility, so broad strokes will suffice. Kiefer Sutherland portrays Bauer, an agent of the Los Angeles division of the Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU). Bauer learns that his family has been kidnapped and will be killed unless he assassinates presidential frontrunner Sen. David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) on the eve of the election primary. This sometimes unbelievably elaborate plan is actually a revenge scheme hatched by Serbian terrorist Victor Drazen (Dennis Hopper). Two years prior, Bauer led an elite force on a secret mission to kill Drazen – a mission authorized by Palmer – but the plan went awry and resulted in the death of Drazen’s wife.

Bauer is one of Sutherland’s finest roles, and the actor has a Golden Globe to prove it. Haysbert also deserves accolades for his potent performance as the smart and authoritative senator. But once you look past the show’s double-dealing dazzle and harrowing gunplay, it becomes fairly obvious that the sources of Bauer and Palmer’s various problems tend to be women. Television is generally a male-dominated business, as a quick scan of each episode’s opening credits prove (a woman was credited with writing only two of the series’ 24 episodes); apparently, these above-the-liners have some issues with women, because sympathizing with any of the show’s female characters is nearly impossible.

Palmer’s wife, Sherry (Penny Johnson Jerald), a poster child for the adage "absolute power corrupts absolutely," is willing to do anything to secure her place as First Lady. The senator’s young and talented but constitutionally weak speechwriter, Patty (Tanya Wright), is manipulated too easily into taking the moral low road. The women in Bauer’s life don’t make his day any easier, either. Panicked or not, his wife, Teri (Leslie Hope), makes many decisions that reveal an inability to reason, while his kidnapped daughter, Kim (Elisha Cuthbert), demonstrates both an astonishing naiveté and a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome toward her loser kidnapper – qualities that naturally lead her to make foolish decisions.

Minor female characters fare no better. Jack’s co-worker Jamey (Karina Arroyave) displays a lack of loyalty, and the way in which this single mom worms her way out of her predicament is totally illogical. One of Palmer’s female staff members wears a wire to gather evidence for Jack from a key male player, but suddenly flouts reason by incapacitating this important link. Even a stereotypical, foul-tempered diner waitress whom Jack carjacks fails to generate any sympathy during her eight-minute appearance, despite the fact that she’s simply caught up in a bad situation. Only Jack’s CTU partner, Nina Meyers (Sarah Clarke), seems to be the exception to this anti-female bias throughout most of the series. True to the show’s form, however, she proves not very likable in the end. And don’t forget what started all of this in the first place: the death of Drazen’s wife.

Plot and logic holes abound, and characters do some ridiculous things to further the story, but it’s still great fun watching the desperate Bauer juggle all of his problems without sleeping a wink. A nifty aspect of the deftly directed and edited series is the use of John Frankenheimer/Grand Prix-style splitscreens to display coinciding story threads or reveal several angles of important action. This technique, coupled with the predominantly handheld camerawork, gives the briskly paced series considerable visual impact.

In this six-disc box set from Fox Home Entertainment, 24’s vibrant imagery is faithfully reproduced (in 16x9, no less) with rich colors and strong blacks. Peter Levy, ASC’s slightly overexposed, kinetic cinematography in the pilot episode (originated on 35mm film) places you within the chaos. The lighting is very natural, with an almost unlit feel that makes it seem as though the camera crews documented the action on the fly. This effective aesthetic earned Levy a 2001 ASC Award nomination, and without skipping a beat, Rodney Charters, CSC came aboard to film the show’s other 23 episodes.

It’s obvious that this box set was rushed into the market to capitalize on the success of the show’s first season and promote its second. Because four episodes are squeezed onto each disc, compression becomes a factor; significant aliasing and stairstepping can be seen in every episode. Prominent enough to be distracting, these flaws are most detectable on off-axis straight edges and linear patterns, and when full-screen shots shift into split-screen mode. Pumped-up edge enhancement doesn’t help.

Another irritant is the fact that chapter stops for each episode don’t exist, and the scarcity of extras is also disappointing: the set provides only an alternate ending (with a discussion about why this ending wasn’t used) and a snippet of Sutherland discussing Bauer’s longest day. This unique series deserves a commentary by the show’s creators, who might provide some insight into the difficulties of maintaining the main plot and subplots over the course of 24 episodes. Overlooking this feature was a very poor choice on Fox’s part, one that shortchanges the fans. Just because Bauer’s adventure spans 24 hours doesn’t mean the box set’s production had to follow suit.

– Douglas Bankston

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.