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Dummies' Guide to '24'

6/17/2014 Barbara Card Atkinson
Dummies' Guide to '24' © FOX Dummies' Guide to '24'

Our primer on FOX's hit TV thriller gets you ready for new season

By Barbara Card Atkinson
Special to MSN Entertainment

"24," the real-time, action-thriller-drama with kinetic pacing, split screens and treacherous turns, has launched into its sixth season. Now that the first four hours are in the history books, it's still not too late for new viewers to get on board with popular show. Here, then, is our breakdown of how the cogs in the wheels turn in the mad clockwork that is "24." The ride is much more fun, after all, if you avoid plot twist whiplash.

The Premise
Each season is one full day; each episode spans a single hour in that day.  The über-hero is Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), an agent for Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU), a fictitious U.S.-intelligence organization.

The Hook
Loyalties change, people lie, loved ones and national treasures are in peril. Jack Bauer has to make split-second decisions that often (okay, pretty much always, and we mean hourly) spell a devastating loss for him, which could mean anything from a constantly shifting moral high ground to burying his wife.

The Usual Suspects
That paranoia streak you've been trying to suppress? This is the place to relish it, with a side dish of hard-boiled cynicism. Each season offers a multicultural, multilayered casserole of heroes and villains with a gooey turncoat center. You never know, really, who is who. The malefactors can come from Mexico, Europe, or the Middle East -- and there are plenty of homegrown enemies as well. Then you have the garnish, which is high-level government bureaucracy at its most convoluted. Dig in!

What You Can Expect
Everything. Anything. In seasons previous, Bauer lost his wife, decapitated someone, halted an attempted assassination, saved the world from nuclear peril, and, while undercover with a drug cartel, developed a drug addiction. He became a scapegoat and a prisoner, and was tortured. Oh, and once he died, too.  So we can't really tell you what to expect -- except the unexpected.

It's Always Something
In "24," Jack Bauer finds himself perched at the crux of a hideous moral morel dilemma. Save the innocent people in a shopping mall, or catch the terrorists? Save the better man, or save the one with crucial information? It's like a loud, blustery, less emotionally invested version of "Sophie's Choice" -- every week. The writers won't tell you how they think you should feel about the quandary, and Kiefer Sutherland often emotes with little more than the set of his jaw. It makes for some meaty water cooler discussions the next day.

Don't Arrive After Curtain
Get to your seat on time and silence that cell phone. Each episode starts out of the gate with a short "Previously on '24'". You most likely need that recap to keep track of which terrorists are currently making the most trouble, and where in each of the doomed relationships painful declarations have been with little more than muted murmurs and heartfelt looks.

Suspend Your Disbelief
This isn't "Reality TV." Jack Bauer can travel the length of Los Angeles in less time than it takes to make a plot point. He seldom runs out of bullets. He and his CTU brethren interrogate and/or torture people as needed (both good guys and bad), and have yet to be taken to task. Biological and chemical weapons are as common as a second pair of pants: everyone's got one.

Don't Get Attached
If a woman dates Jack Bauer, she's going to die. Okay, that's a slight exaggeration, but not by much. Look at the numbers: his wife, Teri? Dead. His ex-girlfriend, Nina? Dead. Claudia Salazar? Dead. He's so unlucky in love that even the women who survive, like Audrey Raines (Kim Raver), walk away. Well, he did let her estranged husband get shot, but he had to in order to save the world (see "It's Always Something," above).

Don't Assume
What you think is wrong is right in the world of "24." Upstanding presidents can be utterly corrupt; beloved agents will be killed to promote an agenda; a daughter just might be told her father is dead (when he isn't), because national security is worth a broken heart. Oh, and those main characters you enjoy so much, the ones that have been with the show for numerous seasons? Yeah. They'll probably be killed off.

Multitasking Is Key
Early on, "24" used the split screen device to show you all the permutations of whatever multiple plot mess was being juggled at the time. Although this device has been scaled back somewhat, when it happens, pay attention to every tiny rectangle of frowning, chasing, shooting, pacing angst.

Don't Take Your Eyes Off That Clock
That tension-inducing digital countdown in the lower corner of your screen? Each minute of the episode's airtime corresponds to a minute in the lives of the characters. The clock also roughly corresponds to each broadcast minute, but watch closely when they come back from each commercial break: the clock has been pushed forward three minutes. While you were gone, they moved on. Maybe the characters had to hit the fridge, too.

Listen Closely
Sure, you bought your digital clock because you wanted a clock on your side of the bed that was silent. The digital clock on "24," however, could wake the dead (and the pretending-to-be-dead). Whether it's the end of the episode or just time for a commercial break, those blocky numbers gets loud. In fact, it's when you don't hear anything that you'd better get to the edge of your seat. The silent countdown is used to emphasize particular moments, such as Jack finding his dead wife, the loss of a beloved agent, and the poisoning and assumed death of yet another agent. Actually, if it's a silent countdown, just assume someone is about to die. Except that they might not.

Don't Look for Closure
Just when one crisis is averted, another one rears its sneaky little terrorist head. Air Force One one gets shot down, but the President survives. Think Jack and his buddies can hit the Barcalounger and grab some nachos? Wait! Someone's taken the code to a warhead -- and now a warhead's missing! Find the guy who knows who has the warhead and -- wait! It never ends. And, no, we've never seen an episode where the characters just get solid shut-eye. They must buy Red Bull by the caseload.

You Can Get in Touch
Here's a sweet insider tip: In Season Four, a minor character's cell phone showed a valid California phone number. Fans started calling and received a message that they had reached the "24" prop phone; a few lucky fans actually spoke to actors and crew. That first week, a according to production designer Joseph Hodges, they received more than 80,000 calls. Poor Debbie was killed, but buy the number lived on: Jack gave it out to campers, and it was shown both on the back of a photograph and as another character's number.

Settle In
OK, the show's about to start. What do you now know that will allow you to while away the upcoming hours? Anyone can be a bad guy ... Jack is a modern-day Job with a smokin' hot three-day growth of beard & WMDs are as common as corner delis ... And, some prop people are just plain crazy. Don't dawdle; go get ready for the new season. The clock is ticking.

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