by Kathy M. Newman

On 24, the stylish, darkly lit CIA thriller from FOX, a digital clock appears in the opening scene, as well as before and after every commercial break. It is accompanied by an eerie, high-pitched, two-toned "tick-tock" sound, as the seconds count down. Each episode takes place in so-called "real time," which means that every hour we spend with the show is equal to one hour in the lives of the characters. And, so that no one confuses this premise with a reality show like Big Brother, 24 follows four interwoven story lines, cutting between them with a split-screen technique (a la Traffic) that is so achingly beautiful it makes me yearn for a bigger television.

The main story follows Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, a CIA agent who is trying to prevent the assassination of the nation's first black presidential candidate with a real shot at the White House. He works with his ex-girlfriend, Nina Meyer (played by Sarah Clarke), who looks strikingly like his wife, and a staff of suspiciously attractive though forgettable young faces. One of them (but who?!) is a "dirty agent."

Meanwhile, Jack's teenage daughter has gone missing -- she skipped out to party with a girlfriend and some college boys -- and his wife is left to look for her with the other girl's father. We also meet the black presidential candidate, David Palmer, played to the hilt by Dennis Haysbert. And, since it is the night before the California presidential primary, he has a lot more than just an assassination plot to worry him. The fourth storyline introduces us to the assassins themselves, who are as suspicious and double-crossing as the CIA agents they are trying to foil.

The show runs the risk of being heavier on the style than on the substance, which puts it in good company with all of the CIA-inspired dramas this fall (Alias, The Agency, Thieves). Moreover, the social politics of the show, which seem progressive on the surface, given the prominence of a black presidential candidate, are weirdly reactionary. All the marginal characters that we encounter (a homeless male prostitute, two thugs in an empty parking garage, an aging pimp) constitute the everyday threats to our SUV-driving protagonists. The assassins are not nearly as scary, so far, as the underclassed criminals who roam the streets of Los Angeles.

In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the show is bleakly compelling. Kiefer Sutherland is just haggard enough to be interesting, and the candidate, David Palmer, has a quiet dignity that we could only dream of for our real leaders.

Watching 24, we can tap into the dream of having a job in which every second mattered. The constant time pressure, visually realized by the digital clock in each episode, is an ironic reminder that as our heroes are saving the world, we are sitting on our butts. In addition, we can see from the clock on the screen exactly how many minutes and seconds we have spent watching the commercial advertisements.

Our current indulgence in CIA-chic is not a mere cultural coincidence, made more poignant by September 11. Several years ago, the CIA sent one of their retired agents to Hollywood to improve the image of the embattled agency. Special agent Brandon Chase has consulted on numerous TV shows and films that present the CIA in a positive light. Meanwhile, the dream of having a job that matters is real; so real, in fact, that in recent months CIA recruiters have been swamped with applications -- many of them coming from FOX's target audience: men and women between the ages of 18 and 25.

Like these kids, I can sympathize with the CIA agents on TV. They want to save the world. And I take some comfort from the fact that on college campuses around the country there are nearly as many students signing up for the Peace Corps as there are lining up to work for Uncle Charlie.

But the aftermath of September 11 has returned us to a world that has some of the politico-cultural features of the Cold War. Spies are cool again, and, in a frightening new development, the real CIA has lifted its ban on hiring "unsavory" informants -- including people who have been involved in civil rights violations.

And, as nice as it is to see Sutherland finally playing a good guy, we must remember that it was the CIA, operating in the Middle East 50 years ago, that helped us get into this mess in the first place. How ironic that the CIA is more compelling than ever, at the very moment that we must question its dark history. Meanwhile, at least one thing is for certain: the CIA's "operation Hollywood" is a huge success.

24 airs on Tuesday nights at 9 pm on FOX.

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