FOX '24' takes leap, kills president

The drama is going further than others have dared, especially after 9/11.
HOLLYWOOD -- Through four TV seasons, Fox's thriller "24" has propelled fans through some fearlessly over-the-top plot twists. One season, for example, hinged on how intelligence operative Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) narrowly helped foil a nuclear bombing that would have wiped out Los Angeles.
The writers might have outdone themselves, though, with Monday night's episode, which ended with terrorists blasting Air Force One out of the sky (the exploded jet rained down "in pieces" over Palm Springs, one character reported). President Keeler (Geoff Pierson) was on board, and while his condition won't be revealed until next week, it's safe to assume he won't make the next White House photo op.
Popular threat
Putting a commander in chief in mortal danger is a staple of the thriller genre. In the 1997 film "Air Force One," for instance, Harrison Ford played a president who squared off against hijackers, and NBC's "The West Wing" incorporated an assassination attempt into its plot. But actually dispatching the leader of the free world in an act of mayhem generally is considered a no-no, even within the realm of popular fiction.
Fox executives -- not known for their squeamishness elsewhere, as evidenced by leering fare including "Temptation Island" and "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?" -- raised flags when the writers proposed a spectacular finale for Pierson's character.
"They felt like [killing the president] was over the line," Howard Gordon, an executive producer who co-wrote the episode, said in a telephone interview last week. Craig Erwich, Fox's executive vice president of programming, admitted, "There was definitely sensitivity to it."
At first, Fox executives were worried that the episode would come off as a how-to manual on presidential assassination. After raising concerns about an early draft of the script, executives reached a consensus with the producers about the exact fate of Pierson's character and details such as how much of the attack would be shown. Erwich said the final result was handled "with extreme sensitivity."
"24's" gambit is illustrative of scripted series' current dilemma. With the average TV household receiving more than 100 channels, producers are under increasing pressure to deliver outlandish twists and cliffhangers that will rivet viewers' attention. That's especially true on cable, where buzz-hungry networks roll out high-concept series featuring plenty of sex and violence, such as FX's "The Shield" and "Nip/Tuck" and HBO's "The Sopranos" and "Deadwood."
By dramatizing a successful terrorist attack on a president, "24" -- created by Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran -- is going further than other dramas have dared, especially when the memories of the Sept. 11 attacks remain vivid.
For Fox, the stakes are high because "24" has spent much of this season recovering from a shaky ratings performance last year. The show has never become a huge mainstream hit, relying instead on a modest but devoted fan base. Gordon speculated that viewers grew bored last season with episodes that charted Bauer's interactions with a drug lord. New episodes have corrected that problem, he believes, by returning Bauer to his more natural element as an antiterrorist agent.
Another hit
Fox moved the series to Mondays starting in January, which robbed it of its potent "American Idol" lead-in. Still, viewership has climbed 26 percent, to an average of 12.3 million viewers, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research. Ratings in the crucial young-adults demographic are up 21 percent.
One expert said Monday's episode is consistent with the show's kamikaze approach to story telling. "Once you drop a nuclear bomb near Los Angeles, where else do you go but to shoot down Air Force One?" said Robert J. Thompson, professor and director at the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "'24' has decided they're going to play this game without pulling any punches. ... It's always dangerously close to self-parody."
Gordon agreed that much of the show's appeal depends on pushing things too far -- or at least running the risk. "We try to make [a plot development] work because it's extreme, and then we wind up backing away from it [slightly in the final version]," he said. "We've done it a number of times."
The network has tried, with varying degrees of success, to rein in the producers. During the first season, executives begged the writers not to kill off Teri, Jack's wife; she died anyway. ["We knew we needed her to be dead," Gordon explained.]
The producers have also brushed off concerns about an endless series of coincidences and outlandish story arcs. During the first season, "every note [from network executives] was, like, 'That could never happen"' in real life, Gordon said.
For all their bravado, though, the producers still worry about "jumping the shark" -- TV industry shorthand for the precise moment that signals the creative decline of a long-running show. The reference is to a gimmicky episode of the comedy "Happy Days" that featured Fonzie, the show's leather-jacketed hero, performing a stunt on water skis.
"I think we're always afraid of jumping the shark," Gordon said. "Every year we flirt with it."

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