"How much longer? I hear someone," says the nervous terrorist with a heavy Middle Eastern accent, just before U.S. agents storm a warehouse where a nuclear device is being assembled. Confusion reigns, drama builds, the device is detonated and a mushroom cloud looms over Los Angeles. Such is primetime television in the age of terrorism, or as some critics charge, has "24" gone too far?
"It's the closest television comes to roller coasters," said David Bianculli, television critic for the New York Daily News. "It works well dramatically, and as far as feeding fears, that's what '24' is all about."
Sut Jhally, co-producer and co-director of the film "Hijacking Catastrophe," says the dramatic action in the show creates a dangerous climate in which the public loses some of its perspective on what's real and what's not. Of course that may be a minority opinion given the show's enormous popularity.
"24" is taken seriously by some serious folks. Last June the conservative Heritage Foundation hosted a panel called, "'24' and America's Image in Fighting Terrorism: Fact, Fiction or Does It Matter?" Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff participated.
But some national security experts worry that television fantasy can trigger the imagination of terrorists. Jack Cloonan, a former senior agent on the FBI's bin Laden squad in New York, said that trainees in former al-Qaeda camps watched movie videos "to get ideas."
"The show has huge entertainment value, but it ups the ante for everybody," said Cloonan. "We saw what Columbine did. Fox may think they are doing a public service, but I don't see any redeeming value at all."
Josh Governale, spokesman for "24," refused to comment on tonight's episode.
"This television show is very political, and it's no accident that it's on Fox," said Jhally, who directs the Media and Education Foundation and is professor of communications at University of Massachusetts. "Given their propaganda system, it doesn't surprise me."
In tonight's drama terrorists have put the country into a state of high alert -- and panic -- after a series of bombings have killed hundreds and injured thousands in cities around the country. Los Angeles, home of the Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU), is the latest place where suicide bombers have struck, and President Palmer -- that's Wayne Palmer, the brother of the late President David Palmer -- has made a deal with the Chinese government to release Jack Bauer.
The idea is not to get Jack working on bringing down the terrorists -- it's to hand him over to them in exchange for information that might stop the attacks.
Jack had been imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese in retaliation for an attack on the Chinese embassy in a previous season of the show. But anyone who has followed the nail-biting series knows that Bauer will escape so he can find -- and stop -- the bombers.
His search leads him to a warehouse on the outskirts of Los Angeles, where the terrorists are assembling a "suitcase" nuclear device that they plan to detonate at an unnamed location. But before they can move it, they are discovered by CTU -- and the bomb goes off, creating a giant mushroom cloud and an unearthly orange glow.