Jan. 15, 2007 -- "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.
The show's devoted fans include Sen. John McCain, who appeared on the show -- in a cameo role -- last February. The senator, who has criticized the torture sequences on the series, joked to reporters that "I shoot one guy's kneecap off, only one ... A red-hot poker is planted in someone's chest, but other than that, there is no torture."
This is not the first time entertainment has caused fallout. In 1983 ABC aired the controversial TV movie "The Day After," which showed the horror of life after a nuclear attack. Parents received letters telling them not to let their children watch.
In 2002, White House officials questioned the timing and release of Paramount's action movie "Sum of All Fears" -- a film which depicts a nuclear bomb unleashed on an American sporting event.
But this fall, CBS debuted a series, "Jericho," which also details what life would be like after a nuclear blast; though the show has gotten solid ratings, it's not caused much controversy.
Afterall, it's only television, says Ron Kuby, a civil rights lawyer who co-hosts a New York's WABC morning radio show.
"If private citizens don't like the broadcast, they don't have to watch it," said Kuby. "Remember what mom said, it's not real. I recognize the power of an image to motivate people, but our political leaders are far more dangerous than the collateral effects of a mushroom cloud on "24."
But Jhally of the Media Education Foundation believes Hollywood's fascination with terrorism can have serious political consequences.
"Fear has been used to paralyze people's intellects," said Jhally. "If they can scare people, almost anything becomes possible. When people are afraid their brains shut off and it makes you confused and want easy solutions."
Television shows like '24' also reinforce stereotypes about Arabs, he said, and in this episode connections are drawn between terrorism, Arabs and nuclear war. With the U.S. wrestling with Iran over its nuclear capabilities, these associations are dangerous, he said.
"It fits into a mind set," Jhally said. "Iran is on the news about nuclear power, and now there is an American TV story on an Arab terrorist using nuclear power. It's dangerous because this present administration wants any excuse to attack an enemy. Fear is main enemy in our political culture and we have to cut through the fear to see the world clearly, and then we can find solutions to make the world safe."
Still, television critic Bianculli says the episode is fantasy and drama at its best. He says back in 2001 Fox showed corporate responsibility by cutting scenes of a plane exploding mid-air from one of the first episodes of "24," out of sensitivity to 9/11 victims.
And leave it to the TV critic to deliver the real zinger. Bianculli believes Fox is more manipulative with its product placement than anything else. "In CTU headquarters -- which is information central -- they are always watching Fox News," Biancilli said. "Now that is ridiculous."