Last month, the sixth season of the Fox network television show ”24” came to small screens, and fans began clearing their calendars accordingly. As any diehard will tell you, wearily, you don’t just watch this show, you give your life over to it. You record it. You watch it again. Maybe you even pile up episodes in order to burn through two, three, four, or eight of them in a stretch.
The clever real-time premise is that of a bad-boy counterterrorist agent who has 24 hours, played out in as many episodes, to save the world. The secret sauce, however, is the science, which the show portrays and exploits in ways that compellingly reflect our times. In the world of Agent Jack Bauer, science is the root of all evil. Each season, without fail, a terrorist group has its paws on some newfangled weapon, often biological or chemical, that they’re racing to unleash.
The show’s Evil Science is creepy for its sheer cleanliness: the stuff could have come from The Sharper Image catalog, and it embodies a fear of technology that goes back to science-fiction movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still , in which something sparkling and precise came out of nowhere, apparently threatening to exterminate the onlookers. Here the terrorists aren’t launching missiles from the backs of pickup trucks. They’re well-dressed Brits who dispatch warheads like Post-it Notes. There’s nothing scarier than that.
Agent Bauer, on the other hand, is all about the messy tech. He’s the ultimate code warrior, constantly under siege by the technology of everyday life. If you think you’re tethered to your cellphone or Blackberry, just try being Bauer, the living embodiment of everything we despise about being constantly in touch. He’s alwaystaking calls from the Counter Terrorist Unit, downloading coordinates as he speeds down Highway 101, uploading photos of a bomb he has to diffuse. No wonder he screams so much.
But it’s not just the science within the show that makes it so compelling, it’s the dissemination of the content. TV’s ”24” epitomizes a new trend in the science of Hollywood: taking a geeky show and spreading it across all available media and technologies. With its ticking clock, stealthy missions, and geeky gadgetry, for example, the show is tailor-made for video games. Federal agent Jack Bauer doesn’t merely return each week, he advances episode by episode, braining thugs and solving tasks like a player gunning through levels of the video game Resistance: Fall of Man .
Consider two recent spin-offs. One, 24: The Game , takes an ambitious stab at a TV game mash-up by casting players as the hero in a bonus season of your favorite show. With a taut script by ”24” show writer Duppy Demetrius and gravitas voice-overs by Sutherland and his costars, the action stitches together seasons two and three. Players meet Chloe and Chase before they hit the tube, and they get resolution on President Wayne Palmer’s gnarly burn at the close of Day Two. Demetrius, the lone gamer on the ”24” staff, says it’s a ”happy accident” that the show’s style lends itself to exploring unanswered questions in this medium. ”The extent of the creators’ game playing ended with Space Invaders ,” he says.
But while the split-screen-cut scenes and Sutherland’s rocker Bon Scott screams deftly evoke the look and feel of the series, the gameplay pales. It’s one thing to watch Bauer sweat his way through diffusing a bomb, but a yawn to click through a puzzle that does the same thing. Josh Bernoff, a TV and entertainment analyst with Forrester Research, in Cambridge, Mass., says it’s a cautionary tale for, say, a game based on a lost season of ”The Sopranos” television show. ”You can’t just shovel your show into this new medium,” he says. ”You have to work hard to be effective.”
The second spin-off, I-play’s mobile 24 game, is more immersive, because you play it on Bauer’s own favorite toy: a cellphone. ”The mobile phone is a critical part of the series, so it’s a natural extension to be a gaming element.” says David Gosen, I-play’s chief operating officer at Digital Bridges, in London and San Mateo, Calif. Just as Bauer does, players take calls and missives from Chloe and others at the Counter Terrorist Unit, with the characters appearing in stills on the screen. On a phone, the lo-fi puzzles make sense, and the ticking of the digital clock’s countdown keeps the ”24” flavor.
If gaming and television don’t provide enough of a fix, diehards can always suck down episodes of the fifth season of ”24” for US $1.99 a pop on http://24on.myspace.com. Or they can sit back and wait for the 24 movie that is reportedly shooting later this year, in Morocco and London.
This always-on science is catching. TV’s ”The Office” experimented with a series of Web-only episodes that explored alternate story lines. Mark Burnett, creator of hit reality TV shows like ”Survivor,” recently got into the act with ”Gold Rush,” a game show that would play out both on the Web and on TV. ”Lost” took a similar stab at creating an online game that would appeal to the same slavishly addicted geeks who watch the show. The proliferation of nerd-friendly TV hits, like ”Heroes” and ”Battlestar Galactica,” should lead to more of the same.
But ”24” has raised the bar higher than any other show so far. Between the ”24” you can play and the ”24” you can watch, there’s no escaping the end of the world, as experienced by Jack Bauer. The clock is ticking. The Evil Technologists are on the other end of the line. Their fingers are on the big red buttons. The world is going to blow up at any second. And, as the science of television blurs between high-tech fiction and 21st-century reality, saving the day won’t just be up to Bauer anymore. It could just as much be up to you.