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Fox's big, fat Greek drama? 24 is real-time TV

Culture

Issue: "John Kerry: On a roll," Feb. 14, 2004

For the Greeks and Romans, drama had to follow rules. Violence could not be shown onstage. Characters must be treated with proper decorum. And, most importantly, the "unities" had to be observed: the unity of action (only one plot); the unity of place (only one setting); and the unity of time (a two-hour play should show two hours in the characters' lives, or, at the very most, one day of 24 hours-a technique Fox uses to great effect with the series 24).

The medieval mystery plays-which were dramatizations of Bible stories-showed dramatists like Shakespeare that the classical rules are not really necessary for good drama, but they still can be used to good effect. The great western High Noon begins on the lawman's wedding day with the news that the bad guys gunning for him are on the train that will pull in two hours later, at high noon. We watch him trying to find a posse and dealing with his bride, as the camera keeps glancing up at the clock and the train gets closer and closer, following the unity of time until the climactic showdown.

The show 24, now in its third season from Fox, is acclaimed as one of the most innovative series on TV, though its gimmick is nothing more than the unity of time from the ancient Greeks. Whereas dramatized stories from then to today's movies are limited to the time a human being can sit still in one place, a television series can spin out a continuous story week after week. Thus, 24 shows a complete day in the life of federal agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), hour by hour, in 24 episodes.

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The unity of time works well to create suspense. As we watch Jack foil the assassination of a presidential candidate (the first season), thwart terrorists from igniting a nuclear bomb (second season), and stop a biological weapon of mass destruction (this year)-all the while juggling problems with his wife and daughter-we find ourselves immersed in his three really bad days.

For classical drama, the unity of time goes with the unity of place and the unity of action, which 24 does not bother with. As a result, the story jumps back and forth from place to place and from subplot to subplot, making it really confusing, especially if you miss an episode. And way too much gets crammed into these days, as in last season, when Jack is tortured and suffers a near-death experience, but feels good enough right afterwards for physical heroics.

But the last season is proving popular on DVD, which enables viewers to watch it whenever they have the time.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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