Anthony Mandler/Fox
Kiefer Sutherland plays Jack Bauer on "24."

PASADENA, Calif. — Fox's "24" is television's most exciting series — nonstop action as Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) saves America from assassinations, nuclear attacks and, we assume, nerve gas.

It's the TV equivalent of a roller coaster ride that's endlessly entertaining. As long as you don't think about it too hard.

If you do, you'll quickly realize that too much is happening too fast. That coincidences piled on top of coincidence are too coincidental. That Jack could be dead one hour and saving the world again the next.

Danger, death and destruction do seem to follow Jack around.

That all this action packed into one 24-hour day is just, well, a bit much to swallow. Unless you suspend disbelief. Hey, it looked real when the Counter Terrorism Unit was able to deploy at an airport in a matter of minutes.

"Are you saying that it would take longer to deploy around the airport in that strength?" executive producer Evan Katz asked with mock indignation.

"We know we take liberties in that regard, but CTU is clearly very efficient and effective," he joked.

Hey, it's not like the people who write this show aren't well aware of all of this. And they have no qualms about putting Tony (Carlos Bernard) in a coma in the season opener while knowing that, some time in the next few episodes, he will wake up and somehow contribute to the plot developments.

"I think Carlos' recovery is probably as realistic as getting from Century City to the Ontario Airport in seven minutes," said executive producer Howard Gordon.

They know "24" isn't real, they just want it to seem real while you're caught up in the action.

"Making things feel real is one of our primary concerns in the way we write it," Katz said. "And it's one of the gifts that the actors who do the show really have to make ridiculous situations feel real."

That the audience is along for the ride is something the actors acknowledge and appreciate.

"There is a very odd kind of understanding that we're going to require them to take a bit of a leap of faith," Sutherland said. "Not a bit of a leap of faith, quite a leap of faith with us. . . . They certainly were prepared to do that with us, and we rely on that with them."

And it keeps us coming back, even though every season there seem to be moles and counter-agents inside CTU, which is supposed to be the best of the best among the super-secret set.

"Well, part of the fun is obviously Jack isn't just fighting terrorists," Gordon said. "He's fighting bureaucracies, so the complications of bureaucracies is part of the fun. I think people can relate to it.

"This is kind of like 'The Office' in some ways," he joked.

SUTHERLAND ASSURES US that Jack actually does eat and sleep during the "24" hours each season, we just don't see it.

"In every year I've eaten at least once and (executive producer) Joel Surnow has cut it out," Sutherland said. Same thing with sleep, because in every season "I have even been sitting in surveillance in a car and fallen asleep — he's cut that out.

"I even used the bathroom once and he really cut that out."

IT'S TRUE — KIM Bauer (Elisha Cuthbert), Jack's daughter, will be back on the show sometime this season.

"Yeah," Gordon confirmed. "She's out in the woods with a cougar."

Just kidding, of course. There won't be a replay of the much-mocked cougar incident from Season 2, when the Perils of Kim reached their nadir.

"She's coming back," Gordon confirmed. "We can't tell you how. We can't tell you for how long. We can't tell you how it ends. But, other than that, we can tell you anything."

Except that there will be "no cougar, no amnesia — but the cougar will have amnesia."


E-mail: pierce@desnews.com